The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: Field Doctors Bear Witness to the Targeting of Field Hospitals in Tahrir Square by Security Forces and Military Police

Press Release

Thursday, 1 December, 2011

A number of the field hospitals were targeted with tear gas canisters; several doctors were wounded and others arrested

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has demanded that an immediate investigation be opened and urgent measures be taken to deal with the determined aggression against doctors in the field hospitals in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations which began on the 19th November. These sustained attacks culminated in the arrest of a number of doctors and the deliberate targeting of hospitals.

Throughout the week's events, members of the security forces and military police carried out repeated attacks against the Tahrir field hospitals (of which there were around 12) and against volunteers in the make-shift medical units around the square.  Medical teams in the field hospitals reported attacks on these hospitals using gas, and physical attacks on them by army officers, in addition to the arrest of several doctors by police officers.

Dr. Dalia Abd el-Hameed, Gender and Women's Rights Programme Officer at EIPR, commented: 'The targeting of medical personnel during times of unrest hinders their efforts in providing impartial medical services. Not only that, but it is also a clear violation of the principle of medical neutrality which stipulates that doctors must be protected in times of armed conflict and unrest. This includes not pursuing either doctors or patients into the place where medical treatment is provided.'

On Friday 18th November, a number of field hospital units in Tahrir Square and the surrounding area began offering emergency medical services for incidents resulting from the 'Million Man March' that Friday. Despite the relative calm of that day, with few incidents or emergencies, a number of doctors chose to spend the night in Tahrir in case medical care was required by any of the couple of hundred of protesters who were staging a sit-in in the square. When violence broke out again on Saturday morning, continuing for the next five days, many doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other medical sector personnel rushed to the square to offer their help. More than 12 field hospitals were set up the length and breadth of the square, including one based in the Ibad el-Rahman mosque off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where most of the bloody confrontations between demonstrators and security forces took place.

This field hospital was particularly close to the most violent part of the square. Tear gas canisters were fired intensively, which hindered the effectiveness of the medical team as they – like the demonstrators – were indiscriminately exposed to air contaminated with gas. However, during interviews with doctors and medical personnel, they confirmed to EIPR that there were a number of incidents in which the hospital itself was targeted with gas. Dr. Mohamed Fotouh – Director of the Tahrir Doctors' Group – confirmed that the field hospital was directly attacked more than once by the deliberate firing of tear gas canisters. He added: 'The Ibad el-Rahman field hospital was in a side alley and not in direct contact with the front line between the demonstrators and security forces. Also, everyone knows that during any large demonstration Ibad el-Rahman becomes a field hospital. Despite this, tear gas canisters were fired at the field hospital, deliberately and at close range.'

Doctor Islam Abd el-Rahman, a doctor from Monofiya who was in the Ibad el-Rahman field hospital, substantiated suspicions that the hospitals were targeted with tear gas. 'Once, the entrance and exit of the hospital were hit with gas canisters at the same time, at a point when the atmosphere outside was calm – so one cannot help but think that it was a deliberate attempt to prevent doctors from treating the wounded and injured. At another point, all the doctors went outside to catch their breath. When we returned again to check on the patients, I found that my computer equipment where I was keeping videos and evidence of the injuries had been taken.'

Karima Abd el-Aziz, a nursing specialist based in the field hospital in the Omar Makram mosque, mentioned a gas canister launched into the open space of the mosque. 'The canister came from this direction,' said Abd el-Aziz, pointing in the direction of the Corniche – in the completely opposite direction from Mohamed Mahmoud Street. 'It's impossible that it got here by coincidence,' she added.

A number of eyewitnesses from the medical team also confirmed a repeated pattern of targeting the field hospitals with tear gas canisters, making it extremely difficult for doctors to treat patients in such a hostile work environment. Dr Fotouh said: 'When that happened, the situation became very difficult, because the doctors tried to move the patients whilst they were suffocating, suffering from the effects of the gas. Despite these difficulties, most doctors preferred to remain by their patients' side.'

The field hospitals were also attacked by members of the armed forces, who showed no respect for the neutrality of medical establishments. On Sunday 20th November at around 5pm, when the Tahrir sit-in was forcibly cleared by the army and Central Security Forces, a number of the field hospitals were set on fire and vandalised. Only the hospitals in the Omar Makram mosque and Qasr el-Dobara church were spared, probably because they were relatively far from the centre of events and were located inside concrete buildings. A doctor in the field hospital in the centre of Tahrir during Sunday's clearing of the square said in his testimony: 'They burned and destroyed everything.' He added that he witnessed a member of the armed forces dragging a nurse along the ground by her headscarf.

Another pharmacist in one of the field hospitals reported that the tear gas did not let up during the attacks. 'We were attacked with a large quantity of gas which left the injured in the field hospital in a deplorable state, to the extent that the demonstrators were forced to carry them,' said Dr. Noura Othman, who was in the Ibad el-Rahman field hospital during the clearing of the square. She added: 'Even I had to be carried by my colleagues because I was exposed to such a large quantity of gas. The armed forces were chasing everyone, including members of the medical team, even though their white coats signified that they were neutral and part of the medical establishment.'

One of the wounded demonstrators interviewed described how the armed forces broke into a medical unit based in one of the alleys branching off Mohamed Mahmoud Street at 3am on Sunday 20th November: 'I was sitting leaning against the wall on the other side of the alley when army officers entered and took all the medical supplies from the hospital.'

In addition to these attacks, witness statements collected by EIPR reported that members of the police arrested a number of doctors and volunteers in the field hospitals during their attempts to treat demonstrators who had passed out after exposure to high quantities of gas in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Among these doctors were Karim el-Damanhoury and Abd el-Rahman Makawy, who were arrested on the 22nd and 23rd November respectively and detained before being released the day after their arrests.

Amr Adel, a volunteer in one of the field hospitals, reported the indifference of the police forces to the presence of doctors or other field hospital personnel amongst those arrested. In his testimony to EIPR, Adel said: 'I was arrested on Wednesday 23rd November by CSF soldiers around midnight while I was watching the burning of the school on Mohamed Mahmoud St. They beat me severely. I kept telling them that I was a volunteer in the field hospital and showed them my medical gloves but they wouldn't listen and kept on beating me. During their attempt to transport me and the rest of those arrested, I kept yelling that I wouldn't get in the vehicle and that I was a medical volunteer, until they let me go.'

Commenting on this, Dr. Amani Massoud – the Human Rights Education and Campaigns Director at EIPR – said: ' should it turn out that these doctors were arrested because of their profession, it would set a dangerous precedent and is a blatant violation of the safety and neutrality of doctors in Egypt.'

EIPR added that the doctors in the square displayed an exceptional commitment to professional ethics, which require them to treat the wounded from both sides. EIPR recorded two reported incidents of demonstrators arresting infiltrators in Tahrir Square – one a security officer in civilian clothes, and the other loitering with intent to instigate riots. In both cases, doctors were able to treat and protect them from the angry crowds by giving them sanctuary inside the field hospital until an emergency vehicle could recover them. Dr. Mohamed Ahmed, a pharmacist who was in the Omar Makram mosque field hospital while the police officers were being treated, said: 'We treated an injured police officer inside the hospital, as people stared at us through the windows. Then they broke into the hospital, telling us we were traitors and against the revolution, and that they wanted to kill the officer. We hid the police officer, and we were attacked physically. We tried to explain to them that our profession as doctors requires us to treat everyone, regardless of their affiliation or colour or gender – this is what humanity asks of us. The ambulance could not transport the officer until after more than nine attempts to enter the hospital.'

Dr. Ahmed el-Sayyid, internal medicine specialist at El-Matareyah Hospital, told EIPR researchers: 'I was in the field hospital in Mohamed Mahmoud Street when I heard the demonstrators cheering because they had managed to injure some police officers. Two of our colleagues headed to the other side to treat the wounded officers.'

EIPR's Dalia Abd el-Hameed said: 'The clear violations involved in the targeting of doctors become increasingly clear when we realise that they faced verbal abuse from some of the demonstrators during their protection and treatment of wounded police, in accordance with the ethics of their profession. This makes the attacks and pursuit of them by the police and army disgraceful by any standards.'

EIPR salutes the rare courage and professionalism of the doctors and volunteer medical teams during these critical times. It also emphasises the ethical commitment of medical personnel to treat patients in complete neutrality, regardless of their political position or any other factor. Conversely, this must be matched by a commitment by society to protect the independence and safety of doctors under any circumstances.

EIPR holds the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry responsible for any attacks targeting doctors in the hospitals – and for failing to protect medical personnel during the five days of unrest.