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March 17, 2014

Stories from Bahrain's Crackdown: Dr. Ali Al Ekri

Widespread public protests calling for democratic reform in Bahrain began in February 2011. By mid-March 2011, the Bahrain government had begun a violent crackdown on the protestors and those it imagined had been its leaders. Journalists, human rights activists and medics were arrested in the following weeks.  Many still remain in jail today, convicted on the basis of confessions forced under torture.

On March 17, 2011, pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ali Al Ekri was arrested at the Salmaniya Medical Complex in Bahrain. He was the first of dozens of medics to be taken by security forces for treating injured protestors, then tortured and subjected to a sham trial.

In the days prior to Al Ekri’s arrest, soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had entered Bahrain to help violently put down the pro-democracy protests that had attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. Al Ekri and other medics had treated injured protestors, and some had told the international media the extent and nature of the injuries, making themselves targets.

Al Ekri told Human Rights First that he was in the operating theatre treating a teenage boy that Thursday afternoon when security forces came to arrest him.

Once in custody, Al Akri was tortured and forced to confess to crimes he hadn't committed. In September 2011 he was sentenced by a military court to 15 years in jail on charges that included the possession and concealment of weapons. His sentence was later reduced on appeal to five years.

News of Al Akri’s arrest and treatment in custody quickly provoked an international outcry. In Ireland at the Royal College of Surgeons, Al Ekri had studied under Professor Damian McCormack, who described Al Ekri as, “a big, gentle man. A hard worker, a mature and spiritual man. To my mind he’s a modern hero.”

But to the Bahraini authorities he represented a threat. He was charged and tried along with 19 other medics who had helped treat those injured by the regime. Although the U.S. State Department sent officials to observe his trial, and included his case in the 2013 Country Report on Bahrain’s human rights record, its officials never spoke out publicly against the unfairness of the court proceedings they witnessed. Human Rights First attended an appeal hearing of Al Ekri and his codefendants in March 2012 when the judge refused to allow evidence about their torture in custody.

Most of those tried with Al Ekri were either acquitted on appeal or have served their sentences, but the 47 year-old Al Ekri remains in prison along with fellow medic Ibrahim Demastani.

“I don’t regret doing my duty,” Al Ekri said after his appeal had been rejected. “I don’t regret speaking about the violation of medical neutrality that I witnessed.”

No senior government official has been brought to account for the torture of Al Ekri, or the other medics. The impunity, along with Al Ekri’s continued imprisonment, is a constant reminder of the monarchy’s crackdown, which shows little signs of ending.