The crackdown in Bahrain hasn’t received as much attention as those elsewhere in the Arab world. In part, that’s because what’s happening in Syria and Libya are more spectacular. In part that’s because Bahrain doesn’t have many enemies among western regimes. Still, the regime smashed down an iron fist, one that hit the Shia community particularly hard. Although the government has officially lifted marital law, it continues to stifle political expression.
The latest news out of the country concerns the trial of medical professionals for treason. Their crime? They provided medical treatment to those injured by government forces. At least the court is allowing possible evidence of torture into the trial.
Thirty-four medical staff attended court out of 47 – 23 doctors and 24 nurses – who were charged with anti-state activities last month. It was not immediately clear why some were missing.
The doctors and nurses face allegations ranging from possessing weapons to harming the public by spreading false news and seeking to overthrow the ruling system in the strategic Gulf kingdom, which is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet
But the trial was adjourned for a second time to 20 June after the chief judge at the special security tribunal accepted a request that the detainees should be medically examined to establish if they had been tortured. Lawyers for Bassim Dhaif, a consultant orthopedic surgeon, said he had been forced to stand for two weeks resulting in loss of sensation, swelling and discoloration of his feet and legs. Abdulla Al-Durazi, a trainee surgeon, had suffered a broken nose since the last court hearing and needed specialist medical care. Some had signed false confessions under threat and lawyers demanded they be re-investigated. When the accused attempted to describe the torture to the court the judge ordered them to be silent and had one doctor, Zahra Al-Sammak, a consultant anaesthetist, escorted from the court.
The detainees say their only “crime” was to treat injured protesters. Demonstrations led by Shia, who comprise 70 per cent of the population, started in February in protest at the discrimination they say they suffer at the hands of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers. But the protests were crushed by the state and a campaign of intimidation began against the doctors and nurses. Protesters wounded were afraid to seek treatment and ambulances were blocked from going out to retrieve the injured, they said.
On Sunday, the security court sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reciting poetry critical of Bahrain’s king.
Robert Fisk works up appropriate outrage:
These are the very same doctors and nurses I stood beside four months ago in the Sulaimaniya emergency room, some of them weeping as they tried to deal with gunshot wounds the like of which they had never seen before.
“How could they do this to these people?” one of them asked me. “We have never dealt with trauma wounds like these before.” Next to us lay a man with bullet wounds in the chest and thigh, coughing blood on to the floor.
The surgeons were frightened that they did not have the skills to save these victims of police violence. Now the police have accused the doctors and staff of killing the patients whom the police themselves shot.
How could these fine medical men and women have been trying to “topple” the monarchy?
The idea that these 48 defendants are guilty of such a vicious charge is not just preposterous. It is insane, a total perversion – no, the total opposite – of the truth. The police were firing at demonstrators from helicopters.
The idea that a woman and child died because they were rejected by doctors and refused medical treatment is a fantasy. The only problems medical staff encountered at the Sulaimaniya hospital – and again, I was a witness and, unlike the Bahraini security authorities, I do not tell lies – was from the cruel policemen who blocked patients from reaching the medical facility.
In truth, of course, the Khalifa family is not mad. Nor are the Sunni minority of Bahrain intrinsically bad or sectarian. The reality is clear for anyone to see in Bahrain. The Saudis are now running the country. They never received an invitation to send their own soldiers to support the Bahraini “security forces” from the Bahraini Crown Prince, who is a decent man.
The transformation of Bahrain into a Saudi protectorate has received too little attention. For the Saudis, Bahrain was a “line in the sand” for, as they see it, the Sunni-Shia struggle. Indeed, the US naval presence is only part of the reason Washington remains relatively quiet. With US-Saudi relations already strained over American support for the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington understands that pushing too hard on Bahrain could destroy the partnership entirely.