On Sunday a civilian court began the retrial of 20 Bahraini medical staff who were convicted of serious crimes related to the wide-scale anti-government protests that occurred starting in February. The 20 doctors and nurses were given sentences ranging from five to fifteen years by a military court, on charges of “weapons possession, inciting sectarian anger and hatred against the regime, obstructing the law, destroying public property, jeopardising general security and ‘forcefully occupying’ the capital Manama’s main Salmaniya Medical Complex, where they worked.”
The medical staff say that, in treating injured protesters brought to the hospital, they were simply doing their jobs. They have denied all the charges, which have also been thoroughly condemned by the international community:
Speaking from Brazil, Jose Luis Amaral, president of the World Medical Association, told the Guardian the sentences had shocked medical staff all over the world. “Doctors and medical associations must preserve independence, and they must perform their duties without any restriction. Medical neutrality is absolutely essential. This is a principle that cannot be broken.”…
Janet Davies, executive director of nursing and service delivery at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The eyes of nursing and the medical world are watching in the expectation that the Bahraini authorities will adhere to the agreements which they signed into national law.”
The office of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the UN human rights office have also issued statements of concern. Human Rights Watch, which has been in contact with seven of the medical staff, issued a statement on Friday charging that they have suffered “severe abuse.”
Jailed and Tortured For Doing Her Job
Rula al-Saffar, a medical professor and president of the Bahraini Nursing Society, was not on the staff of the hospital, but volunteered her services after a number of injured protesters who had been occupying the Pearl Roundabout in the capital of Manama were brought via ambulance. Hospital administrators were present at all times, she said, and doctors and paramedics who were later arrested had permission to work. Then after the king declared martial law on March 15, all the Bahraini Shia were detained but “not the Sunni, and not the Christian, and not the Filipino, and not the Indian, and not the ones who have Bahraini passports who are Arab origin from different countries.”
After receiving a call late at night, Saffar was arrested on April 4. She was “blindfolded, handcuffed and started being pushed and cussed at the whole time” and was imprisoned for five months, during which she was beaten, electrocuted, sexually assaulted and subjected to threats of rape. She was bailed in late August and recounts chilling scenes of the imprisonment of the doctors:
There was one image from her period in detention, said Saffar, that she could not shake. “I walked by my colleagues, the male doctors. They were all blindfolded, handcuffed, and they were chained by the waist one to the other, and they were chained to the ankles. And they were left in the heat. And I was walking by them, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, am I in the slavery times, or what?’ I am Bahraini. When I go to bed I think of this image, and I just cannot get it out of my mind.
“These are well-known doctors. They have served the country for 20 years. They were trained in UK, Scotland, Ireland, United States, we were all trained outside. And we have served this country and we are proud of our country. We go to international arenas and we represent our country. But I never thought my country would do that to me or my colleagues. Never.”
Because protesters are now afraid to go to hospitals, Saffar says those who are wounded in ongoing demonstrations are dying at home. She has “no faith in the Bahraini system” and says that she knows
“for a fact that I know deep in my heart and in front of God that I am innocent, my colleagues are innocent, and we have done our jobs.”
Hundreds of other Bahrainis have been arrested since the protests began in February. The majority have been Shia Muslims, who were calling for greater rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy. 35 died and many of those arrested, including prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, have been given harsh sentences, including life imprisonment and the death penalty.
In Sunday’s civilian court hearing, prosecutors dropped several lower-level charges but the most serious accusations remain in place. The 20 medical staff remain free on bail; they are unable to travel outside Bahrain. The next session will be held on November 28.
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Photo taken in February of a wounded protester in the hospital in Bahrain by Al Jazeera English