The Middle East Channel

Witnessing Bahrain's sham trials

On March 15, I sat through a ten-hour civilian court session with the Bahraini medics whose verdicts were announced yesterday. The session was part of their prolonged appeal of military court convictions handed out in September -- convictions based on tortured confessions. Although the charges against each of the 20 medics include offenses such as "occupying the hospital" and "smuggling weapons," it's no secret that these accusations and the trails themselves are politically motivated, meant as punitive measures for the medics' decision to treat injured protestors in February and March of 2011, when a wave of pro-democracy protests broke out in Bahrain. The medics were also targeted because they told the international media the truth about the extent of the violence perpetrated by the Bahraini security forces against civilians.

During coffee breaks at the March hearing, I chatted with the medics and others about likely outcomes. Around that time, a Bahrain government official had indicated that charges against 15 of the 20 medics would be dropped and prosecutions would only continue against the remaining five. When this announcement was raised by a defense lawyer, the judge dismissed it as media speculation. Yesterday, we found out that he was right.

Of the 20 medics whose appellate verdicts were announced Thursday, nine were acquitted and two had their original 15 year sentences upheld. The remaining nine were handed sentences ranging from a month to five years. Among those sentenced to jail are doctors Ali Ali Ekri and Ghassan Dhaif, whom I knew from my time in the courtroom. They were prime targets of the prosecution because they were the two doctors most often quoted by international media. Dhaif was sentenced to one year in prison and Ali Al Ekri to five.

Those who were acquitted aren't rejoicing. Dr. Fatima Haji was originally given a five-year sentence by the military court after she was tortured into confessing to crimes she did not commit. She was declared innocent yesterday, but told me "I am shocked and angry. We were all in the same emergency room in the hospital treating patients. We are all innocent. If they convicted one of us, it means they should convict all of us. They have targeted us 20 medics for occupying the hospital and that's now shown to be false."

Another of the accused, Rula Al Saffar, head of the Bahrain Nurses Association, told me, "I'm so sad. I can't celebrate. It hurts too badly." Al Saffar was originally sentenced to 15 years by the military court. She also gave a false confession after she was tortured by authorities. Rula, who lived and worked in the United States for 18 years, was also declared innocent of all charges yesterday.

Dr. Nada Dhaif was also declared innocent yesterday in a decision that reversed the 15 year prison sentence she was given by the military court last September. "It feels like everything is broken --I can't feel happiness, it's a broken happiness, even though I've finally been declared innocent," she said. "How can they send Ghassan [Dhaif] and Ali [Al Ekri] and the others to prison -- they shouldn't be going through this. I feel sick in my throat."

It's hard to see where yesterday's developments leave Bahrain's already battered international reputation. Its much-vaunted promises of reform and reconciliation are exposed by the verdicts; by the increased intensity in which the country targets its local human rights defenders; and by its continual denial of access to international media and human rights observers. Just this week, Human Rights First was told our planned visit next week could not proceed. We were also denied entry in January, though allowed in for five days in March.

Undoubtedly, the attention on the medics' case is a political relations disaster for the regime. The international media has featured their stories more than any of the other 502 Bahrainis convicted by the military court, most likely because the cases raise wider questions about the respect for medical neutrality during times of conflict or upheaval.

"This is a turning point for the international community -- if they keep quiet about the targeting of medics here it will happen in other countries in the future. It should be stopped here," observed Dr. Haji.

She's right. Regimes around the world are watching, waiting to see what the United States and other human rights leaders will do in the wake of yesterday's ruling. We can only hope that these nations make clear that yesterday's verdicts are out of step with Bahrain's so-called commitment to human rights reforms and that any nation taking its cues from the Kingdom will not benefit by doing so.

Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First's Human Rights Defenders Program.

John Moore/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Court dissolves Egypt's Parliament

A panel of judges, which had been appointed by Hosni Mubarak to Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, has dissolved Parliament and permitted Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, to run for president. The court's rulings intensify a power struggle between vestiges of the elite class and Islamists who denounced the decisions as a coup. They also give more legislative power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who will now oversee the writing of a new constitution.  The court's move comes two days before the second round of Presidential elections, in which Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, is slated to face Shafik. The Islamist-dominated Parliament has "refused to dissolve the legislature and vowed to win the Presidency." In its decision, the court claimed that one third of Parliament had been elected illegally. If the court's ruling is upheld, the winner of the presidential race will be in power without a sitting Parliament or a permanent constitution. The new president would also able to substantially influence elections and could decide to dissolve the constitutional assembly. In an online statement, the Brotherhood said the court's rulings "confirms that the former regime hasn't surrendered yet and won't give up easily" and Egypt might see "very difficult days that might be more dangerous than the last days of Mubarak's rule." The court's decision is seen by many leftists and Islamists as exemplifying the deep entrenchment of Mubarak's power network.  

Syria

As the Syrian uprising enters its 16th month, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights found nine bodies in Hamouria in Damascus province, some of which had been mutilated. Heavy shelling was reported in Homs, Andan, and Aleppo, according to the opposition group Local Coordination Committees of Syria. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the Syrian government of perpetrating sexual violence against detainees as a means of torture, in addition to sexually abusing women and girls during home raids and residential sweeps. Activists have called for protests throughout the nation as Major General Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observers in Syria, has warned that escalating violence, which he attributes to both sides of the conflict, hinders the monitoring mission. Mood added that there is a "lack of willingness" from both sides to see a peaceful transition. The Syrian government warned of potential suicide bombs at mosques in Damascus after the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported the arrest of Mohammad Houssam al-Sadaki who reportedly confessed a plan to  blow himself up inside a mosque in central Damascus. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department backtracked from comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she claimed Russia was providing Syria with attack helicopters. The state department admitted that the helicopters were in fact already owned by Damascus.

Headlines

Arguments & Analysis

The P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship' (International Crisis Group)

"The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West have had their share of dashed expectations, but even by this peculiar standard, the recent diplomatic roller coaster stands out. Brimming with hope in Istanbul, negotiators crashed to earth in Baghdad, a few weeks later. That was not unexpected, given inflated hopes, mismatched expectations and - most hurtful - conviction on both sides that they had the upper hand. But if negotiations collapse now, it is hard to know what comes next. Washington and Brussels seem to count on sanctions taking their toll and forcing Iran to compromise. Tehran appears to bank on a re-elected President Obama displaying more flexibility and an economically incapacitated Europe baulking at sanctions that could boomerang. Neither is likely; instead, with prospects for a deal fading, Israeli pressure for a military option may intensify. Rather than more brinkmanship, Iran and the P5+1 (UN Security Council permanent members and Germany) should agree on intensive, continuous, technical-level negotiations to achieve a limited agreement on Iran's 20 per cent enrichment."

Libya's missteps threaten descent into federalism' (Jason Pack and Ronald Bruce St John, Al Jazeera English)

"But when Libyans do finally go to the polls, they should not conflate their frustration with the National Transitional Council or the Electoral Commission with a perceived need to bifurcate their country into semi-autonomous provinces, or even worse, boycott the electoral process - as some supporters of regional autonomy have threatened to do. Dangerously, the logical leap between upset with the current central government and calls for weakening the institutions of central governance is becoming one of the defining features in Libya's post-Gaddafi political discourse. In today's Libya, local is king. In late February, Misrata, the country's third-largest city, held elections for its city council. This council frequently contests the authority of the NTC inside Misrata. In early March, notables in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and capital of the eastern region of Cyrenaica, announced plans to establish an autonomous Cyrenaican government. In mid-May, Benghazi held its own local elections and some strongly anti-NTC candidates did very well."

Bahrain Compounds the Injustice' (The New York Times)

"Bahrain had a chance to correct a grave injustice and set the country on a better path by dismissing specious cases against 20 Shiite doctors convicted last year after they treated protesters injured during the popular uprising against the Sunni-led monarchy. Instead, the High Criminal Court of Appeal on Thursday upheld the convictions of nine of them and imposed sentences of up to five years in jail. And 15-year sentences against two other doctors, who have fled the country, were upheld... The administration must do a lot more to persuade Bahrain of the need for reforms that give Shiites full political rights and all citizens a voice in their country's future. That is the only way for Bahrain to find real security and lasting stability. That is the only way for the United States to ensure its welcome."

--By Jennifer Parker 

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