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Iranian doctors’ bravery: Upholding medical ethics amidst oppression

According to Sir William Osler, “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business …” This calling inherently involves sacrifices. How many of us would sacrifice our freedom, livelihood, or even lives for this calling as the clinicians in Iran have been doing? Iranian doctors demonstrated their bravery in September 2022 when ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­800 members of the Iranian Medical Council denounced the authorities’ attempt to cover up the murder of Mahsa (Jina) Amini by the “morality police” for improper hijab. Ever since, Iranians taking to the streets to protest for basic human rights have been met with brute force and deliberately injured by security forces. When they seek medical attention at hospitals for these injuries, they are identified and detained by uniformed and plainclothes agents. Even ambulances are used to transport these patients to prisons.

Iranian doctors have developed ingenious methods to honor their ethical and medical obligation of caring for the injured. For example, they change the personal data of hospitalized patients in the medical records. Physicians inside and outside Iran attempt to provide remote recommendations to the wounded. Some brave doctors in Iran even treat injured protestors in person, outside hospital settings.

However, honoring the calling of medicine comes at a high cost for these clinicians. Many doctors have been arrested, kidnapped, tortured, and even murdered for providing medical care for wounded protestors. While the true number of doctors in custody remains unknown, we know about the following individuals: Dr. Hashem Moazenzadeh, Dr. Alireza Sedaghat, Dr. Bita Mirzaei, Dr. Ramin Neshasteh, Dr. Reyhaneh Mokhtarian, Dr. Mohsen Sohrabi, Dr. Yaser Rahmanirad, Dr. Behnam Ohadi, Dr. Homayoun Eftekharnia, and Dr. Iman Navabi. In November 2022, Dr. Mohammad Edalattalab posted a video in tears with a swollen face and bleeding lips after security forces ransacked his office in Somesara and assaulted him for treating injured protesters. Other health care personnel have also been targeted. A pharmacist, Dr. Shouresh Heidari, was detained for six days in 2022 for treating injured protestors in Bukan. Clinicians are harassed and warned that they would lose their job, license, and even life if they treat wounded protestors in their homes or offices.

One of the earliest known medical fatalities was Dr. Parisa Bahmani, a surgeon who was shot and killed in October 2022 when security forces opened fire during a peaceful rally by doctors protesting the authorities’ interference with treatment of the injured and the practices of militarizing ambulances and hospitals. Another known physician victim is Dr. Aida Rostami, who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in December 2022 for providing medical care outside of the hospital for injured protestors in Ekabtan. The authorities claimed that both Dr. Aida Rostami and Dr. Parisa Bahmani had died in car accidents. However, after insisting on viewing her body, Dr. Rostami’s family noted various injuries including bruises on her face and genitalia, broken arms, and an enucleated left eye. According to the forensic report, the cause of death was trauma with a hard object. The medical examiner told the family that they had been ordered not to reveal the true cause of Aida’s death. They said that “she did not die in a car accident; they killed her.”

Dr. Ebrahim Rigi is another victim of the state. He was initially arrested at his hospital in October 2022 for treating injured protestors of Zahedan’s Bloody Friday. Bloody Friday refers to September 30, 2022, when security forces opened fire on peaceful protesters who had rallied after the Friday prayers in Zahedan, killing and injuring hundreds, including several children. Dr. Rigi was released on bail in December, but re-arrested again in February 2023 and killed under torture, after publishing the following post in Instagram: “No Iranian or Baluch will forget September 30. The incident was as wide as the broken hearts of the bereaved mothers as wide as the broken hearts of the families of Khodanour, Mahsa Amini, and other victims. We all had many dreams in this land, and we might say to ourselves that we have died somewhere else, and this is our hell. Maybe so… I did not know that helping the wounded and criticizing the killing of our brothers and sisters is also a sin. In this land, however, I have complained to God against all those who have been involved in oppressing me. But my dears, know this, even my death, even my execution, was no longer important to me. Because I have died many times in this country …”

Another brutalized physician is Dr. Hamid Gharehasanlou, a radiologist and philanthropist. While charged with killing a member of the paramilitary Basij force, Dr. Gharehasanlou has consistently refused to accept guilt despite being subjected to torture. Nonetheless, the authorities issued and delivered a death sentence to him in the hospital, while he was undergoing medical treatment for injuries he received as a result of the torture, including six broken ribs. The only evidence against Dr. Gharehasanlou was provided by his wife, Farzaneh, who said that her husband may have kicked the Basij member. Farzaneh later told the court that her confession was obtained under torture and recanted her statement. While the death sentence has now reportedly been overturned, the couple remains incarcerated.

In December 2022, an alliance of German medical organizations condemned the murder of Dr. Aida Rostami for providing medical care to protesters. In an open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the alliance expressed solidarity with Iranian medical professionals as well as concern about the human rights and medical situation facing the civilian population of Iran. Access to health care is a human right, not a tool for oppression. At the cost of their own lives and freedom, Iranian doctors have resisted becoming players in this systemic oppression and demonstrated bravery in upholding their medical and ethical obligations. I would like to urge more clinicians and medical organizations to support Iranians and raise their voice against oppression, the continued violation of human rights, and war against Iranian medical professionals.

The author is an anonymous physician.

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