Vivienne Nathanson and Eleanor Chrispin: Bahrain on trial

Vivienne NathansonEllie Chrispin

One sad part of the so-called Arab Spring has been the detention and trial of a number of health workers in Bahrain. While 48 were arrested in March and April, 20 are accused of felonies, with their trial set to conclude on 29 September. What happens in the latter stages of the trial and the judgments handed down will signal to the watching world how the Kingdom of Bahrain has coped with the tumult, and the kind of country that we can expect to see emerge.

The trials themselves are being held before a mixed military and civil court, the National Safety Court of First Instance, because the defendants are being tried for crimes allegedly committed in a time of national emergency.

We have been writing to the Bahraini government and to His Majesty the King about the plight of our colleagues since civil unrest started in February this year. A recent letter to the Guardian prompted an invitation to meet a delegation at the Bahraini Embassy in London this week.

The press attachés to the London and Washington Embassies and the Bahraini president’s Head of Communications gave us a welcome opportunity to outline our concerns. It remains our view that the trial before a non-civil court is unacceptable, and we remain equally concerned that the defendants have apparently not had a full opportunity to address the court in their own defence, or to enter their own allegations of serious abuses whilst in custody. When attempts were made to enter such evidence on 7 September we understand that the judge frequently interrupted the defendants or even silenced them. As he then went on to announce that the trial verdict would be given at the next session of the court, requests from the defendants’ lawyers for them to be allowed time to give full statements have been effectively refused.

The BMA is far from the only group writing on this matter. An Amnesty International urgent action call has been issued and the World Medical Association, amongst others, has been seeking similar reassurances.

When we met with the Bahraini officials we assured them that we were not expressing concerns about Bahrain alone, but would do the same in these circumstances in any country, including our own. We reminded them that there is a long past history in many countries of targeting health professionals for treating enemies of the state, dissidents, or other combatants, despite it being an ethical requirement on health workers to treat those in need of care, regardless of their politics, ethnicity, political affiliation, or other non-medical factors.

The Embassy delegation assured us that none of the defendants was charged with treating the enemy but instead with various crimes, that each was properly legally represented and that the trial was fair. They emphasised the appointment of an “independent” commission to investigate what happened in February and March, and the strong will in the country to heal the rifts that had emerged.

We emphasised the absolute need to see that the trials are demonstrably fair, and for proper and truly independent monitoring. We sought assurances that the defendants would be allowed to make their full statements. We stressed that the trials should have followed the independent commission’s investigation, and that the publication of the commission’s report shortly after the trials are set to conclude can give us no reassurance that it will have an appropriate bearing on the proceedings.

It seems that the trial of the 20 individuals accused of the most serious offences is still set to conclude on 29 September. The final phases of this and other trials, the treatment of evidence from the defendants, and the verdicts themselves give Bahrain the opportunity to demonstrate that it has a serious commitment to international humanitarian law and to human rights for all its people, including those accused of crimes under national security laws. The world is watching.

Vivienne Nathanson, BMA director of professional activities. Eleanor Chrispin, BMA Ethics Department.

  • Robert Wintertton

    Unfortunately, the BMA is not willing to take account of the full details of these charges.

    Just as doctors should treat their patients regardless of background and without prejudice, so they must also ensure that they respect the laws of the country in which they pratice. Equally, they should not be involved in any “political activity” (i.e. the riots that were taking place in Bahrain) whatsoever during the times that they are on duty, and should not put their profession at risk of being marginalised by society.

    It is also important to note that the upheavals in Bahrain where different from those in other countries e.g. egypt, yemen for several reasons:

    1) the demonstrators showed clear disregard for the rule of law and there was significant violence and criminal activity by the rioters e.g. in torturing and running over a police officer whilst he was alive and footage is available via CCTV recordings
    2) the uprising was sponsored by iran rather than that which grew from internal discontent as happened in other countries
    3) there was no significant reasons for the riots in what is arguably the most democratic country in the region – one could compare these riots with those that broke out in tottenham

  • Abbas MAlik

    Abbas Malik
    I could not disagree more with Robert Wintertton.

    The Shia in BAhrain have been marginalised in that county for years in terms of jobs, education, military and in the government. To say that it is the most democratic region in the area is being totally deluded to say the least!!

    And Iran had nothing to do with this, this is the people's choice, just as in other middle east countries during Arab Spring, the people of Bahrain the 80% (shia) want a fairer and Just future for themselves and their children. Now why is the Bahrain government not listening and resorting to violence and inhumane treatment of its citizens including denying them access to healthcare?

    Congratulations to the BMA for standing up for Justice, while everyone else worries about their petrol dollars.

  • A. Hazem

    Bahraini doctors and health professionls needs support as they have not done anything wrong except treating their fello citizens when they needed, regardless of thier political allegiance an ethical duty of a doctor. It is clear that thier trial was unfair and a clear  disrepect to the  medical profession. I praise the  BMA and the Human Rights Watch and other organisations for their effort to release these innocent medics.

     Robert Winterton's claim has no base. I think he speaks on behalf of Baharaini Government and not as an impartial commentator. Has Robert Winterton has any proof that Iran was involved in Bahrain's unrest? even if it was then the Bahraini doctors who treated patients should be imprisoned for that ? not a sound judgement. The unrest in Bahrain was part of Arab Spring and more or less similar to other Arab countries people's uprising against thier rulers. Andrew Winterton says Bahrain was different as there was disrepct for the rule of law. well if you topple their  prisident is that a respect for the rule of law in that country?
    According to Andrew Winterton Bahrain is one of the most democractic country in the region. Again is it not an error of judgment to judge a country as the most democratic country which put their doctors behind bars for treating the opposition. don't you think this is an error of judgement?
    Well done BMA. I fully support your campign on our behalf for the  release of these prisonors of conscience.