Sunday, 27 Sep 2020

In Syria, Health Workers Risk Becoming ‘Enemies of the State’

The nearly 9-year-old conflict in Syria has been punctuated by repeated violations of what is considered acceptable in war, including the military’s use of chemical weapons, torture of prisoners and recurrent bombings of hospitals in rebel-held areas. Less attention has been paid to another outcome: the government’s criminalization of medical care.

On Wednesday, Physicians for Human Rights, a group that has documented the collapse of Syria’s health care system, released a study asserting that over the course of the war, President Bashar al-Assad has successfully made medical assistance to his enemies a crime.

Whether it is disinfecting a fighter’s wound or even supplying painkillers to clinics in an insurgent-held neighborhood, such acts are punishable under a counterterrorism law enacted by Mr. Assad’s government just over a year after the conflict began in March of 2011. A special court has tried tens of thousands under the law, including many medical workers.

“This report illustrates how the Syrian government has effectively criminalized the provision of nondiscriminatory care to all, regardless of political affiliation,” Physicians for Human Rights said in the study. Health workers who provide care in line with their legal and ethical obligations, it said, are branded as “enemies of the state” in Syria.

The study is based on extensive interviews with 21 formerly detained Syrian health care workers who have fled the country, including seven physicians, four pharmacists, three medical volunteers, one paramedic and one psychiatrist. All said they had endured torture and interrogations while imprisoned and did not want to be identified by name, fearing retribution against their families or against themselves if they ever returned.

A majority of them were arrested, the study said, “because of their status as care providers, and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers.”

The New York Times interviewed three of them who said they had been detained and interrogated for months. They described cells so cramped that inmates took turns to rest. Two of them — a pharmacist and a surgeon — said they had been arrested at their workplaces.

Most of the former detainees described a similar process of extracting confessions that could be prosecuted under the counterterrorism law, the Physicians for Human Rights study said. “Most had judicial review of their cases by either military field courts, military courts, or counterterrorism court, where due process protections are suspended in practice,” it said.

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