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.