BEIRUT — The protesters and family members gather outside hospitals in Syria for what has become a grim routine of the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime: reaching out for the dead and wounded, trying to wrest their bodies away from security forces.
Syrian troops and security officers on Friday seized at least 15 more dead and injured protesters from two hospitals in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, firing on relatives of the victims and others, according to witnesses and activists.
The struggle over the dead and dying underscores how hospitals, medical workers and even corpses have become weapons for the government and its supporters as they try to crush a nearly 6-month-old protest movement against Assad's rule.
With security forces largely in control of public medical care, "people prefer to die rather than go to a hospital," Khaled, a demonstrator, said Friday in the eastern city of Dair Alzour, where activists said three of the day's estimated 18 deaths occurred.
Khaled, who like many protesters asked that his full name not be used for safety reasons, described an instance this week at a hospital in his city. Activists had learned that a wounded confederate had been taken to a hospital, he said, only to be left to bleed to death by medical workers sympathetic to the regime. The body was confiscated by security forces, Khaled said, and has not been released to the man's family.
Deprivation of medical care and misuse of hospitals have become "routine, systematic," said Wissam Tarif, an activist now outside Syria. "What we have seen is security forces based in the hospitals. It is the security forces that have control of the hospitals, and in most cases the medical personnel cannot do anything about it."
Accounts from Tarif and other activists Friday detailed some of the abuses: security forces seizing the bodies of slain activists to block mourners from holding funerals, which could turn into protests against the government; and taking wounded activists who need treatment away from hospital wards.
Activists describe doctors and nurses abusing bleeding, helpless protesters, especially at state-run medical centers.
By tradition, many doctors are Alawites, members of the same minority Muslim sect as the Assad family, explained an Alawite sympathetic to the protest movement.
Taken by a doctor friend to a Damascus hospital recently to observe the abuses, the man said he saw a doctor slap a wounded patient. Hospital personnel told the man that medical ethics did not oblige them to treat traitors, he said.
In a report released in July, Amnesty International describes similar abuses by medical workers. The report cites a case in which male and female nurses in the town of Talkalakh beat an injured 21-year-old activist, stitched his wounds without administering painkiller, then beat him again on his wounds.
Medical care for injured demonstrators is increasingly being driven underground to makeshift clinics in homes or mosques. Pharmacists who sell equipment for blood transfusions or tetanus vaccine for treating bullet wounds have been arrested, Tarif said .
Early in the uprising, Tarif said, he watched in the Damascus suburb of Duma as security forces and protesters scrambled to pull wounded people out of one another's grasp. Wounded are routinely "taken, kidnapped," from hospitals, he said.
"There is clear evidence that the regime is using a specific strategy of attacking injured, attacking hospitals, kidnapping bodies, and preventing bodies from being buried with dignity," said Tarif, who is making a documentary about medical abuses in the early months of the protests.
On Friday, the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria opposition coalition reported clashes over bodies and the injured outside hospitals in the Damascus suburbs of Kafarbatna and Arbaeen, after government forces opened fire on protests that broke out nationwide after Friday prayers.
In Arbaeen, activists and family members rushed 15 wounded protesters, some unconscious, to a private hospital, said Fady, who said he accompanied the crowd. Opposition supporters generally regard private hospitals as more neutral than those run by the government.
"The hospital was surrounded with security forces, who were shooting at everyone to keep the dead and injured from entering the hospital," Fady said.
Members of the Syrian army's 4th division came to the hospital and seized wounded protesters, Fady said. Security forces arrived separately in ambulances and took away the dead, he said.
Syria's brutal crackdown has failed to quell the uprising.
Many of the protest leaders are adamant that their movement will remain nonviolent despite what the United Nations says is more than 2,200 civilian deaths.
Under the slogan "Death Before Indignity," demonstrators gathered by the thousands Friday in cities across Syria. But the centers of Damascus and Aleppo, the two main cities and critical bastions of support for Assad, remained largely quiet.
Friday also saw the European Union approve tough new sanctions that analysts say are likely to significantly increase the financial pressure on Assad's government.
The EU measure includes a ban on imports of Syrian oil to Europe, cutting off the market to which Assad's government channels 95% of Syria's crude. Oil accounts for about one-third of the regime's revenue.
The United States imposed oil-import and financial sanctions last month after Assad's government ignored repeated U.S. demands that it stop the armed assaults on civilians.