Excessive use of tear gas endangers women protesters Bahrain

Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Bahraini women protesters
Bahraini women protesters March 4, 2011. Image: Sara Hassan/Al Jazeera English

(WNN) Manama, BAHRAIN: Expressing grave concern about the ongoing violence that has impacted Bahrain with forty-four casualties, the BCHR – Bahrain Center for Human Rights is asking for a stop measure in the use of excessive force on Bahraini citizens and activists, especially the excessive use of tear gas as a hazardous chemical.

“We really believe it is important for Bahrain to engage immediately and boldly in [a] strong national protection system, which is not in place yet,” said Mr. Bacre Ndiaye, Director of the Human Rights Council and Special Procedures Division at the United Nations Office in Geneva. Ndiaye following travels to Bahrain December 13-17, 2011 with a recent team UN human rights assessment visit.

The official UN team visit was enabled through cooperation and communications with the Office of King Hamad. “One of the big problems of [with] Bahrain is impunity, especially members of security forces. As long as this impunity, and a strong independent judiciary, were not in place it would be very difficult to lead a comprehensive national reconciliation process. This is also a big issue in Bahrain,” added Ndiaye.

“Although Governments are under an obligation to initiate inquiries into allegations as soon as they are brought to their attention, in some countries impartial investigations are rarely conducted. In other cases, public inquiries are compromised, with light sentences imposed on perpetrators despite the gravity of the crimes committed. In particular, trials of members of the security forces before military courts are sometimes undermined by an ill-conceived esprit de corps. There are also instances where low-ranking officials are convicted of human rights violations or crimes, while those in positions of command escape responsibility,” says a formal statement by the UN.  “Often victims — and sometimes witnesses who assist in investigative efforts — are subjected to intimidation and death threats,” continues the statement. “For this reason, the United Nations has intensified efforts to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice and break the cycle of impunity.”

Linking the levels of stress with civil unrest and the excessive use of tear gas causing adverse affects on women, the BCHR – Bahrain Center for Human Rights, based in Manama, has received numerous reports of miscarriages and incomplete pregnancies in regions that have been impacted by violence. Some reports have directly linked miscarriage to the exposure of pregnant women to tear gas used by Bahrain’s police security forces. Twenty-one cases of miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion causing incomplete pregnancies, have been reported to the BCHR over an eight month period from March to November 2011.

The chemical known as ortho-2-chlorophenyl-methylene propanedinitrile (CS), currently administered by Bahrain’s security forces, is a powerful and damaging agent that is used as an active ingredient in tear gas canisters. CS is one of the chemical agents known by experts as a ‘choking agent.’ It is part of the ‘Chemical Warfare Agents’ used by numerous police and security forces around the world, in Egypt as well as in Bahrain.

“Victims typically inhale these agents, which cause the alveoli to secrete a constant flow of fluid into the lungs, essentially drowning the victim,” says the OPCW – Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which reports to the United Nations General Assembly as well as the ICC – International Criminal Court of Justice at The Hague.

CS as a chemical agent has been widely used in areas where protesters have congregated throughout Bahrain. It has also been used in neighborhoods and regions where the government thinks protesters live. But the target for the chemical has not all been protesters. Bahraini Shia Muslim citizens who have not been involved in protesting on the streets have also been severely impacted. At times the impact has been deadly. Although the Office of the Ministry of Interior in Bahrain has denied any connection between police activity and the death of forty-seven-year-old Ms. Zainab Hasan Ahmed al-Jumaa, the director of the BCHR,  Mr. Nabeel Rajab, announced last July (2011) that Zainab’s death occurred following a tear gas dispersal near her home.

According to WHO – the World Health Organization chemicals used in the production of tear gas have a dangerous list of side affects. CS does have a lethal dose which can be reached through repeated prolonged, high levels of exposure or containment of the fumes or gas in rooms or buildings. It is also especially dangerous for those who have pre-existing or compromised health conditions.

Zahraa, who lives in the north-central town of Ma’ameer, is the mother of one son. Ma’ameer is a region that has been especially impacted by civil unrest in Bahrain. Conditions in Ma’ameer, and for many of its Shia citizens, include exposures to toxic gases over an extended period of time as protests in areas has continued. Numerous tear gas events have occurred on a daily basis. On November 4, 2011 Zahraa miscarried while pregnant with her second child. It was assessed that the death of her unborn child may have occurred in October during weeks of country wide protests before and up to the upcoming Bahraini national elections. During the time the use of tear gas by security forces intensified.

Zahraa was not the only woman who miscarried during those stressful days on the October election protests. Her sister-in-law who lives in Zahraa’s same building and her sister-in-law’s sister who lives close-by, as well as Zahraa’s aunt, have also suffered from miscarriages.

“67% of the [miscarriage] cases were due to excessive use [by police security] of toxic gases, tear gas and other forms, whether as a means of suppressing a protest or attacking a whole area,” outlines the BCHR.

As tear gas canisters are ignited a lethal combination of  heat and chemicals can form a deadly mix of highly toxic nitrous oxide and hydrogen cyanide. The combination can cause fatal reflex apnea – the cessation of breathing that causes death due to a shortage of oxygen in the blood.

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