A new report charges that Bahrain has badly injured and even killed protesters by swamping them with massive clouds of tear gas, flooding closed spaces such as cars and houses with the toxic chemicals.
Physicians for Human Rights, a rights group based in Massachusetts, said the island nation was misusing tear gas against Shiite Muslim civilians, wielding it as a weapon with grave health risks. The unrelenting gas attacks cause such severe suffering that they amount to torture, the group said.
Two men, one of them asthmatic, died after repeatedly being exposed to tear gas in their homes, the report found. Several women suffered miscarriages shortly after being exposed to the gas, the group said. Other Bahrainis reported vomiting, shortness of breath, even loss of consciousness from the gas that has blanketed villages outside the capital.
Protests demanding greater democracy and more rights for Shiites have raged for more than a year and a half in the Sunni Muslim monarchy. Bahrain says it is trying to control thugs who have hurled Molotov cocktails at police during protests, acts that have repeatedly been captured on video.
“Any means that have been exercised by security forces adhere to international standards of riot control,” the government told the Associated Press. “Suggestions that the use of tear gas in Bahrain is severely injurious or even lethal is simply not backed up by any research or proof.”
Physicians for Human Rights countered that the outpouring of gas far exceeded the minimum force needed to subdue violent protesters. It also found that Bahraini officers had cornered protesters and prevented them from escaping from the gas, perverting its normal use to disperse crowds.
Bahrain has turned to tear gas, in particular, to try to keep protesters clustered in the small villages on the outskirts of Manama from amassing in the capital, said Toby C. Jones, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University.
"If Bahrain learned anything from Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen, it's that once enough people are able to congregate in a public sphere where they can draw media attention to themselves and rally in large numbers, the movement becomes more threatening," Jones said. "It treats this as a problem it needs to isolate, and tear gas is an effective instrument for that.
"It's also an instrument of terror," Jones said.
"As activists, when we go abroad and say, ‘They’re using tear gas,’ people say, ‘Well, that’s not so bad,’” said Maryam Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, an activist group. “The government knows ... there isn’t such a strong response internationally. But tear gas has never been used this way before."
The rights group urged the world to stop sending Bahrain tear gas and the chemicals used to make it until the government has investigated the excessive gassing and held perpetrators accountable. The United Nations human rights office also called for Bahrain to investigate reported deaths from tear gas this year, calling the reports worrisome.
The U.S. has been accused of downplaying calls for change in Bahrain, a strategic ally that hosts its 5th Fleet and has served as a bulwark in the region against Iran.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Masked Bahraini protesters are seen in a cloud of tear gas during clashes with riot police in the village of Aali, Bahrain, on June 28, 2012. Credit: Hasan Jamali / Associated Press