Bahrain Court Hands Down Harsh Sentences to Doctors and Protesters
By J. David Goodman
The New York Times
September 29, 2011
A court in Bahrain sentenced a protester to death on Thursday for killing a police officer in March, and it issued harsh prison terms to medical workers who treated protesters wounded during the months of unrest there this spring, according to the official Bahrain News Agency. The punishments drew strong criticism from rights groups.
The agency reported that eight people it identified as doctors who worked at a central hospital in the capital, Manama, received 15-year sentences. Other medical personnel at the hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain’s largest public hospital, were given terms of between 5 and 15 years.
The sentences were the latest sign that the country’s Sunni monarchy would continue to deal severely with those involved in widespread protests this year, mostly held by members of its repressed Shiite majority. Much of that effort has been focused on the doctors and nurses who treated demonstrators.
At the height of the protests, security forces commandeered the Salmaniya hospital and arrested dozens of doctors and nurses. Rights activists have since accused the government of having made systematic efforts to deny medical services to wounded protesters. The international relief organization Doctors Without Borders stopped working in Bahrain last month after its offices were raided.
Reacting to the verdicts and punishments announced Thursday, Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass., called on the government of Bahrain to set them aside. “These are medical professionals who were treating patients during a period of civil unrest, as their ethical duty requires them to do,” the group’s chief policy officer, Hans Hogrefe, said in a statement on the group’s Web site. “To imprison them as part of a political struggle is unconscionable.”
The Bahrain News Agency, in describing the sentences handed down by a security court on Thursday, said the medical workers had taken over the hospital and used it as a base for antigovernment activity. They were convicted of possessing fuel bombs and light weapons, confiscating medical equipment, and “fabricating stories and lies.”
The medical professionals have said it was their duty to treat anyone who arrived at the hospital and have rejected accusations that treating protesters was akin to supporting their cause.
In the case of the officer’s death, the court said the convicted man, identified as Ali Yusuf Abdulwahab al-Taweel, had run down the officer with his car during antigovernment protests in Sitra, an oil hub just south of the capital, and was guilty of an act of terror. Another man, driving a second car, was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement.
Sitra, known for its activist Shiite population, was a stronghold of antigovernment activists at the height of the demonstrations.
The government of Bahrain, with help from Saudi Arabia, violently quashed the country’s peaceful protest movement in March. Despite the crackdown, demonstrations still occur regularly, especially in places like Sitra, where youths battle security forces after sundown. Graffiti clutters almost every wall there. “We will only kneel before God,” one slogan reads.
“The government has turned to using the law for repression,” said Mohammed al-Maskati, the head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.
On Wednesday, the security court upheld life sentences for eight prominent political leaders, The Associated Press reported. Earlier in the week, the court sentenced 32 people, including at least two members of the Bahrain national handball team, to 15 years in prison for protesting illegally.
“They are sending a very negative message to the international community that Bahrain is not moving in the right direction in terms of respecting human rights,” Mr. Maskati said.
Human rights groups say that since the unrest began in the Persian Gulf kingdom of only about 525,000 citizens, 34 people have been killed, more than 1,400 have been arrested and as many as 3,600 people have been fired from their jobs. Four people also died in custody after torture, the rights groups say.
Anthony Shadid contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.