Dark Days in Bahrain: Court Ruling Upholds Convictions of Medics Who Helped Pro-Democracy Protesters
Black smoke billowing from burning tents in Pearl Square in Bahraini capital Manama during the uprising against the government.
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Human rights groups reacted with condemnation following a ruling by Bahrain’s highest court Monday rejecting the last appeals and upholding the convictions of nine medics for their role in the 2011 uprising in the capital Manama.
“Large numbers of Bahrainis have aired their criticisms of the government through peaceful protests. While some protesters have used violence, the overarching climate has been one of nonviolent criticism of the government of Bahrain,” Sanjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA advocacy director for Middle East/North Africa affairs, told IPS.
“Unfortunately, the government of Bahrain has responded with torture, violence, and arrests. It is time for Bahraini government officials to stop attempting to silence political speech through the repression of the state,” he said. The medics were arrested after tending to wounded pro-democracy protesters.
The upheld sentences, announced in mid-June of this year, range from one month to five years in prison. The verdict includes plotting to overthrow the monarchy and gathering illegally, charges that have been strongly denounced by many human rights groups, which said the rulings “violate basic rights such as free assembly” and dismissed them as politically aimed.
“It’s a black day for Bahrain when it imprisons physicians and other medical professionals whose only ‘crime’ was to carry out their ethical duty to care for sick and wounded people,” Richard Sollom, Physicians for Human Rights’ deputy director, said in a statement Tuesday.
“Sadly, these medics have now joined the ranks of other prisoners of conscience unjustly locked up in Bahrain and elsewhere around the world.”
Many human rights organisations view the verdict as a signal to the populace that dissent will not be tolerated. Two of the convicted are missing and believed to be in hiding.
The June verdict is actually a reduction in severity of the sentences originally imposed by a military court in September 2011, in which 20 doctors and nurses were arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to five to 15 years. The arrests followed a government siege of the Salmaniya Medical Complex in Manama, a hospital that was considered an opposition site in the uprising. The medics were among thousands of arrested protesters and are believed to have been targeted solely for their role as medical professionals.
“The organisation believes the real reason why the medics were arrested and tried is because they publicly denounced the excessive force used against protesters during pro-reform demonstrations last year in interviews with international media,” Amnesty International said.
Many of the medics gave reports of abuse, torture, and forced false confession during their imprisonment. The trial of two Bahraini police officers accused of torturing the medics was postponed Monday, as they both failed to appear in court. The next hearing is set for Oct. 18.
“It is important to keep in mind that so far, the government of Bahrain is not known to have investigated any senior government officials for the potential ordering of the many acts of repression that have occurred in Bahrain,” Bery told IPS.
“While lower level police officers should be investigated in cases of torture or other violence, it is not enough to stop there. Full accountability requires that senior government officials also be investigated on the question of whether or not they ordered political repression against critics,” he added.
The retrial and subsequent dropped charges for nine of the 20 medics was a result of the public uproar generated around the world for what was widely viewed as an unfair and politically motivated trial. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also publically criticised the ruling.
The United States’ ties to the Bahraini government have also been under the spotlight. Although Washington postponed he sale of 53 million dollars worth of weaponry to Bahrain upon news of September’s military court hearing, the same deal has been back under review for some months despite appeals from groups like Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch to hold off.