|Dr Tammam (second from left) and Dr Al-Ekri (third from left) are greeted by the Palestinian ambassador to Bahrain upon their return home from treating people wounded in Gaza [Photo courtesy of the al-Ekri family]|
On Thursday a military court sentenced orthopaedic surgeon and Bahraini “local hero”, Dr Ali al-Ekri, to 15 years in prison on more than a dozen charges. Nineteen other medical workers who, like Dr al-Ekri, had also treated injured protesters – or who themselves took part in pro-democracy protests earlier this year – also received jail sentences of between five and 15 years.
Before protests began in February this year, Dr al-Ekri was a well known figure in Bahrain. In January 2009, the surgeon travelled to the occupied Gaza Strip to volunteer amid Israel’s devastating land, air and sea assault on the territory. In less than three weeks, more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed and 5,000 wounded, the overwhelming majority of which were civilians. After 11 days of volunteering to treat the wounded at the al-Najjar hospital in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Dr al-Ekri returned to his native Bahrain, hailed as a hero.
When Israel attacked Gaza, a territory that had already been under a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than two years, Arab cities exploded in protest. From Rabat to Beirut to Sanaa to Manama, massive street demonstrations took place, condemning the attacks that began just two days after Christmas Day in 2008.
“When we first saw the atrocities against the Palestinian people in Gaza … and the images and suffering, it ignited a [flame] in me and my colleagues to do something [to support them] here in Bahrain,” Dr al-Ekri explained.
“Through the Bahrain Medical Society we started to collect aid to be sent to Gaza. We raised hundreds of thousands of dinars and we decided to deliver two ambulances.”
Dr Al-Ekri said that he and a colleague, Dr Nabil Tammam, an ENT surgeon, were both nominated by the society to deliver the ambulances and goods to Gaza via Egypt.
However, the Egyptian authorities created obstacles for the goods to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing and they amassed on the border. Humanitarian workers, activists and Palestinians from Gaza all staged protests on the Egyptian side of the crossing, demanding that it be opened. When they arrived, Drs al-Ekri and Tammam joined the demonstrations.
“After [arriving in Egypt] we saw protests at Rafah border, it made us want to get in. They were in need not only for medication and appliances and stuff for operating, they needed doctors, especially from certain specialities that we were part of.”
The two doctors took the decision right then and there to enter Gaza and offer their much-needed services. “I contacted my wife and told her I wanted to go to Gaza. ‘Do what you think is right,’ she told me.”
“I was in God’s hands,” al-Ekri said. “If I died, I would be a martyr of my profession.”
Inside Gaza, Dr al-Ekri described treating victims of bombs, live ammunition and other weaponry. Most, he said, were civilians, including many women and children.
Drs Tammam (left) and al-Ekri in Gaza during the 2008-09 Israeli ‘Cast Lead’ offensive [Photo: al-Ekri family]
“We didnt go to bed without [the] music of bombs every night. We went all over to see patients.”
Dr al-Ekri said the people of Gaza were “fabulous”. He said, “They asked me: ‘Why are you coming all the way from Bahrain to risk your lives?'”
Since protests began last February in Bahrain, doctors have been accused of “sectarian hatred” and not treating Sunni patients. He pointed out that “they’re not Shia [in Gaza], they’re Sunni” and that made little difference to them. “Our inner drive was to do something and help these people,” he said.
The doctors returned home to joyous celebration and were treated as “heroes of all Bahrain”. Dr al-Ekri said their plane arrived four hours earlier than expected, and the crowds were already gathered at the airport to welcome them home.
The pair received awards from a number of groups and political parties from across the political spectrum in Bahrain, even from the king himself. Dr al-Ekri recalled the king saying, during an award reception, that it was a “brave act for all of Bahrain” and that he would not have let the two go to Gaza had they asked because they are “my sons”.
Then and now
Two years later, Dr al-Ekri was again called to duty in what he describes as another “wartime” situation.
Hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis marched in the streets of Manama and other cities around the country calling for reform. A protester was killed on the first day of protest, February 14, by birdshot fired at close range. The body was brought to Manama’s Salmaniyah hospital, where al-Ekri worked.
One day later, a second protester was killed, also by birdshot, when clashes broke out at the funeral of the first. “We thought that was it,” al-Ekri said. “That, after that, the killing would be over.”
Similar to protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, protesters in Bahrain staged at a sit-in at the now-destroyed Pearl roundabout. They managed to stay for three days, before police and army moved in to clear the square. Four people were killed, including one protester who was shot in the head at very close range.
“Despite the heavy weaponry of the Israeli military,” al-Ekri said, “I had never seen this type of injury in Gaza. I’d never seen brain matter exposed.”
After receiving the casualties, Dr al-Ekri and other doctors noticed that, all of a sudden, ambulances stopped coming. He said they wondered what was going on when “civilians started bringing the injured in their cars, not in ambulances”.
They began hearing news that ambulances were being diverted away from Salamniyah hospital, and their drivers detained. “That day we expressed our anger and frustration near the gate of [the] ambulance area, calling for ambulances to show up, and for the minister of health to show up – and then for his resignation.”
Sit-in at the hospital
Dr al-Ekri speaks to Al Jazeera in early March
Also that day, thousands of relatives came to Salamaniyah, searching for loved ones who were cleared away from the roundabout. The families ended up staging a sit-in, where they continued their chants against the regime.
Some of the doctors at Salmaniyah, including Dr al-Ekri, tried to talk to the protesters about not staying outside the hospital that should be kept for the sick and injured. They wouldn’t listen to anyone, he said.
Two days later, on February 19, text messages circulated calling for a return to the roundabout. Dr al-Ekri and others organised reinforcements for the hospitals so they could be prepared. More than 40 doctors not on call came to volunteer that day.
However, the crown prince called on the army to pull back and protesters again returned to the roundabout largely without incident.
The protests remained relatively calm until for the next few weeks, until protesters tried to block the streets of Manama’s financial harbour on March 13. This was followed by the government’s invitation for Saudi Arabia to intervene in helping to quell the uprising, when thousands of troops subsequently crossed the causeway into Bahrain. Martial law was declared on March 15 and Salmaniyah was placed under a tight military lockdown – no one allowed to enter or leave the hospital.
On March 16, the hospital was raided by armed troops. Dr al-Ekri suspects they would have arrested him then, had he not been in the operating theatre. The following day, March 17, he was taking a break after operating on a protester’s pelvic fracture when the soldiers returned and took him.
He was taken to a few different detention centres, he said, including one where he was kept in solitary confinement for two weeks. Dr Al-Ekri said he was tortured and beaten in that time, and during one interrogation he lost consciousness four or five times.
“They wanted me to confess to things like having weapons, killing patients, depriving patients of care, occupying the hospital,” he said.
“Blinded and handcuffed, I confessed in the third week without seeing a lawyer or my loved ones.” They released his handcuff for a moment only to sign a piece of paper that he could not even see.
Despite him asking to see a lawyer from the first day he was detained, Dr al-Ekri said that one was not available to him until June 13, the day that he first went to court and learned of his charges. “I couldn’t believe it,” the doctor said. “I was thinking I might be executed on such charges.”
His bravery in volunteering in Gaza that was once commended by the king, was now being used against him. During the interrogation, Dr al-Ekri said he was accused by his interrogators of training to use Kalashnikov rifles while in Gaza.
A change in treatment
Dr al-Akri’s wife, who was also arrested and beaten, speaks to Al Jazeera in May
In April, Dr al-Ekri said the abuse stopped – “all of a sudden” – and the police used different tactics against them. Later, he found out that this was the time when four prisoners, who had marks showing torture and abuse all over their bodies, died while in prison.
When a fact-finding commission sponsored by the government first came in July, Dr al-Ekri said they were moved to different facilities, cells were opened more, families were able to visit and they were served better food. For the first time since his arrest, he felt his jailers “started to treat us as humans”.
On September 7, many of the doctors were released to huge celebration. “Thousands waited for us. We thought that was it, that they thought we got the message that we should not protest or say ‘no’ to the regime.”
The trial was set to continue on September 29, and Dr al-Ekri said their legal defence was strong. His lawyers, he said, prepared an 80 page report, which he now thinks judge and prosecutors “didn’t read one paragraph of”.
The 20 doctors were found guilty. Thirteen were sentenced to 15 years in jail, including Dr al-Ekri, while the others were given five to ten year sentences.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sheikh Mubarak bin Abdulaziz al Khalifa, a senior member of Bahrain’s information affairs authority, said that the medics were not “practising their profession in the manner that all doctors and nurses should have been abiding to”.
In response to the ruling, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, Philip Luther, said the charges were “ludicrous”. “It appears that the real reason for targeting these health workers was the fact that they denounced the government crackdown on protesters in interviews to international media.”
“The ruling government clearly wants to send a message that anybody perceived as advocating political reforms will be dealt with severely,” he continued.
Dr al-Ekri says he and other doctors are “playing cards” in the political games of the regime. “For us they know we witnessed all the crimes of the regime and we stood strong by injured people and we talked to the media,” he said. “Anywhere, like in Gaza and in Yemen now, doctors speak about what they see. When you journalists need to know what happened who do you go to?”
Dr al-Ekri, who is being treated as the “leader” of the group of doctors, was found guilty of the most charges, including possession of weapons, occupying a public building, promoting the downfall of the regime and inciting sectarian hatred. In total, there were more than a dozen charges.
The one-time hero of Bahrain for braving Israeli bombs and treating the injured in Gaza maintained his innocence and said that he and other doctors were only doing their job. “Doctors sign [an oath] to treat people regardless of their race, colour or religion,” he said, passionately denying that he would not have treated his “beloved Sunni patients” – or anyone else, like the government claimed.
As for the King’s other “son”, Dr Tammam, he too was arrested, taken from the Salmaniyah hospital in mid-April. He described how he was blindfolded and physically abused by interrogators before being released nearly 72 hours later, because he suffers from non-Hodgkin lymphoma (a form of blood cancer). Dr Tammam now faces a number of charges, some similar to Dr al-Ekri, when he returns to court on October 24 – that could land him with between one and three years in jail.
“I feel bad for my patients and my profession,” Dr al-Ekri said. “They’re being deprived of 20 years of my experience as an orthopedic surgeon.”
Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage