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Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Bahrain following the arrest of doctors and nurses charged with crimes against the monarchy.

My Lords, we are deeply concerned about reports of the severe charges brought against a large number of doctors and nurses by a Bahraini military tribunal. It is essential that medical personnel can treat their patients free from political interference. Our ambassador raised the case with the Bahraini Minister of Justice on 4 May.

I thank my noble friend for his considered response. He has a list of 17 doctors who are currently detained, the majority of whom are surgeons. The accounts of torture and beatings reported in the Independent today confirm that the Government of Bahrain are failing in their duty of care to protect doctors and medical staff. The International Code of Medical Ethics, adopted in 1949 and amended in 2006, states:

“A physician shall give emergency care as a humanitarian duty”.

Will my noble friend join the leaders of the medical profession in condemning the attacks—as he has done, but more forcefully—and in seeking independent monitoring of any future trial?

The feelings of the Government are largely in line with those of my noble friend. The arrest of doctors and nurses seeking to perform their duties is clearly an appalling situation. I have to tell my noble friend that not all aspects of this case are clear at the moment, but we take the view that it is very important that the accused have proper access to legal counsel and be tried by impartial and independent courts. We take a strong view on that matter. Other aspects have been raised, and will continue to be raised, by our ambassador, but not all aspects of this case are clear at the moment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that these arrests of doctors, nurses, ambulance workers and paramedical personnel are part of a massive sectarian purge of intellectuals throughout Bahrain that includes university teachers, journalists, the editor of a newspaper and two MPs? Should not the Government call in the Bahraini ambassador and inform him that, unless these detainees are released and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is permitted to carry out an impartial investigation, we will impose a travel ban on leading members of the regime and ask the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to consider charges against the leaders of the regime for crimes against humanity?

At this present stage, we do not consider travel bans or other charges and moves of that kind to be a proper way forward. We are in constant contact, not merely with the ambassador here but, through my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and other Ministers, including the Minister of Justice. We continue to believe that the aim is to have a national dialogue to meet the problems of what my noble friend rightly calls an appalling situation of inter-regional strife between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority that represents the ruling group. This is an intense tension. Its effects are in danger of spreading to other parts of the Middle East, with all kinds of results that we do not want. Therefore, for the moment, we stick to the view that we must urge these countries, the ruling family and the leaders on both sides—the opposition and the ruling group—to move towards a national dialogue. That is what they say they want and that is what we are urging them to do as hard as we can at the moment.

Will the Government ensure that, besides making very strong bilateral representations, we use our position in all the international bodies available, including the Security Council, the WHO and all the humanitarian bodies, to raise this issue at the very highest level? There is now very clear evidence of targeted action against individuals who are caring for people who come into hospital as a result of demonstrations. The Bahrain Government, who have had good relations with this country over many years, must now listen to those representations.

The representations we are making are strong. I have to repeat what I said to my noble friends: not all aspects of this issue and this whole case are entirely clear at the moment. Any evidence of deliberate maltreatment or withdrawal of treatment by medical personnel from people on religious grounds would be appalling. Any interference with those who are trying to dispense treatment—if they are arrested and treated as criminals—would be appalling. All those matters need very close investigation. Whether it is the right moment to raise them in all the bodies that the noble Lord mentioned, I am not yet convinced, but they are matters which we are watching very closely, and that time may come.

My Lords, I am sure that the statement made by the Minister about the intervention in respect of the medical staff will be welcomed by the House. Can he tell us of other instances of intervention in Bahrain and whether the Government believe that they have been successful in any of them?

I do not totally follow the generality of the question. If the noble Lord means to ask whether we have constant contact with Bahrain and whether we are putting considerable pressure on those with whom we have had close contact—because Bahrain remains a close ally and good friend of the United Kingdom, and vice versa—those interventions are going on all the time. Have they had effects? They have not had the effects we want by any means so far. On the contrary, we have seen a deterioration in the situation, which is very disappointing. The issue now is how we handle it: whether we put even bigger barriers between ourselves and the Bahraini authorities, or whether we use our former links to work very hard with them to change their ways and develop a dialogue—which earlier they said they wanted, in contrast to other countries where there has been a tendency towards civil war, mass killings and other violent and hard-line activities.