The Medical Council has been urged to take human rights concerns into account in the forthcoming process of accreditation of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland's Bahrain campus.
The Medical Council is due to decide shortly whether RCSI Bahrain can be approved again for the purpose of providing medical training, following an initial grant of accreditation in December 2014.
Five years ago, it accredited the campus for the first time following an inspection by an assessment team comprising Irish experts. The move came amid controversy over the alleged mistreatment of medical personnel by the Bahraini regime in the aftermath of popular protests in 2011.
Some of the doctors rounded up by security forces acting against pro-democracy rallies had trained at RCSI in Dublin and at least one subsequently served a jail sentence.
A London-based human rights group, Global Legal Action Network (Glan), wrote last week to the Medical Council seeking assurances that the issue of torture in Bahrain is taken into account during the re-accreditation process.
If it does not receive assurances, the group says it will contact bodies responsible for recognising medical qualification across Europe saying RCSI Bahrain degrees do not meet the requirements for recognition under EU law.
Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of Glan, said: “We are calling on the Medical Council to comply with its legal obligations and stop ignoring ethical and human rights issues affecting the medical training environment in Bahrain. As a public body they have a duty to pay attention to issues like torture and, as representatives of the medical profession, they should concern themselves with alleged breaches of medical ethics and medical neutrality.”
The group claims documents it has obtained under freedom of information show human rights concerns were wrongly set aside by the Medical Council when accrediting RCSI Bahrain in 2014. It also alleges conflicts of interests on the part of some of those involved in the decision.
RCSI established the Medical University of Bahrain in 2003 and 30 Irish staff currently work there in a workforce of 150. The university’s 1,300 students, who come from 40 different countries, sit the same exams as in Ireland, at the same time.
Glan claims that in the absence of reforms, Bahraini training hospitals used by RCSI Bahrain cannot, under EU rules on the recognition of professional qualifications, provide medical students with “suitable clinical experience in hospitals under appropriate supervision”.
‘Climate of impunity’
Describing the ongoing human rights situation in Bahrain as "dire", it cites criticisms made by Amnesty International in its 2017-18 report. This records reports of torture and other ill-treatment of those in custody and refers to a "climate of impunity" in relation to past acts of torture.
It quotes Amnesty as saying people injured at anti-government protests "are not going to hospital out of fear that they would be arrested", as well as a statement by the United Nations Human Rights Committee that it "notes with concern reports that demonstrators injured during demonstrations were questioned in medical facilities about their participation in demonstrations and denied medical assistance".
The Medical Council told The Irish Times the RCSI Bahrain’s undergraduate medical programme was to undergo a “comprehensive” accreditation process in spring 2020.
A spokesman said it was in the process of identifying members of the assessor team for this inspection.
The assessor team, which has yet to be finalised, would comprise medical and non-medical assessors (one of them a Medical Council member) as well as a person with expertise in medical education, he said.
The accreditation process would be mainly the same as that used in 2014 “with some enhancements” in the standards used.
Asked whether human rights issues would figure in the team’s deliberations, he said: “As always, the assessor team will ensure all relevant areas of concern are questioned, and satisfactory evidence is provided to them during the accreditation.”
RCSI in Dublin said the university was set up to provide “world-class education to medical professionals who would go on to provide healthcare to the people of the Gulf region”.
Asked about the concerns expressed by human rights organisations, a spokeswoman said: “The Middle East is an extremely complicated region in a state of change. Our sole objective in the region is the provision of state-of-the-art medical education and training in a collaborative and safe environment.
“The wellbeing of our staff and students and their freedom to work and learn in safety is paramount. We will continue to ensure that RCSI Bahrain provides high-quality education to our students and that our staff are supported to thrive.”
Ahmed AlArab (26) was a nursing student at the Bahrain campus of the RCSI until January 2014, when he was arrested by security officers at a relative’s house.
He was beaten, hung from his wrists, naked, and had his face repeatedly covered with a cloth while water was poured over him, his family has alleged. This treatment continued for five to six days until he was moved to prison.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised his case with the Bahraini authorities in April 2014. It expressed very serious concern about his physical and psychological integrity in the light of the allegations made, and also about the fairness of his trial.
Bahrain responded by saying AlArab was arrested following investigations which found him to be involved in “the commission of acts of terrorism”. The charges brought against him included membership of a terrorist group and possession of firearms.
The response acknowledged he had injuries below his eye and on his back but said AlArab had “affirmed” these occurred “as a result of an endeavour by the police to subdue him at the time of his arrest when he assaulted them in an attempt to escape”.
He escaped from prison with others on New Year’s Day 2017, but was recaptured about a month later. Human rights groups say he was tortured again, stripped of his citizenship, sentenced to life imprisonment and placed in isolation except for half an hour a day. Human rights groups say he has been on hunger strike since mid-August – several weeks after his cousin, Ali AlArab, was executed.