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For Immediate Release

PHR Releases Accounts of Violence in Syria

Violations of medical neutrality and attacks on civilians described by Syrian citizens

Cambridge, Mass - 08/10/2011

Since mid-March, Syrian government forces have sought to crush citizen uprisings; more than 1,700 people have been killed and at least 10,000 are reported to be in custody or missing. In addition to the widely reported atrocities committed by the government, PHR has received reports of serious violations of medical neutrality in Syria. PHR calls on the Government of Syria to cease its campaign of targeting medical facilities, health workers and their patients, and to safeguard doctors’ obligation to provide neutral and ethical care for civilians.

According to PHR sources in the country, government security forces control access to the hospitals, and many injured civilians in need of critical care are foregoing treatment because they fear being detained and tortured if they seek care at government-controlled medical facilities. Representatives Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) recently introduced the Medical Neutrality Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 2643) (pdf), which reflects increased US focus on the importance of protecting medical neutrality. PHR calls on members of Congress to support this bill so that the U.S. can promptly and effectively respond to violations of medical neutrality, such as the ones documented in Syria.

“While it’s well known that Syria has been attacking its own citizens,” said Director of Policy Hans Hogrefe, “their targeted attacks on doctors and hospitals have gone largely unnoticed. All attacks on civilians are severe violations of human rights and we condemn them. But attacks on hospitals and caregivers are particularly devastating. When you attack a doctor, you’re attacking all the patients who depend on that doctor.”

PHR interviewed one doctor from the besieged city of Hama who reported, “Shabiha and government security forces are situated near and on the roof of hospitals to prevent injured from reaching hospitals. Because of the shooting, it is difficult for anyone to move, and many injured have died due to hemorrhage. The hospitals suffer from a lack of blood supply.” According to an official document PHR obtained from the health department of the city of Homes, dated April 12, all hospitals have been ordered to “send all the injured due to the events (unrest) by ambulance, with security escort, to the military hospital in Homes.” In addition, the government has detained or disappeared 134 doctors, according to a group of Syrian physicians.

PHR sources report other violations of medical neutrality:

“At the beginning of the protest, the security forces (Shabbiha) shot in the air to disperse the protesters. When they failed to disband the protest, they started to shoot at them with live ammunition. On the fifth Friday of the protest, the security forces killed 30 and injured dozens of the protesters. A friend of mine, Osama, was shot by a sniper. He got a bullet in his neck. We did not take the injured to the main government hospital because they were afraid that they would be tortured or arrested or killed there. The private hospitals have refused to receive any injuries based on orders from the government. The only two clinics receiving injuries were charity hospitals. These clinics were simple and had no blood to save the bleeding. One of them has only two doctors to treat dozens of injuries. Many of the injured died because of lack of medical treatment.” A 27-year-old shop owner from Homes
“At the beginning of June, the Syrian army attacked our town Jisr alshagour. There were many killed and injured. I took some of the injured to the hospital in the town. I found nobody there; the hospital was empty. On that day, June 4th, 45 people were killed, we put some of the autopsies in the fruit cooling truck because the fridge of the hospital has capacity of only four. I took some medical supplies from the hospital and put two injured in an ambulance car, which was left, and then crossed the Turkish border. A helicopter shot at the ambulance; however, we succeeded to transfer the injured.” A 35-year-old manager from Jisr alshagour
“My brother, 43 years old, died after being tortured by the Syrian secret police. My brother was a peaceful, well-educated, secular physician who was respected by his peers internationally. He was recently in Miami, attending a medical conference. Apparently, they did not like the fact that he went to the US to attend a medical conference. They wanted to interrogate him about his US visit, and he died during the interrogation. Reportedly, he had broken bones and injuries from trying to defend himself from the blows. He died from strangulation. In the morgue, the secret police, the Mukhabarat, told his family that they had never had Sakher in their custody, but instead that they had found him dead in the street.” A 50-year-old oncology researcher

The reports from Syria reflect a worrisome trend in the Middle East regarding government attacks on the medical profession. PHR has documented abuses against doctors and hospitals in Bahrain and Libya, and condemns continued violations in these countries. PHR calls on the government of Syria to immediately cease all attacks on civilians, including violations of medical neutrality.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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