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January 24, 2013

Ordeal Continues for Targeted Bahraini Medics

Of all the abuses committed by the Bahraini government during its nearly two-year crackdown on democracy protests, none has provoked more international outcry than its mistreatment of the medics: the dozens who were arrested, tortured and convicted after treating injured protestors. Although thousands of people have been arrested, it is the medicswho have proved the most damaging to Bahrain’s reputation. It’s become known as “the country that tortures doctors”.

Most of the medics were tried together in two batches – a group of 20, known as the “felony medics,” and another group of 28 “misdemeanor medics.” The felony group was convicted in September 2011 after a show trial in a military court, nine of whom were later acquitted after an appeal in a civilian court. All but five of the misdemeanor medics were also found guilty in November 2012 and sentenced to three months in prison. Those 23 are out of prison pending an appeal, which is set to occur in March.

There were also a handful of medics convicted in separate trials. Seven medics from the various trials are currently in prison, serving out sentences on politically-motivated charges. They are Ali al Ekri, Ghassan Dhaif, Saeed al Samahiji, Ibrahim al Damstani, Hassan Matooq, Ahmed al Mushatat and Halema Al Sabbagh.  Surgeon Ali al Ekri, like several of the medics, studied in Ireland, where he was a student of Professor Damian McCormack. “I remember him as a big, gentle man,” said McCormack. “A hard worker, a mature and spiritual man. To my mind he’s a modern hero.”

So were the acquitted medics allowed to put the ordeal behind them? Did they return to work and a normal life? Not quite.

Dr. Nada Dhaif was originally sentenced to 15 years by the military court after being tortured into making a false confession. Although declared innocent of all charges, she still faces harassment. “My children were followed; their photos were posted on Twitter. I’ve been put on a travel blacklist and prevented from entering some GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) countries – when I tried to go to Kuwait in November I was interrogated and refused entry. A pro-government newspaper showed my picture with other activists and with a red ring around our faces, a sign that we would be targeted.”

She says she is constantly attacked on social media: “Myself and other medics – including those acquitted, are constantly attacked on Twitter. I’m called an Iranian dog, and threats are made that I’m going to be rearrested and my citizenship stripped.”

The regime has done little to combat inflammatory attacks in the media against the medics and others, while it jailed four men for criticizing the king on Twitter.

Another medic, Dr. Fatima Haji, 34, was imprisoned, sexually harassed, tortured, tried, convicted and then fully acquitted alongside Dhaif. But Haji and other acquitted medics were called back for questioning last month by the civil service authorities who, she says, interrogated her about the same fabricated allegations of which she’d already been cleared. She has not been allowed work for nearly two years, and says that she and some other acquitted medics aren’t even allowed on the premises of the hospital where they used to work; their names are on a list at checkpoints into the hospital and they are refused admission.

Some who have been allowed to return to work at the hospital say the targeting continues there: they are denied promotions and relieved of managerial duties.

Rula al Saffar, head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, remains characteristically defiant. She was also imprisoned, tortured, convicted and acquitted with Dhaif and Haji. She spent 18 years studying and working in the United States, and continues to speak out against the medics’ harassment. Last month she came to Washington, D.C. and briefed Members of Congress and senior administration officials about the continued targeting. “We won’t be silent,” she said. “We’ll keep telling the world about what happened to the medics in Bahrain, what happened to us in prison, what continues to happen to us as we are targeted for doing our jobs, and for speaking out.”

Some of the medics who were tortured into making confessions are now testifying against their accused torturers. Earlier this week a court case opened about torture allegations against police officers Mubarak bin Howayyel and Noura Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family.

Any convictions in these trials may come too late for those medics already serving their sentences, and few hold out hope that the justice system will ever deliver accountability against senior officials who enabled torture.

I attended hearings during both the misdemeanor and felony trials, and I share their doubts that these judicial proceedings will meet internationally-recognized standards.

Bahrain will never shake its reputation as being the country that tortures its doctors until there is a full and proper investigation into all politically motivated convictions in Bahrain, and accountability for those who perpetrated torture and other human rights abuses.