Sarah Fulton is International Legal Officer at REDRESS.
The trial and sentencing of 20 medical professionals in Bahrain in the past two weeks has again turned the spotlight on the small Gulf Kingdom’s unfinished ‘Arab Spring’ and the repressive methods used to contain it.
The sentencing of doctors, nurses and paramedics who treated injured protesters to imprisonment of five to fifteen years has grabbed the world’s attention in a way that trials of others involved in protests in Bahrain – including human rights activists, bloggers, and teachers – has not. Imprisoning doctors, it seems, is a step too far – a signal taken on board by the government, which announced last week that the 20 will be retried in a civilian court.
The strong international reaction that the case has provoked focuses attention on the value placed on respect for medical neutrality in times of conflict and civil unrest.
In the wake of popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrain too saw mass protests in February and March from citizens demanding constitutional change. Although initially tolerated by the regime, the protesters quickly faced a sharp crackdown, as security forces backed by tanks and helicopters drove them out of Pearl Roundabout where they had gathered. In the aftermath and over the following weeks injured protesters were taken to Bahrain’s main hospital for treatment. Medical staff gave interviews to the international media describing the casualties and the injuries that they were seeing, with some of them accusing the government of atrocities. At the same time the grounds of the hospital became a refuge and rallying point for protesters, including some medical staff.
This became a pretext for the regime to treat the hospital as a legitimate military target and on 16 March – the day after a state of emergency had been declared – security forces stormed it. Credible reports tell of security forces setting up checkpoints and stationing military officers to search and check the identity of all those entering the hospital, diverting and attacking ambulances carrying the wounded, beating medical staff, and segregating those with protest-related injuries into one ward where they were beaten. According to Human Rights Watch, this was part of “what appear[ed] to be a systematic campaign … aimed at punishing and intimidating medical professionals suspected of sympathies with protesters and hindering access to health care facilities for persons wounded by security forces”.