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Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
  • 48 doctors and nurses are tried by court martial in Bahrain for assisting protesters wounded in the repression of the March demonstrations
  • Among the charges they face, conspiracy to overthrow the Al Khalifa dictatorship and illegal possession of weapons
  • There is fear over their future being linked to the success of the national dialogue with the opposition that the regime wants to launch in July
Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

When Bahraini doctor Farida Dallal gathered enough courage to appear on Al Jazeera, she did so with a black eye and a shaky voice, but determined. “They beat me with a hose, a big hose, in my arms and legs. They kicked me in the back (…) They humiliated us verbally with inappropriate expressions like ‘dirty Shiite’ and ‘whore’, they said to us that we are not worth a thing, that we cannot think, that we are not loyal, that we don’t deserve our uniform”.

The uniform the torturers said she didn’t deserve is simply a white robe. Farida is one of the many healthcare professionals arrested and tortured by the Bahraini dictatorship, that doesn’t distinguish between professionals when it comes to arresting and incriminating its population for the social protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to ask for democracy. About a thousand of them are still in prison awaiting a trial, like the 47 doctors and nurses – all of them Shiites, the religious majority that the Sunni dictatorship accuses of wanting to stage a coup d’état- that last Monday went through the first day of their trial after weeks of arrest.

(AP Photo)

All of them denounced having been tortured, as their relatives told, a practice that on the other hand is usual in the Gulf kingdom. Only a few of them were allowed to see their lawyers before the process started.

On Wednesday, June 29th, 20 of them were set free in what is seen as a goodwill gesture to facilitate the participation of the opposition in the national dialogue session that the monarchy has called for July 2nd. It is the second partial release of the group of health workers, of which only 14 remain in prison. However, the charges have not been dismissed and all 48 of them still have to face a military trial. “I think that it is a political move, nothing more than that”, regrets a lawyer in declarations to Reuters agency. “We have asked the court for their release in previous hearings. Anyway, this is good news for them”.

The lack of judicial rights is common in Bahrain, but the trial against the doctors has caused the outrage of the international NGO’s, who see how the kingdom of Bahrain, headquarters of the United State’s Fifth Fleet and who maintains privileged relations with the West and its main regional partners, can impose a court martial on physicians who merely obeyed their Hippocratic Oath.

The charges that are attributed to them range from “incitement to overthrow the regime” to “illegal possession of weapons”, adding “occupation of the hospital” and “taking medical equipment” in reference to the alleged theft of blood to exaggerate in front of the cameras the wounds of the protesters beaten by the security forces during the violent clearing of Pearl Square. For NGO’s like the Bahraini Center for Human Rights, the professionals are tried just for carrying out their duty, as John Lubbock, in charge of the organizations’ legal department, explains. “The regime is scared of these health workers because they reflect the non-sectarian nature of the protests. Their Hippocratic Oath means that they have to treat patients whichever their religious or political thoughts. They are a symbol of the unity of the majority against the Government’s and their accomplices’ oppression, and that’s why they are dangerous. As long as the Al Khalifas can keep the people divided, they will stay in power, so they react particularly harshly against the demonstrators who protest under the slogan no Sunnis, no Shiites, just Bahrainis.

Sanitary personnel attend a patient in a Bahraini hospital. (AP)

On that fateful repression of the first protests, in mid-May, the information that reached the outside came straight from the hospitals: the international channels got in contact with the physicians, who narrated live the brutality of the attack while attending the wounded. They didn’t spare labels, probably because of the shock of having to see hundreds of people at the same time, many of them with shots fired by the forces assigned to protect them. It would not be long before they paid the price of speaking up in a dictatorship business friendly for the West but as ruthless as any other: in the following days of repression, the hospitals were surrounded by the Security Forces and, at a given time, occupied by the military, who arrested wounded people and even turned areas of the health centers into improvised detention rooms. Ambulances were halted and the workers forced to stay in situ instead of going to the repression area where the wounded lay. Afterwards, with the martial law and the occupation by Gulf troops, doctors started to disappear, and not only in big hospitals like Salmanya, the main medical center in Manama. A Lebanese-American nurse who works in a Bahraini cosmetic surgery clinic Human Journalism got in contact with admitted that in her healthcare center “two doctors have disappeared. They are both Shiite and no one has heard back from them”.

Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

Once the state of emergency that defused the protests came into effect, at least nine healthcare centers were combed by the officers searching for suspicious physicians. Dozens were arrested last April, among them, the president of the Bahraini Medical Society, Ahmed Jamal, and the president of the Nursing Society, Rula al Safar. And many of them reported tortures in declarations to NGO’s and foreign media. Always anonymously, out of fear of retaliation, like this doctor’s testimony obtained by The Independent. “The real torture started when they blindfolded me. They made me run around the interrogation room. I ran and I banged into a wall so hard that I got a huge bump on my head. The interrogators made me put my shoes over my head. They said that I deserved it because I am a “dirty Shiite” who works against our king and our crown prince”. “They took away my robe because they said I didn’t deserve it and that I had betrayed my career. They took photos of me while I was forced to dance and sing a song that said we all love prince Khalifa bin Salman. They hit me so hard they made me scream with pain, and then they yelled we don’t want to hear you, you scream like a whore. Do you think you are with your husband in your bedroom? Do you miss him?”

In other declarations obtained by the British newspaper, the daughter of one of the arrested doctors assures that they “have been forced to confess that they only gave treatment to the Shiites and not to the Sunnis, that they stole blood from the hospital to splatter on the protesters  and that they encouraged others to protest against the regime”. It is a common denunciation that came up again in the first day of the trial, which took place on Monday in court martial. “We have been tortured into signing statements with false accusations”, they told their relatives, according to the local NGO’s who are following the trial. “I’m warning you that you have to say what we want you to, or we will beat you like a mule until you do”, were the words an interrogator dedicated to a nurse.

Injured men in a recent protest in Bahrain. (AP)

For John Lubbock, the main reason that explains the arrest of doctors and nurses is that they are the most valuable “witnesses of the crimes committed against the protesters. They have seen the dead and the injured, they have experience and skills to spread the information about what they have seen, and if an international Human Rights delegation comes to Bahrain, they will want to talk to the doctors. If the regime manages to silence them, or to discredit them with show trials, there will be no more witnesses”.

Organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have denounced these arrests as an inexcusable violation of international law. “The assault on healthcare workers and their patients is an extreme violation of the principle of medical neutrality  and means a huge breach in international law”, stated the first organization in a harsh report against the Bahraini authorities. Amnesty has gathered testimonies among the relatives of those arrested according to which “members of the Bahrain Criminal Investigation Directorate force the arrested to stay standing up for long periods of time, they forbid them from sleeping, they hit them with hoses and wooden sticks with nails, and they make them sign declarations while blindfolded”. To Joe Stork, regional Human Rights Watch manager, there is no doubt that the massive campaign against doctors and nurses –at least 150 have been suspended and subjected to investigations- are “targets of the regime’s revenge”.

(AP Photo)

One of the consequences of the suspension or arrest of the most prestigious Bahraini doctors and nurses is that those injured  -repression is still going on, especially now that the state of emergency has been lifted thus reviving the demonstrations- to not dare to go to the hospitals anymore. “Even those who have been shot and have bullets lodged in their bodies fear being arrested in the hospitals and tortured”, denounces Nabil Rajaab, in charge of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights.

In the case of the 47 doctors and nurses subjected to court martial, their trial will be taken up again on June 13th. Their lawyers estimate that they could be convicted to 10-20 years in prison, but they fear that it could all depend on the success of the national dialogue Hamad bin Issa al Khalifa’s regime wants to undertake in July. If the opposition is quick to make concessions, the physicians might be lucky; if it doesn’t, their future is much more unpredictable. An intolerable situation for seven international medical organizations who have sent a letter to king Khalifa demanding the liberation of the arrested and respect for the healthcare sector. “We cannot remain silent”, Stephen Soldz, president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, has stated. Other international institutions don’t think the same way, such as the International Automobile Federation (FIA), who decided to reprogram the Bahrain Grand Prix for October 30th after receiving a report about the “calm” Bahrain enjoys: only the objection of 11 of the 12 participant teams have gotten Bernie Ecclestone to change his opinion. To the FIA, the tortures in Bahrain are just minor sins. And they are not the only ones to think so.