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Column: I was convicted for treating protesters. Now I face arrest any time.

Irish-trained doctor Ghassan Dhaif, who aided the injured in Bahrain’s Arab Spring, on why the Government must do more to help medics like him.

Dr Ghassan Dhaif

ON THURSDAY JUNE 14 2012, a Bahraini court of appeal upheld convictions for 11 out of 20 doctors who treated protestors at the height of protests in February and March 2012. These sentences did not do much to reduce the shock felt last September when the same doctors initially received sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment in a military court.

Among whose conviction was upheld was Dr Ali Al Ekri, consultant orthopaedic surgeon who received 5 years imprisonment and myself – I received one year. Both of us were trained in Dublin at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The charges along the way included possession of weapons, occupying a public hospital, attempting to overthrowing the regime, participating in illegal demonstration, holding hostages in the hospital, and the dissemination of false news. At one point, the doctors were even accused of killing protestors who had been shot by government security forces.

Some of these charges were eventually dropped because of their sheer ludicrous nature. The wide international condemnation and pressure forced the government to transfer the cases from military court to a civilian court, although the doctors contend all charges should have been immediately dropped. The doctors spent over six months in prison until they were released pending appeal. We may be re-arrested at any point in time due to these new sentences. After a lengthy court hearing lasting nearly eight months, and the submission of substantial defence evidence including documents, videos and 317 witnesses who denied all these allegations, the judge failed to consider most of the evidence.

Earlier in the appeal trial, the public prosecutor made a public statement saying that “only five of the medics will be convicted”. As it turned out, five of the defendents were taken as scapegoats and issued longer jail terms. This demonstrates the partiality and political nature of the trial. If the trial had been just, all of the medics would have been acquitted without exception since they were all carrying out their medical duty to treat protestors.

Torture

The persecution of the medics has been continued for the past 18 months. We have been subjected to multiple violations since the initial arrests; from arbitrary arrest, violent pre-dawn raids of homes terrorising families, prolonged incommunicado detention, physical and psychological torture that has been confirmed by forensic doctors, forced confessions, lack of due process in judicial proceedings and travel bans. One doctor was even arrested from the hospital surgery theatre. Interrogations were carried out without the presence of a lawyer, and confessions were obtained through torture.

Despite all of these violations being documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, the doctors have not had any form of redress, compensation or accountability of the officials responsible for these violations. Instead, the government is persisting in its persecution

This case will go down in history as a classic case of a government violating the principles of medical neutrality by punishing doctors for treating injured protestors and highlights the vulnerability of doctors at times of conflict. The doctors in this case were credible witnesses to the brutality of the regime, they were brave enough to reject the Minister of Health and security forces orders not to send ambulances to aid wounded protestors (which was confirmed by BICI).

The medics insist on their innocence and urge the international community to demand the protections of all medical personnel during such events, to ensure that they fulfil their duties, and to stand against the unjust verdicts until they are all fully acquitted. The government of Bahrain must investigate the violations and cases of torture and present those responsible for this behavior to trial, allow them to return to work and compensate them fully for the trauma afflicting them.

We also call on the Irish government and the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland – where I myself trained – to do more to apply pressure on authorities in Bahrain. It is only by standing together that we can help our colleagues in their plight.

Ghassan Dhaif is a doctor working in Bahrain. He trained at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland.

Update: The Government of Bahrain has disputed the content of this column, saying that charges were brought not for treating protesters but for “politicising their profession, breaching medical ethics and, most seriously, their call and involvement in the overthrow of the monarchy.” You can read the full response here.

Read: Bahrain medics jailed over Arab Spring protests acquitted, sentences reduced>

More: Irish nurses and midwives join vigil for Bahrain medics>

About the author:

Dr Ghassan Dhaif

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