(Beirut) –Bahrain’s ruler should order the release of doctors and medical personnel jailed on October 2, 2012 following an appeals court failure to reverse their 2011 convictions by a special military court, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to expunge the convictions and criminal records of nine medical personnel whose sentences were upheld by the appeals court because the convictions were based in part on confessions obtained by torture and in proceedings that were fundamentally unfair.
Authorities took six of the nine into custody in early morning raids on their homes on October 2. The other three had finished serving their prison terms. The sentences stem from the doctors’ support of pro-democracy street protests and medical care provided to demonstrators in early 2011.
“We are reluctant to call on the king to reverse a judicial decision, but time and again we have seen Bahraini courts uphold politically motivated charges against those who peacefully dissent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The courts have failed to uphold Bahrain’s obligation to protect free expression and peaceful assembly.”
The Court of Cassation, Bahrain’s highest appeals court, on October 1 affirmed convictions against the nine on charges related to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including “incitement of hatred against the regime” and “participation in illegal gatherings.” There are no further avenues for appeal.
The Court of Cassation upheld a five-year sentence for Dr. Ali al-Ekri and three years for Ibrahim al-Dimistani, a paramedic, on charges including “attempting to overthrow the government.” The court upheld one-year sentences for Dr. Ghassan Dhaif, an oral surgeon, and Dr. Saeed al-Samahiji, an ophthalmologist, for “forcibly detaining a policeman in the hospital” and “incitement of sectarian hatred.” It also upheld a two-month sentence for Dheiya Jaffar, a nurse, and six months for Dr. Mahmoud Asghar for “participation in illegal gatherings.” Dr. Bassim Dhaif, Dr. Nader Diwani, and Dr. Abdulkhaleq Al Oraibi had received month-long sentences for “participation in illegal gatherings.” They have not been re-arrested on the basis that they already served their sentences during their detention, between April and September 2011.
The original convictions were based on testimony and evidence presented by military prosecutors in 2011 in Courts of National Safety, special military courts set up to try those arrested in connection with the protests. Many of the medical personnel, including those whose sentences were upheld on October 1, told Human Rights Watch that authorities subjected them to torture, did not allow them to meet with their lawyers and families for weeks, and forced them to sign coerced confessions.
In its report issued in late November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry established by King Hamad to investigate human rights abuses, confirmed that medical personnel were tortured in custody. In mid-September 2012 Bahrain’s Public Prosecution Office announced it had referred two security officers implicated in the torture of medical personnel in detention to the High Criminal Court. At the military court trials, however, judges routinely rejected complaints of torture made by defendants, including several medical personnel, without appearing to investigate whether evidence had been obtained by torture. The military court trials also failed to meet other crucial international fair trial standards, including access to counsel and the right to call and examine witnesses.
On June 14, an appellate court had reduced the sentences imposed by the military court on the nine but upheld the charges. It quashed convictions in a separate case against nine others convicted on misdemeanor offenses and upheld sentences of 15 years against two medics tried in absentia.
Many doctors and other medical personnel against whom charges were dropped have said that the authorities continued to harass them. At a news conference at the Bahrain Human Rights Society on October 2, doctors and others who were acquitted said they had received notices from the Health Ministry summoning them for further questioning by a special committee for their role in the 2011 protests.
The Bahrain Medical Society, a professional association whose board was replaced by the Health Ministry in April 2011 for “involvement in politics,” has pressed the ministry to continue investigating acquitted medical personnel on grounds of “concealing weapons at the hospital” and “refusing to treat patients,” even though those claims already were dismissed in court. On October 6, Al Wasat, Bahrain’s one independent daily, reported that a committee had been formed, pursuant to a Ministry of Health decree, to investigate the acquitted medics for attending unauthorized gatherings.
“The Bahrain government repeatedly claims to have carried out reforms while it violates the most basic human rights of its citizens,” Stork said. “This Cassation Court ruling shows that little has changed when it comes to administering justice.”
Correction: An October 8, 2012 news release on the conviction of medical personnel in Bahrain incorrectly stated that on June 14, an appellate court had upheld the sentences of nine medics. In fact, the court upheld the charges but reduced the sentences against the medics.
The presser also incorrectly stated that earlier in the year, a court had quashed the sentences of nine others convicted of misdemeanor offenses, while upholding the 15-year sentences of two medics. Rather, all 11 were among the 20 medics who faced felony charges. Additionally, this ruling was also handed down on June 14, not earlier in the year.