Dark Days in Bahrain: Court Ruling Upholds Convictions of Medics Who Helped Pro-Democracy Protesters
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.
Bahrain is a small island between Iran and Saudi Arabia and hosts a United States naval base for the Fifth Fleet. It is considered a critical strategic ally by the Barack Obama administration, particularly for its simultaneous geographical proximity to one of Washington’s greatest enemies and one of its greatest political allies.
The 2011 Bahraini uprising was quashed with help from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority kingdom that is sympathetic to the ruling Sunni minority of Bahrain.
Seventy percent of the Kingdom of Bahrain consists of Shi’ite Muslims, who have been marginalised by the minority Sunni regime. The uprising was inspired by Egyptian and Tunisian rebel victories, yet it was the only Arab uprising that was successfully quashed through governmental tactical force.
The degree of that force is considered excessive by many human rights organisations and by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself.
An investigation by Physicians for Human Rights describes Bahrain’s extreme and unprecedented approach to the use of tear gas as a means of crowd control, which it said caused an increase in miscarriages, respiratory complications, and other illnesses among the Shi’ite population. Thousands have been wounded during the uprising, though the exact number is impossible to determine, as citizens fear to take refuge in hospitals after the raids and arrests of doctors and protesters.
The report by Physicians for Human Rights documented several accounts of injured protesters, including that of an asthmatic man named Mohammed.
“Muhammad’s family reported that he was routinely exposed to tear gas and sought medical care in private hospitals, but never told doctors about his severe adverse reactions to the gas for fear of being reported to authorities and sent to prison,” it said.
Investigations by Amnesty International found no use of violence on the part of the nine convicted medics, all of whom were Shi’ites.
“The fact that all these convictions have been upheld while prisoners of conscience remain behind bars highlights the lack of real commitment from the Bahraini government to fully meet the promises made less than two weeks ago before the Human Rights Council in Geneva,” Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy programme director, said in a statement Monday.