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September 20, 2014

Exclusive breaking news: RCSI says treatment of students in Bahrain ‘unacceptable’

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In a detailed four-page response, the RCSI accepted that its university in Bahrain had questioned the students about their participation in protests

Students were forced to swear oath of loyalty to Bahraini Royal Family and sign a non-protest declaration, reports Dara Gantly.

Senior staff at the RCSI Bahrain asked three medical students attending its college to swear an oath of loyalty to the Bahraini Royal Family and to sign a declaration that they would not participate in further protests, Irish Medical Times has learned.

Describing the action as “unacceptable”, the RCSI in Dublin said the requests were made on the initiative of a senior staff member in Bahrain acting “as he saw in the best interests of the students during a period of great turbulence and national distress” where “civil rule was suspended and a national emergency had been officially declared”.

Responding to new information unearthed by Barrister at Law Dr Simon Mills, the College acknowledged it received complaints concerning the three students’ attendance at the protests last February from the Bahraini Ministry of Education. These complaints took the form of photographic material supplied to the College by the Ministry.

In a detailed four-page response to a series of questions posed by Dr Mills, the RCSI accepted that its university in Bahrain had questioned the students about their participation in protests. “These questions were inappropriate and inconsistent with our ethos,” the College said.

Describing the seven months since the Bahraini unrest commenced as an “unprecedented period of challenge” for the College, it stressed that no material or information collected by the University through this process was transferred to any outside agency:  “We wish to restate that no student was discontinued, sanctioned or otherwise penalised in any way.”

On the issue of the oath of fealty or loyalty and the signed declaration, the College said two students agreed to the request; a third did not wish to sign the declaration and no further action was taken. “The RCSI Bahrain code of conduct does not incorporate any concept of an oath of loyalty,” the statement added.

Yesterday (Tuesday, October 11), the newly-appointed President of the University, Prof Tom Collins, apologised to the students on behalf of the University and returned their documents to them. Prof Collins, formerly of NUI Maynooth, has now been asked to “examine how we can identify learnings from this experience”, the College added.

However, the University had also received a request for information on the academic and overall performance of 11 nursing students, apparently identified at the protests.

RCSI in Dublin only learned of incident with students when it investigated query raised by Dr Simon Mills (above)

The RCSI stated that information on the students’ performance and progress was provided to their “sponsoring body”, but that all of these students had now successfully continued onto the next year of their nursing programme, and their sponsorship had in no way been affected. “We wish to state that none of these students were discontinued, sanctioned or otherwise penalised in any way,” the College informed Dr Mills.

The Bahraini Ministry for Education withdrew sponsorship from three other students in late spring, but the College said it met with the students to reassure them that their education would continue. “They continued with their educational programmes. The Ministry has since restored sponsorship to these students,” the College remarked.

Asked whether the university in Bahrain had cracked down on students’ use of College computers and ICT facilities, including emails, for protest-related discussions, the RCSI stated that staff and students had complained of “unpleasant and hostile emails” sent from its email system after the protests.

“RCSI Bahrain thus asked all staff and students to refrain from use of College emails for discussions other than of College business, in an effort to ensure a calm, respectful and non-partisan working environment for all in the College in the highly-charged national crisis situation of Bahrain in March 2011,” it explained.

Queries remain over the treatment of one of RCSI Bahrain’s clinical tutors, Dr Fatima Haji, who was given a five-year jail term on September 29. Dr Haji was among 20 medical staff handed down prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years.  Also convicted of ‘incitement to overthrow the regime’ were Dr Ali Al Ekri, Dr Bassim Dhaif, and Dr Ghassan Dhaif, all of whom were trained at the RCSI in Dublin, and who received 15-year sentences. Dr Zahra Al-Sammak, who also trained in Dublin, was given a five-year sentence.

Human rights groups dispute the charges. According to Physicians for Human Rights, there is “hard evidence of systematic and co-ordinated attacks against medical personnel because of their efforts to provide unbiased care for wounded protesters”.

Following the international outcry over the recent military court rulings, the Attorney General of Bahrain announced last week that the medics would now have a new trial before a civilian court.

The Bahraini government has also convened the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate and report on the events that took place since last February and the subsequent claims of abuse. Its report is expected by the end of the month.

While the RCSI said it could not comment on specific individuals without their permission, it acknowledged that it did not pay any fees to clinical mentors suspended from their hospital duties. However, the contracts of these clinical mentors — full-time employees of the Bahraini health service — would remain valid. “On reflection, we recognise that our actions were insensitive, could be misinterpreted and we deeply regret any hurt caused,” the RCSI stated.

These latest revelations come after one of the toughest weeks for the RCSI in terms of reputation management. The Editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) last week called on the head of the RCSI to “clarify his position as a matter of urgency” in relation to the College’s links with the government of Bahrain following the sentencing of the medics. Dr Fiona Godlee said clarification was needed urgently “unless the College wants to open itself to charges of complicity”.

Prof Eoin O’Brien’s article in The Lancet

Writing in The Lancet (Vol 378, October 8, 2011), Prof Eoin O’Brien — who was part of a small Irish delegation, together with Temple Street’s Prof Damian McCormack, a number of Irish politicians and some NGOs, which visited Bahrain in July — said there was no doubt doctors and medical personnel had been subjected to human rights abuses, including kidnapping, detention without trial in solitary confinement, and the extraction of confessions under torture. “The medical community worldwide needs to take notice and speak out for colleagues who are being denied basic human rights, and who are being subjected to indignities that the medical profession should not tolerate,” wrote Prof O’Brien.

In its statement released yesterday, the RCSI acknowledged that it had not lived up to the “high standards that we set ourselves in these matters”.

“We have endeavoured, as events unfolded, to make the best decisions possible, in the first instance for our commitment to our students and staff in Bahrain.”

Click here for exclusive interview with RCSI Chief Executive Prof Cathal Kelly on the Bahrain controversy.