News / Middle East

Acquitted Shi'ite Medics Face Uncertain Future in Bahrain

Ali al-Ekry, former senior surgeon at the Salmaniya hospital in Manama, speaks to the media after hearing the verdict in his trial, in which Bahrain's highest court upheld his jail term, in Manama, October 1, 2012.
Ali al-Ekry, former senior surgeon at the Salmaniya hospital in Manama, speaks to the media after hearing the verdict in his trial, in which Bahrain's highest court upheld his jail term, in Manama, October 1, 2012.
Phillip Walter Wellman
Nearly five months after being acquitted of crimes related to Bahrain’s anti-government uprising, some Shi’ite medics remain suspended from work and fear they may never practice medicine in the country again. Their fate lies in the hands of a committee that aims to determine whether they breached ethical codes at the height of the Gulf kingdom’s unrest last year.

Investigation

The medical workers, who assumed their names had been cleared for good, say they are confused by the ongoing investigation as authorities have yet to provide them with full details.

Several have been subpoenaed by the Civil Service Bureau for questioning later this week on the same charges of which they were acquitted, an action they say is illegal.

A spokesperson for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, Salman al-Jalahma, assures the process is legitimate.

"Though they have been acquitted in courtrooms, there were ethical breaches of them politicizing their profession and other ethical codes that they broke," he said. "This will be dealt with by the hospital administration and has nothing to do with the government.”

A Bahraini military court last September sentenced 20 health workers to prison terms of between five and 15 years for crimes such as attempting to overthrow the government.

Sentences

Of the nine acquitted in June, eight are employed by Bahrain's Ministry of Health and say, in addition to their suspensions, they also are forbidden to work at private clinics.  Nine of their colleagues were given reduced sentences; five are still in prison. Two of medics originally convicted are believed to have fled the country.

While the government maintains the medics politicized their profession while on duty, Bahrain has been heavily criticized for violating medical neutrality. Many believe the revised, reduced punishments were the result of mounting international condemnation.

Physicians for Human Rights

A senior researcher with Physicians for Human Rights, Abdulrazzaq al-Saiedi, says he believes the government is behind the ongoing interrogations and that convicting the medics of ethical crimes could be a way to punish them without garnering much outside attention.

"The government still wants to punish them," he said. "The government is angry with them. This Civil Service Bureau is not an independent body; it’s a government body. Here there is no independency and it’s not fair."

During Bahrain’s initial crackdown on Shi’ite protesters, it was the medics who described to the media the injuries they had seen.

Shi’ites, who make up the majority of Bahrain's indigenous population, took to the streets in February 2011 to demand political reform from their Sunni rulers.

The medical workers insist they did nothing but provide help for injured anti-government demonstrators.

But the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry affirmed staff at the country’s main hospital, “moved in and out of their roles as political activists and medical personnel.”

A YouTube video distributed by the government's information authority appears to back claims that medical personnel hosted unauthorized marches inside the hospital.

Torture

The medics were eventually arrested and say they were tortured into confessing to charges against them.  

Those later acquitted say the new interrogations could result in further suspensions or the complete withdrawing of their licenses.

Al-Saiedi, from Physicians for Human Rights, argues the medics should be receiving compensation, not more punishment.

"They need to get paid all the money that they lost, and they need to be reinstated, and also they need to be compensated for the torture," he said. "And they need to be treated well. But now we see they still think of themselves as a target. They are not safe. They don’t know what will happen tomorrow."

Dr. Fatima Haji, who received a five-year jail sentence before being acquitted, expects the worst.

“I feel like I’m not going to practice medicine in this country any more," she said. "This is my fear and this is what I feel like they are going to do.”

Last month, the five medics who remain in prison began a hunger strike, urging international rights groups to campaign for their release.

The Bahraini government has routinely accused the international media of biased coverage of the medics’ situation and insists the “legal and ethical breaches” committed would not be tolerated in any society.

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