© 2011 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut)--A Bahrain court of appeal on June 14, 2012, upheld the convictions of nine doctors and medical personnel for transparently political offenses such as “inciting and participating in an illegal gathering." The charges, which stem from protests in 2011, violate basic rights such as free assembly.

The court reduced the sentences earlier imposed by a military court, but nevertheless sentenced several doctors to multi-year prison terms. The court overturned the earlier military court convictions against nine others. Defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they will appeal the rulings upholding the convictions.

“Bahrain’s justice system badly missed an opportunity to correct the military court’s gross violations of free expression and peaceful assembly,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These convictions and sentences have no more justification than the military court rulings did.”

Following the court of appeal’s verdict, the senior prosecutor, Abdul-Rahman al-Sayed, told the state-run Bahrain News Agency that the Public Prosecution Office will contact the Health Ministry and Bahrain Medical Society (BMS) for possible disciplinary actions against the medics.

The BMS is not an independent body, Human Rights Watch said. On April 6, 2011, the Social Development Ministry suspended the society’s board of directors and appointed an interim manager and board to run after the organization issued statements condemning “unjustified use of force by riot police against peaceful protesters.”

After the appointment of the new board and director, the organization issued a statement expressing “full allegiance to the nation and (its) leadership” and “deploring the recent incidents and the violations made by BMS’ previous board of directors.”

The medics, whose cases were under appeal on June 14, were among 20 doctors and medics convicted by a special military court on September 29, 2011, on charges including forcibly taking over the Salmaniya Medical Complex, refusing treatment to patients based on sectarian affiliation, “instigating hatred against the ruling system,” “incitement to overthrow the regime,” and “spreading false news.” The sentences ranged from five to fifteen years in prison.

Most of the medics told Human Rights Watch that authorities held them for weeks, subjected them to torture, did not allow them to meet with their lawyers and families, and forced them to sign coerced confessions.

Based on a transcript of the verdict reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the court of appeals in its June 14 ruling reduced the sentences of Dr. Ali al-Ekri, from fifteen years to five years; Ibrahim al-Dimistani, from fifteen years to three years; Ghassan Dhaif, from fifteen years to one year; and Saeed al-Samahiji, from ten years to one year. Two of the defendants had not appealed their verdicts, according to defense lawyers.

“It’s little comfort, and no justice whatsoever, that the court reduced sentences against people who never should have been detained or charged in the first place,” Stork said. “What we have here is a clear signal that Bahrain’s rulers have no intention of tolerating the peaceful activities of those who would like to reform their authoritarian system.”

After four weeks of street protests, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency in mid-March 2011, giving vast power to security forces who rounded up thousands of protesters and bystanders. Hundreds of them were prosecuted before special military courts, called Courts of National Safety, that were established to try protesters and others perceived as supporting the street protests over the previous four weeks.

Beginning in early April 2011, these special military courts convicted hundreds of people, in most cases on charges that appeared to violate basic rights such as freedom of expression or assembly, for criticizing the king and prime minister, attending “illegal gatherings,” and “inciting hatred against the regime.” The state of emergency, and the Courts of National Safety, officially ended on June 1, 2011, but the convictions stood.