Bahraini justice on trial

Last week was a bad week to be on trial in Bahrain. 

On September 29, a military court — or what Bahrain calls the National Safety Court — sentenced 20 medical professionals from five to 15 years in jail on charges that included inciting to overthrow the regime, possession of weapons, and forcefully taking over control of the main medical complex, Salmaniya Hospital. 

The medics all say they are innocent and the international community has not found fault with them, but they have found fault with Bahrain’s courts.  

“These are medical professionals who were treating patients during a period of civil unrest, as their ethical duty requires them to do. To imprison them as part of a political struggle is unconscionable,” said Physicians for Human Right’s Chief Policy Officer, Hans Hogrefe, in a press statement.  

Qassim Omran is one of those medics who was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but he is in the United States and said he has no plans to return to Bahrain any time soon. According to Omran the charges are politically motivated and the medics were simply doing their jobs. “It’s just total fake fabrication against us,” he said. 

For example, in mid-March Omran said a protester was seriously injured by the army and was taken to Salmaniya Hospital where the medics tried to save him, but they could not. The neurosurgeon who worked on him, Nabeel Hameed, is now awaiting trial, Omran explains:

This neurosurgeon (Hameed) was accused of killing this protestor. Just imagine (the government) wants to reverse things for you. The one who killed this protester is free and alive, enjoying his time. And the one, the surgeon, who spent his life, his hours, his time…to revive that patient is being sent to jail. It is a paradox.

Forty-eight medics in total have been charged. They were split into two groups: those facing felonies, who were sentenced last week, and those charged with misdemeanors, including Hameed. The second group has been released from detention but they are still on trial. 

Many of the Bahraini medical professionals are either suspended or in jail because of the comments they wrote in patients’ charts, according to Omran, who said that Bahraini authorities searched patients’ medical records to see what the staff had written about protesters’ injuries and causes of death. 

For example, one of the medical professionals instructed a hospital resident to write on a death certificate that a protester was killed by a gunshot, which Omran said was the actual cause of death. That medical professional has now been convicted by the government and will serve 10 years in prison, Omran said.  The majority of medical professionals in Bahrain are Shiite, and Bahrain is endangering its ability to deliver emergency and specialized medical care, Omran believes.

  • Ali Al Ekri is a senior pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
  • Basem Dhaif is a senior orthopedic surgeon.
- Ghassan Daif is a maxillofacial surgeon. 
  • Mahmoud Ashgar is a pediatric surgeon. 
  • Nader Diwani is a pediatrician.
  • Rola Al Saffar was the head of head of Bahrain Nursing Association

All are among the medical professionals who will now serve 15 years in prison. (Full lists here and here.)

There were five intensivists at Salmaniya Hospital, including Omran. “Three of us are out,” Omran said. One of the remaining intensivist is an expatriate and the fifth one is on leave. “Just imagine the ICU services in Bahrain.”

The medical professionals can appeal their sentences.  The President of Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, Mohammed Al-Maskati, said he was surprised by the government’s harsh sentences against the medics:

We thought the government wanted to send a positive message to the international community, but… the government is not in the right direction of respecting human rights…They don’t want to have change in the country.

More than 200 civilians have now been sentenced in a military court, roughly 300 remain in detention, according to Al-Maskati.

The same day the medics were found guilty, one protestor was sentenced to death and another was sentenced to life for killing a police officer by running over him with a car, according to the Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority. Earlier in the week Bahrain upheld sentences against 14 opposition leaders and activists on charges that included plotting to topple Bahrain’s leadership.  Abdul Hadi Alkhawaja, a leading human rights activist, was among them. Seven others were tried in absentia. Amnesty International commented on the case:

By upholding this verdict, Bahrain’s military justice system has once again shown it has no intention of meeting international fair trial standards for anyone the authorities perceive as a political foe.

Others who were found guilty by the court this week included the president and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Association. They were given 10 and three years, respectively, according to Bahrain News Agency (see also here). Thirty-two individuals, including three international athletes, were sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges that included theft, damaging property and possessing explosive materials (molotov cocktails), according to the BNA.

Many of the crimes people are being charged with — spreading false rumors, gathering, speaking out against the regime — are not generally crimes “in systems that we would consider to be well functioning systems, or just systems,” according to Faraz Sanei, a research at Human Rights Watch, which is currently banned from the country. “They allow the government to go after whomever they want and whose opinions they don’t like.” The trials have also raised red flags as people have reported that they did not have access to their lawyers, some defendants have appeared in court unaware of the charges against them and some people are essentially being found guilty based solely on confessions. “These things should not be happening,” he said.

The medics, who said they were ill-treated and “tortured to extract confessions,” have appealed to the Secretary General of the United Nations to intervene. The medics said they had hoped that the authorities would have waited for the report from an independent fact-finding commission, set up by the king.  

At the time the medical professionals were sentenced, Bahrain’s IAA said, when the commission does publish its findings in October, “everyone will know what happened during those dark times, which will help all of the country to move onwards.”

But will the commission rule in the government’s favor?