DUBAI (Reuters) - An international human rights group on Wednesday accused the Bahraini government of indiscriminate use of tear gas against protesters resulting in the maiming, blinding, and killing of civilians - charges the government dismissed.
Bahrain crushed an uprising led by majority Shi’ites last year after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia but unrest has continued with marches and rallies that sometimes result in clashes between police using tear gas and Shi’ite youths.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said in a report issued on Wednesday that Bahraini security forces often fire tear gas canisters directly at civilians or into their cars, houses or other closed spaces where toxic effects are worse.
“So-called tear gas, often considered a crowd-control method with no lasting harmful effects, can cause permanent injuries, miscarriages, birth defects, and even fatalities as used by Bahrain’s security forces,” said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Deputy Director Richard Sollom, the report’s main author.
A government official rejected the criticism, saying Bahrain conformed with international standards when using tear gas.
“It’s very one-sided,” said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a senior adviser at the Information Affairs Authority.
“There is no proof or scientific backing for the absurd claims they make,” he said, referring to claims the gas is toxic.
But he added: “There may have been times where restraint was not shown.”
Bahrain’s crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, told police on Sunday his father’s orders were to show restraint and avoid force unless all other methods were exhausted. They should also avoid sectarian discrimination, he said
Police chief Tariq al-Hassan said in comments published on Wednesday that three of six wanted men had been arrested over a “bomb factory” police uncovered in June.
Protesters often throw petrol bombs, stones and iron bars in clashes with police and Hassan said 700 policemen had been hurt since the protests first flared.
Physicians for Human Rights said that Sollom, in Washington to urge Congress to maintain a ban on tear gas exports to Bahrain, was expected to tell the Human Rights Commission that he had hoped to see violations diminish during recent visits to Bahrain despite the continuing protests.
“Instead, I find a government fixated on rhetoric rather than results,” he said.
PHR said Sollom and co-author Holly Atkinson, assistant professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, interviewed more than 100 Bahrainis during a visit in April, including crackdown victims, witnesses, civil society leaders and government officials.
The report, entitled “Weaponising Tear Gas: Bahrain’s Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians” documented several cases, including a teenage boy who it said was blinded in his right eye by a tear gas canister fired at close range and a 27-year-old bystander who suffered a fractured skull and intracranial bleeding from a canister.
The report said several women had miscarried. It quoted their doctors as saying they had noticed a significant rise in miscarriages in neighborhoods where tear gas was used frequently.
An asthmatic man routinely exposed to tear gas died in the hospital of acute respiratory failure after exposure to yet another tear gas explosion, it said.
Reporting by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Hammond; Editing by Angus MacSwan