RCSI in Bahrain in 2011

The Irish Times – Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Questions over future of RCSI in Bahrain

Since 2004, Bahraini students have had the option of attending the RCSI’s medical university in the country.

JAMIE SMYTH, Social Affairs Correspondent

College denies financial concerns are behind its failure to speak out over the arrest of medics after pro-democracy demonstrations

ST PATRICK’S Day in the Kingdom of Bahrain is usually a day of great celebration. The island in the Persian Gulf enjoys close links with Ireland through its educational partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).

Hundreds of Bahraini doctors have studied at the college’s 200-year-old campus on St Stephen’s Green and trained at Irish hospitals over the past 30 years.

And since 2004, Bahraini students have had the option of attending the RCSI’s medical university in the country – one of several international campuses established by the college in recent years.

The obelisk fountain at the entrance to the college’s new €60 million medical campus in Bahrain by tradition flows green on St Patrick’s Day to celebrate its Irish links.

But this year the outbreak of pro- democracy protests and a savage military crackdown ordered by Bahrain’s royal rulers forced the cancellation of celebrations – and in the process raised tricky questions about the college’s activities in the Gulf state.

At least 29 people died in the protests, which were inspired by the “Arab spring” demonstrations sweeping Tunisia and Egypt. And in a move condemned by human rights groups and prominent international medical associations, security forces stormed the main hospital in Bahrain, arresting 47 doctors and nurses – some of whom trained at either the RCSI in Dublin in Ireland or its Bahrain campus.

“My husband, Dr Ali Essa Al Ekri, was working at the Salmaniya Medical Centre treating people injured in the protests. He was in surgery on March 17th when the soldiers besieging the centre seized him,” said Dr Fareeda Al Dallal, who does not know where he has been taken and has not been allowed to visit him.

“They have fabricated charges against him, saying he harmed patients. He now faces a military trial,” said Dr Al Dallal.

Dr Essa Al Ekri is one of several medics holding an RCSI degree who have been arrested. He trained in Dublin between 2000 and 2002 at Temple Street hospital where he specialised in paediatric orthopaedic surgery.
Dr Al Dallal joined him in Dublin and her third child Hassan was born in the Rotunda hospital. Hassan holds an Irish passport.

Dr Al Dallal said she is not allowed to visit him in detention and has only spoken to her husband briefly by phone every three weeks or so. “He has no contact with his lawyer and we don’t know where he is,” she said.

In the weeks following the arrests, Bahrain’s justice minister Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa alleged two protesters died because staff at the hospital inflicted additional wounds on them or gave unneeded treatment during the protests. He said the 47 medics would face a military trial.

Some of the detained medics could face execution if they are found guilty.
Human rights groups Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights have rejected the Bahrain government’s claims. They say the medics were detained because they treated injured protesters and spoke out against the government crackdown.

“We conducted a forensic examination at the hospital after the arrests and our conclusion is that the government’s claims strain credulity,” said Richard Sollom, deputy director at Physicians for Human Rights.

“We think the medics were held to keep them silent. They were the only ones with direct evidence of the abuses carried out by the military against protesters,” said Mr Sollom, who worked under the watch of Bahraini soldiers wearing ski masks.

Dr Al Dallal, who is a consultant physician, is desperate to get her husband out of jail. Along with the families of several other Irish-trained doctors, she has called on the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to use its influence to free the medics.

“The RCSI should do something. They sent a fact-finding team to Bahrain but they didn’t contact my family. They haven’t condemned the arrests because they are afraid they will lose their investment in Bahrain,” she said.

Two of the other medics who have been arrested, and who trained in Ireland, are Dr Bassim Dhaif (see panel)and his brother Ghassan Dhaif, who is a dentist.

The silence of the RCSI over the arrest of the medics in Bahrain stands in stark contrast to the public condemnations issued by a range of other international bodies.

John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons in England, last month described the arrests as “deeply disturbing”. Médecins Sans Frontières said recently that providing healthcare was “grounds for arrest” in Bahrain and Amnesty International has asked the RCSI to use its influence in Bahrain to secure the release of the 47 medics.

“These men and women will not be released unless pressure is brought to bear on the Bahraini authorities,” said Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

“We would strongly encourage institutions like the Royal College of Surgeons, and its individual members, to use the influence they have in the country to ensure these people, including former students of the college, are released.”

When The Irish Times first reported on the arrest of at least three medics in Bahrain, who were trained in Ireland and hold degrees from the RCSI, the college said it did not “comment publicly on a political situation, or individual cases”.

But in a statement, the college authorities deny that their official silence on the arrests is driven by a desire to protect their investment in Bahrain.

“RCSI does not put financial concerns above human rights and our investment in Bahrain will not compromise this position,” said RCSI chief executive Cathal Kelly last week.

“Since the onset of the political unrest in the region, our initial primary concern has been for the welfare and security of our students and staff, and to allow our students to achieve their educational goals. This has guided our actions,” he said.

“RCSI is an apolitical organisation. In the light of recent events, we have met on a number of occasions with Bahraini government officials, at the highest level, to have private discussions.

“The RCSI approach in Bahrain is appropriate to our circumstances and we believe our approach has been influential and effective. This process will contribute to a better outcome for all concerned,” he said.

Mr Kelly flew to Bahrain on Sunday for the sixth time in the three months since the protests began and is scheduled to hold further private talks with senior Bahraini officials.

But in the absence of any public condemnation from the RCSI of the Bahraini authorities’ decision to arrest the 47 medics, the debate over the college’s actions will rage on.

“I believe that all medical associations and doctors have an obligation to speak out about this,” said Mr Sollom. “There are clear principles laid out on this in the Tokyo Declaration of the World Medical Association .”

The declaration states the WMA will support and encourage national medical associations and fellow physicians to “support the physician and his or her family in the face of threats or reprisals resulting from a refusal to condone the use of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

RCSI, which is a not-for-profit independent college, faces financial pressures in Ireland and can ill-afford to write off the €70 million investment it has ploughed into Bahrain.

The college’s most recent financial report for 2009-2010 shows it made a loss of €1 million on turnover of €123 million.

But of greater significance was the college’s decision to write down the value of its net assets from €90 million in 2008 to just €9 million in 2009 – due to a collapse in the value of its property portfolio.

RCSI Bahrain, which has 900 students on its books, may still be operating at a loss but its income grew by 40 per cent in 2009 and it is one of the college’s best prospects for future earnings growth.

Financial concerns are the least of the worries faced by Dr Al Dallal and the wives of the other medics in prison in Bahrain. They just want to get their husbands back and are hoping the RCSI can work to help this happen.

“It is really important the international community and societies that believe in human rights puts the government under pressure,” Dr Al Dallal said.

“There were people wearing civilian clothes, their faces covered with black ski masks.”

Dr Maha Al Tajir is married to Dr Bassim Dhaif.

Dr Dhaif completed a fellowship in general surgery and orthopedic surgery provided by the RCSI. Dr Dhaif worked at several Irish hospitals between 1993 and 1997, including the Mater, Temple Street and Cappagh.

He was arrested on March 19th in Bahrain.

“The doorbell rang at 6.15pm while we were performing prayers. My husband looked from the upstairs window and saw exactly what we had feared. There were people wearing civilian clothes, their faces covered with black ski masks.

“There were about nine or 10 men, two of whom were riot police. All had guns in their pockets. I saw my husband, and he was handcuffed, with his hands behind him, with a hopeless expression on his face.

“They took Bassim with them.

“After the shock, we noticed they had taken all our mobile phones and laptops. They took all of our cash in a safe and documents relating to our property.

“My four children – two boys and two girls aged between nine and 19 years – still live in fear. They cannot sleep properly at night, and wake up panicking to any slight sound they hear.

“We all sleep in the main bedroom now.

“My smallest child keeps asking me when he will see his father again and if they will attack our house again.

“Since Bassim’s arrest we have only received three brief phone calls. We wrote letters to the authorities requesting a visit but this was rejected.

“Six of my family members – five doctors and one nurse – have been arrested. One of the arrested doctors was recently released. She told me they were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.

“She said she had seen my husband while she was under arrest at the criminal investigations directorate in Adliya. She said he was blindfolded and had his head shaven.

“We have not been informed about the exact charges against my husband.
“I have been married to Bassim for 20 years. He has no political activities and has not time to be involved in these activities.

“During the demonstrations, he appeared on TV talking about the use of live ammunition on protesters. I think my husband was targeted because he appeared on TV.

“The RCSI has not contacted me at all so far. From a humanitarian point of view I think they should say something. After all, they are all physicians in prison.”