UN condemns Bahrain verdicts
The United Nations condemned today prison sentences of up to 15 years handed down by a Bahrain military court this week to 20 medics who treated protesters during pro-democracy unrest in the Gulf Arab state.
The doctors and nurses, who had been released in June and September on bail after international pressure over the case, said they were waiting for a police order to head back to jail after they were sentenced yesterday.
Six of the medics sentenced were associated with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).
They were sentenced to between 5 and 15 years, the state news agency said, in what critics claimed was reprisal for treating injured protesters during demonstrations in the kingdom earlier this year.
Ten of the medics were given 15-year terms, two were sentenced to 10 years in prison and the rest to five. The whereabouts of two of the 20 are unknown.
RCSI-trained doctors Dr Ali al- Ekri, Dr Bassam Dhaif, and Dr Ghassan Dhaif received 15-year sentences. Dr Zahra al-Sammak, who also trained in Dublin, Dr Fatima Haji, who was a lecturer at the RCSI campus in Bahrain, and Rola al-Saffar, president of the Bahrain nursing society, received five-year sentences for allegedly being involved in the riots.
The extension of Bahrain's measures to crush the protests to military trials of doctors has attracted heavy international criticism.
"For such harsh sentences to be handed down to civilians in a military court with serious due process irregularities raises severe concerns," a spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told reporters in Geneva today.
Defendants had limited access to lawyers and most lawyers did not have enough time to prepare properly, he said: "We've even heard reports of detainees calling their families the day before their hearing asking them to appoint a lawyer".
He noted that the military court has not allowed recordings of the trial proceedings to be made.
The Shia doctors were among dozens of medical staff arrested during protests led by the island's Shia majority demanding an end to sectarian discrimination and a greater say in government, dominated by the Sunni Al Khalifa family.
They were found guilty on a range of charges including occupying a hospital, stockpiling weapons, spreading lies and false news, inciting hatred of Bahrain's rulers and calling for their overthrow, and withholding treatment of Sunnis.
The medics can appeal through the military court, and then go to the civilian Court of Cassation. King Hamad bin Isa also has the power to issue an amnesty.
"None of us have been arrested yet. We are all enjoying moments with our families, whether they are last moments or we have more time," said senior physician Ali Al-Ekri, who was released with 12 others earlier this month.
None of the medics were present during the sentencing yesterday. Defence lawyer Mohsen al-Alawi said in normal circumstances the authorities could take several weeks before enforcing such sentences.
The medics say they were tortured during detention. Bahrain has set up a commission of international legal experts to investigate claims of abuse during over two months of martial law which is due to present its findings next month.
The World Medical Association said today the sentences were "totally unacceptable". "It is a sad day for medicine when physicians are incarcerated for treating patients," the organisation's chief Wonchat Subhachaturas said in a statement.
"The disproportionate nature of the sentences handed down in this case after the court's seven minute hearing is a disgrace and must be overturned."
A US state department spokesman said yesterday the convictions were "deeply disturbing" and Britain's foreign secretary William Hague called them "worrying developments".
Bahrain faces almost daily protests by Shias, angry over a crackdown in which thousands lost jobs and government reform plans that fall short of giving the Gulf state's elected parliament full legislative powers.
Hundreds of women gathered in the Shia village of Muqasha today to condemn the verdicts and the leading Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Issa Qassem warned the authorities in a ermon of going too far.
"People have given a lot for the sake of reform, which would be a clear and satisfactory solution. They didn't do that for the sake of time-wasting dialogues or improving livelihood and releasing prisoners, though that's important," he said. "They did it to be free in their own country and take part in designing its future."
This week a military appeals court upheld life sentences for eight of 21 opposition leaders, rights activists and online activists who are accused of leading the uprising.
The conflict has dragged in regional powers.
Bahrain accused the opposition of pursuing a sectarian agenda backed by non-Arab Shia giant Iran. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Manama, says the government should talk to Wefaq, the largest opposition party.
Lebanese Shia group Hezbullah, an ally of Tehran, also condemned the verdicts.
"Hezbullah renews its condemnation of the crimes carried out by Bahraini authorities," it said in a statement. "It reaffirms its stand by the side of the people of Bahrain and its support for their legitimate demands which put them at the forefront of the Arab peoples struggling for their freedom."