On March 15, I sat through a ten-hour civilian court session with the Bahraini medics whose verdicts were announced yesterday. The session was part of their prolonged appeal of military court convictions handed out in September -- convictions based on tortured confessions. Although the charges against each of the 20 medics include offenses such as "occupying the hospital" and "smuggling weapons," it's no secret that these accusations and the trails themselves are politically motivated, meant as punitive measures for the medics' decision to treat injured protestors in February and March of 2011, when a wave of pro-democracy protests broke out in Bahrain. The medics were also targeted because they told the international media the truth about the extent of the violence perpetrated by the Bahraini security forces against civilians.
During coffee breaks at the March hearing, I chatted with the medics and others about likely outcomes. Around that time, a Bahrain government official had indicated that charges against 15 of the 20 medics would be dropped and prosecutions would only continue against the remaining five. When this announcement was raised by a defense lawyer, the judge dismissed it as media speculation. Yesterday, we found out that he was right.
Of the 20 medics whose appellate verdicts were announced Thursday, nine were acquitted and two had their original 15 year sentences upheld. The remaining nine were handed sentences ranging from a month to five years. Among those sentenced to jail are doctors Ali Ali Ekri and Ghassan Dhaif, whom I knew from my time in the courtroom. They were prime targets of the prosecution because they were the two doctors most often quoted by international media. Dhaif was sentenced to one year in prison and Ali Al Ekri to five.
Those who were acquitted aren't rejoicing. Dr. Fatima Haji was originally given a five-year sentence by the military court after she was tortured into confessing to crimes she did not commit. She was declared innocent yesterday, but told me "I am shocked and angry. We were all in the same emergency room in the hospital treating patients. We are all innocent. If they convicted one of us, it means they should convict all of us. They have targeted us 20 medics for occupying the hospital and that's now shown to be false."
Another of the accused, Rula Al Saffar, head of the Bahrain Nurses Association, told me, "I'm so sad. I can't celebrate. It hurts too badly." Al Saffar was originally sentenced to 15 years by the military court. She also gave a false confession after she was tortured by authorities. Rula, who lived and worked in the United States for 18 years, was also declared innocent of all charges yesterday.
Dr. Nada Dhaif was also declared innocent yesterday in a decision that reversed the 15 year prison sentence she was given by the military court last September. "It feels like everything is broken --I can't feel happiness, it's a broken happiness, even though I've finally been declared innocent," she said. "How can they send Ghassan [Dhaif] and Ali [Al Ekri] and the others to prison -- they shouldn't be going through this. I feel sick in my throat."
It's hard to see where yesterday's developments leave Bahrain's already battered international reputation. Its much-vaunted promises of reform and reconciliation are exposed by the verdicts; by the increased intensity in which the country targets its local human rights defenders; and by its continual denial of access to international media and human rights observers. Just this week, Human Rights First was told our planned visit next week could not proceed. We were also denied entry in January, though allowed in for five days in March.
Undoubtedly, the attention on the medics' case is a political relations disaster for the regime. The international media has featured their stories more than any of the other 502 Bahrainis convicted by the military court, most likely because the cases raise wider questions about the respect for medical neutrality during times of conflict or upheaval.
"This is a turning point for the international community -- if they keep quiet about the targeting of medics here it will happen in other countries in the future. It should be stopped here," observed Dr. Haji.
She's right. Regimes around the world are watching, waiting to see what the United States and other human rights leaders will do in the wake of yesterday's ruling. We can only hope that these nations make clear that yesterday's verdicts are out of step with Bahrain's so-called commitment to human rights reforms and that any nation taking its cues from the Kingdom will not benefit by doing so.
Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First's Human Rights Defenders Program.
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