6/14/2012

Nine Doctors Convicted in Bahrain Trial

The New York Times
By



Fatima Haji, right, embraced Zahra al-Samar, the wife of Dr. Ghassan Dhaif, after hearing the verdicts announced by a Bahraini court in Manama on Thursday. Dr. Dhaif was sentenced to one year in prison on charges including taking hostages and participating in illegal gatherings.





CAIRO — A court in Bahrain on Thursday convicted nine doctors of crimes related to the popular uprising last year, in a case that drew international condemnation and was seen as a crucial test of the government’s commitment to political reform.
The nine doctors, who did not appear in court when the verdicts were announced, were sentenced to between one month to five years in prison. The government said five of the doctors had already served their sentences during previous detentions and would not have to return to prison. Nine other doctors were acquitted.
Dr. Ghassan Dhaif, who was sentenced to one year on charges including taking hostages and participating in illegal gatherings, said the verdicts were "a joke."
"It’s a cocktail of baseless sentences," Dr. Dhaif said in a telephone interview after the verdict. "They’ve reduced the sentences based on international pressure. We were arrested arbitrarily, and we were tortured. It’s all politicized, and based on revenge." His wife, Dr. Zahra al-Samar, was acquitted.
The doctors, all Shiites, were among thousands of people arrested during a government crackdown last year, after protesters demanding greater political freedoms occupied a central roundabout in the Bahraini capital of Manama.
The country’s largest public hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, became a focal point of the conflict, and a symbol of the state’s repression and the growing sectarian divide between the Sunni ruling monarchy and Bahrain’s Shiite majority, which has long complained of a system of withering official discrimination.
Rights activists said the government's prosecution of medical professionals in Bahrain also reflected what they called an insidious tactic in its campaign against political dissent. Many doctors said they were arrested and harassed simply for trying to treat people wounded in antigovernment protests, regardless of their political leanings.
In a statement, the government sought to frame Thursday’s decision, which reduced longer sentences handed down previously by a military court, and dismissed charges including weapons possession, as a concession. It noted that the four doctors who will likely serve time in prison "still have their right of appeal" and that "legal recourses remain."
The statement, from the International Affairs Authority, said the sentences "were primarily for their involvement in politicizing their profession, breaching medical ethics" and "their call and involvement in the overthrow of the monarchy." The statement made no mention of the length of the sentences.
Physicians for Human Rights, which has followed the case closely, denounced the verdict, noting that 18 of the 20 doctors charged in the case said they were tortured after their arrests. The group called on the United States, a close ally of Bahrain, to demand "measurable improvements in the human rights situation, including holding anyone who engaged in acts of torture or ill treatment accountable."