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The murder of medical care in Syria

On June 4th 2017 the Syrian Network for Human Rights learned that Mohammad al Sahli, a nurse, died under torture at the Syrian Military Security Forces’ Palestine branch in Damascus, one of over 100 health professionals tortured to death in Syria since 2011. They include Dr Abbas Khan from Streatham, arrested in 2012 soon after arriving in Syria to work in a field hospital. He told his family he was “accused of treating dying civilians, which has been classed as an act of terrorism”. His mother saw him in court in Damascus in July 2013 looking like “a skeleton”, and he died in custody that December.

Prominence for humanitarian work is no protection: Adnan Az Zain, known for coordinating medical work in Eastern Ghouta, died under torture in 2014.

Hesham Subhi Abdul Rahman, from Banyas, founder of the Free Syrian Doctors Organization was executed at Sydnaya Military Prison in December 2014.

Amer Safaf, a paramedic from Hama, died by torture there in 2016.

Doctors who have survived detention describe beatings to death, suspension until brachial plexuses are torn, electrocution, burnings, mutilation and starvation. Dr Bashar Farahat, tortured by Military Intelligence in 2012, said “the interrogators can do anything to you to get a confession.”

Doctors and nurses are not incidental casualties of the war, but specific targets. According to Physicians for Human Rights, 826 medical personnel have been killed since 2011; 680 by Syrian government forces, one by Russian forces, 74 by Russian or Syrian government forces, 27 by IS, 18 by opposition groups, three by Kurdish forces, one by international coalition forces, and 22 by unknown forces. Whilst 78% died in bombings and shooting, often targeted at healthcare facilities and emergency responders, 8% were executed and 13% were tortured to death.

This brutality is not restricted to health professionals. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, over 13000 people have been tortured to death in Syria since 2011, 99% by Bashar al Assad’s regime. Torture is committed with impunity, a systematic punishment aimed at crushing opposition, approved by a man who was once a doctor himself. The UN have accused him of war crimes, but condemnation by Western powers recently seems more muted. Demands that he step down and face trial are morphing into what the Foreign office call “pragmatic realism,” Boris Johnson recently called his departure “not a precondition, but part of a transition.” Emmanuel Macron said the same, adding that he sees no legitimate successor. The US seems to have passed the baton of determining his fate to Russia, which seems more likely to invite him for tea than indict him for anything. It seems that Western nations, contemplating which of many evils serves their interests least badly, are considering throwing the poignantly long list of Syrian opposition groups to the wolves in favour of the torturing ophthalmologist from Damascus. Despite the overwhelming evidence against him, this doctor fears that in the rush to walk away from the whole disaster they may be hoping, very quietly, to forget.

Image: Palmyra Prison AFP/Getty

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