UN condemns jail sentence for Bahrain medics

UN chief criticises "harsh" prison terms for medical workers who treated protesters during March uprising.

    Ban Ki-moon, the United Nation's secretary-general, has strongly criticised the "harsh" prison sentences ordered in Bahrain against 20 medical workers who treated protesters and called for the release of political prisoners.

    The UN chief "expresses his deep concern over the harsh sentences handed down in Bahrain to civilians, medical professionals, teachers and others, by the Court of National Safety," said UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky on Friday.

    "These proceedings were conducted under conditions that raised serious questions of due process irregularities."

    Thirteen doctors and nurses were jailed for 15 years for crimes against the state and seven other medical professionals were given sentences of between five and 10 years by a special tribunal on Thursday that was set up during the emergency rule that followed the demonstrations.

    In a statement, the medics condemned the verdict, calling the decision "ludicrous".

    'Doing my duty'

    Four of the sentenced medics spoke with Al Jazeera on Saturday, a day before their jail sentences were set to begin.

    "We had to video tape it [forced confessions] for Bahrain TV," said Nada Dhaif, a dentist who was sentenced to 15 years in prison. "We were forced to say it for the camera. We were threatened, blackmailed."

    Fatima Haji, a rheumatologist who was sentenced to five years in jail, said that her treatment on her initial arrest amounted to "torture". She said interrogators told her they treated her poorly because an image of her crying was aired on Al Jazeera.

    "I was a human being. I was a doctor. I was doing my duty as a professional," Haji said. "What we did is our duty as doctors, human beings, mothers. If I knew this would sentence me to life... I would still do it, again and again and again."

    Haji told Al Jazeera the public prominence of the medical professionals made them targets.

    "We were basically the main witnesses and we had the highest credibility internationally [to speak] about what was really happening," she said.

    The doctors' trial has been criticised by rights groups for Bahrain's use of the security court, which has military prosecutors and both civilian and military judges, to prosecute civilians.

    The UN human rights office questioned the fairness of the Bahrain court that sentenced the medics.

    Bahrain's National Safety Court, which is run by the military, reportedly gave defendants and their lawyers little time to prepare, failed to investigate allegations of torture and conducted some trials in just 10 minutes, said a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    'Terrorist aim'

    Most of the medics worked at the Salmaniya Medical Centre in Manama, which was stormed by security forces after they drove protesters on March 16 out of the nearby Pearl Square, the focal point of Bahrain's protest movement.

    The Bahrain News Agency (BNA) said that the medics were tried for "forcefully occupying Salmaniya Medical Centre... possessing unlicensed arms [AK-47s] and knives, incitement to overthrow the regime, seizing medical equipment, detaining policemen, and spreading false news".

    They were also accused of "inciting hatred to the regime and insulting it, instigating hatred against another sect and obstructing the implementation of law, destroying public property and taking part in gatherings aimed at jeopardising the general security and committing crimes," BNA said.

    "All these acts were done with a terrorist aim."

    Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sheikh Mubarak bin Abdulaziz al-Khalifa, a top 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".

    Denying charges

    But the doctors have repeatedly denied the charges, which they say were created by the authorities to punish medical staff for treating people who took part in anti-government protests.

    "There was no sense of rebellion," Robert Fisk, senior Middle East correspondent for The Independent, who was in Bahrain during the March unrest, told Al Jazeera.

    "It was a professional sense of, 'how do we treat so many people who have been shot and wounded in a short period of time?'"

    The daughter of one of the charged medics told Al Jazeera that none of the doctors or nurses attended Thursday's hearing.

    "These cruel sentences present a serious breach of law and is considered to be an attack on the medical profession," she said in a statement.

    Thursday's sentences came a day after the tribunal upheld sentences for 21 activists convicted for their roles in the protests, including eight prominent political figures who were given life terms on charges of trying to overthrow the kingdom's Sunni rulers.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states have launched more than 19,278 air raids across Yemen.

    Lost childhoods: Nigeria's fear of 'witchcraft' ruins young lives

    Lost childhoods: Nigeria's fear of 'witchcraft' ruins young lives

    Many Pentecostal churches in the Niger Delta offer to deliver people from witchcraft and possession - albeit for a fee.

    Why did Bush go to war in Iraq?

    Why did Bush go to war in Iraq?

    No, it wasn't because of WMDs, democracy or Iraqi oil. The real reason is much more sinister than that.