Bahraini Government’s Use of Tear Gas Claims Several Lives
Over the last month, the Bahraini police have been using tear gas almost every night against protesters in residential areas. Specifically, the police have been targeting the Shi’a neighborhoods of Iker, Sitra, Nuwadrat, and Ma’ameer. While there are international guidelines for the proper use of tear gas, victims of such attacks describe the police using tear gas inappropriately – including firing into homes and other closed spaces. Such inappropriate use can have disastrous consequences. Since the start of the unrest in February 2011, at least 13 civilians have died from exposure to the tear gas, according to Bahraini civil society groups. They note that those who die from tear gas inhalation are usually people who are already vulnerable due to old age or disease, which make the gas’s effects more deadly.
One of these victims was a newborn baby who was in her own home when she was exposed to the gas. She died on December 11th when she was just 6 days old. 14-year-old Yasseen Al Asfoor was the most recent victim of government misuse of tear gas against protestors; he suffered from respiratory problems and tear gas killed him on January 22nd.
A Bahraini doctor told Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that she believes that the government is using a new kind of tear gas that is more dangerous. But without knowing the active ingredient, she has been struggling to treat patients:
“I was exposed to different types of gas when I went to (the village of) Sitra—a white gas and a yellow one, but I also saw a third gas of a blue color from a distance. The gas felt like a poison, like a thousand knives and needles all over your body; what kind of tear gas is supposed to affect people this way? I have seen tear gas patients who are in a state of convulsion that never ends, like a prolonged seizure… Before the tear gas that was being used had ‘Pennsylvania, USA’ written on it, now the canisters are just blank with no labels. It is impossible to know what the contents are.”
Other Bahraini doctors also noted that the symptoms of the tear gas were unusual. When they asked the Ministry of Health to run tests on the gas canisters, their requests were denied. Since the long-term effects of prolonged and repeated exposure to tear gas has never been studied, physicians in Bahrain have begun to worry about the impact that repeated exposure to these chemicals may have on the general population.
Because the Bahraini government has demonstrated it cannot be trusted to use riot-control materials in a manner consistent with international guidelines, the U.S. should not authorize additional sales of tear gas and related materials to Bahrain. PHR urges the U.S. Administration to ensure that it does not grant export licenses for tear gas and other materials that may be improperly used against civilians. The Administration should also ensure comprehensive end-use monitoring of all U.S. items sent to Bahrain that may be used during the ongoing attacks. Additionally, PHR welcomes the U.S. Administration’s decision to delay a pending $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, and encourages the Administration to continue to block such a sale absent significant human rights improvements in the country. There is a resolution in both the House and Senate (H.J. Res. 80/S.J. Res. 28) that would block this sale absent enumerated improvements including ending attacks on civilians and holding any perpetrators of these attacks accountable, dropping politically-motivated criminal charges, and reinstating dismissed public employees.
The Government’s continued attacks on civilians demonstrate that there has been little improvement in Bahrain since the release of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by international law expert Cherif Bassiouni. The report detailed instances of torture, killings, arbitrary detention, and excessive use of force. Included in the report were key recommendations, some of which involve establishing an impartial accountability mechanism to bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice, investigating alleged acts of torture using forensic experts, and dropping charges against those wrongly convicted. The Government of Bahrain is considering methods of implementing the recommendations, and announcements of its action plan are expected next month. The U.S. and the rest of the international community should approach those announcements with full knowledge of the Government’s ongoing attacks against civilian populations. In the meantime, the international community must demand an end to attacks on civilians, a thorough investigation of incidents since the release of the Commission of Inquiry report, and accountability for all those responsible.