5-2-2012By Brian Dooley
Director, Human Rights Defenders Program
Sadly, Bahrain is looking more and more like Northern Ireland of the late 1960s, when the government there refused to reform. As a result peaceful pro-democracy protestors, frustrated by the lack of progress, were tempted to react to police violence with violence of their own.
I’ve noted the similarities between Irish and Bahraini political history before. This week reports emerged that prominent Bahraini human rights defender and political prisoner Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is being force-fed after almost three months on a hunger strike. (In 1917 the British authorities made a terrible mistake by force feeding an Irish political prisoner, Thomas Ashe, killing him in the process and triggering a fresh wave of recruits into the revolutionary movement.)
Last year, Al Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison after being arrested, tortured and given an unfair trial in a military court after he took part in the pro-democracy protest. He is best known internationally for his human rights activism (including as a staff member for Front Line Defenders, a human rights NGO based in Dublin). On Sunday, after a week of rumors that he had died, the authorities allowed his family to visit him. His daughter Maryam tweeted that “he had been drugged, tied to the bed, forcibly fed with a nasoenteric tube.” A nasoentric tube is one that is pushed up through the nose and into the stomach. It was the use of a nasoenteric tube that killed Thomas Ashe. The Bahrain authorities deny feeding Abdulhadi against his will, although the BBC reported yesterday that Abdulhadi told them he had been force-fed.
Medical guidelines against the force-feeding of hunger strikers are pretty clear. The World Medical Association 1975 Declaration of Tokyo and the WMA 1991 Declaration of Malta both prohibit force-feeding. A 1998 article by Hernán Reyes of the International Committee of the Red Cross , “Medical and Ethical Aspects of Hunger Strikes in Custodyand the Issue of Torture,” concludes that “Doctors should never be party to actual coercive feeding, with prisoners being tied down and intravenous drips or oesophageal tubes being forced into them. Such actions can be considered a form of torture, and under no circumstances should doctors participate in them, on the pretext of ‘saving the hunger striker’s life’. Heeding the informed consent of a hunger striker, confirmed within the trust of the doctor-patient relationship, and respecting the intrinsic dignity of the fasting prisoner he is treating is certainly part of the doctor’s duty in looking after the patient’s welfare.” Human Rights First condemned force-feeding that was reported by attorneys at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
On Monday, the Bahrain authorities also announced that Abdulhadi and 20 men convicted in the same case with him would be given a “retrial” (although they will have to remain in prison throughout this retrial). This sounds ominously like the promises made to 20 Bahraini doctors who were also tortured and convicted by the same unfair military court last year. Their “retrial” turned out not to be a real retrial, just a prolonged series of unfair appeal hearings which still continue more than seven months after their original sentencing. The real point is that the medics, Abdulhadi and the other 20 convicted with him, and hundreds of other should never have been sentenced. The charges against them were politically motivated and the prisoners were denied basic legal rights.
Despite its talk of reform, the Bahrain regime continues to press charges against those convicted in the military court. Leading figures in the Bahraini Teachers Association, President Mahdi Abu Deeb and Vice-President Jaleela Al Salman, were back in court today for the latest installment in their appeal. They were also tortured and convicted by the military court last year (he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, she to three) on fabricated charges after peacefully expressing their views. Abu Deeb has already spent more than a year in detention, and instead of releasing him today as his lawyers had asked, the judge ordered him to be detained until yet another court appearance on May 30.
All of the 502 people convicted by the military court last year should have their convictions overturned, be freed immediately and have charges dropped against them, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has urged. Bahrain’s commitment to reform is fast being exposed as superficial and cosmetic, and refusing to free all those convicted by the discredited military court damages its international reputation further. If Bahrain is to avoid sliding into the sectarian chaos and violence of Northern Ireland in the 1970, it needs to free these prisoners immediately and take drastic reform measures. It shows little sign of doing so.