Summary and Current Status
On October 1, 2012, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation upheld the convictions of 11 health professionals appealing their guilty verdicts for the second time. The 11 were part of a group of 20 Bahraini health professionals who were arrested in March and April 2011 for denouncing to foreign media the excessive force used by the Bahraini government against protestors. They were convicted in a military trial that failed to meet international legal standards and subsequently endured two appeals trials—the first of which resulted in the exoneration of 9 of the 20.
The nine health professionals exonerated on June 14, 2012, are:
• Nada Sa’eed ‘Abdelnabi Dhaif, dentist
• Fatima Salman Hassan Haji, rheumatologist
• Ahmed ‘Abdulaziz Omran Hassan, consultant, family physician
• Najah Khalil Ibrahim Hassan, family physician
• Hassan Mohammed Sa’eed Nasser, head of the ICU
• Roula Jassim Mohammed al-Saffar, president Bahrain Nursing Society; assistant
professor, College of Health Sciences
• Zahra Mahdi al-Sammak, consultant, anesthesiologist
• Mohammed Faeq ‘Ali al-Shehab, lab technician
• Sayed Marhoon Majid al-Wedaei, director of Paramedics and Ambulances
Following the Court of Cassation’s October 1 ruling in the second appeal, 6 of the 11 were taken into custody the following day to serve prison sentences. Three (Nader Mohammed Hassan Dewani, Bassim Ahmed ‘Ali Dhaif, and ‘Abdulkhaleq ‘Ali Hussain al-‘Oraibi) were allowed to remain free because they had already served the duration of their sentences while in pretrial detention. The remaining two had their original sentences upheld because they did not appear at the appeal hearings. (They fled from Bahrain after their release on bail and remain at large.)
Six health professionals were arrested on October 2, 2012, and taken to prison. Three have since been released for completing their sentences. They are:
• Mahmood Asghar ’Abdulwahab, pediatric surgeon, served remaining five days of six-
month sentence; released on October 7
• Dheya Ibrahim Ja’far, female nurse, served remaining two months of sentence; released December 2012
• Ghassan Ahmed ‘Ali Dhaif, oral surgeon, served remainder of one-year sentence; released March 2013
In March and April 2011, amid growing protests in Bahrain, 48 health professionals (including doctors, nurses, and paramedics)—mostly from the Salmaniya Medical Complex in Manama, the country’s largest public hospital—were arrested. Some of them had spoken out, including by giving interviews to foreign journalists, against the Bahraini government for abusing protesters. According to information gathered by respected human rights organizations—in particular Amnesty International, Physician for Human Rights, and Doctors without Borders—security forces used excessive force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live ammunition, against people close to the entrance of the Salmaniya Medical Complex and the Sitra Medical Centre, and arrested some of the injured who were undergoing medical treatment. Amnesty International (AI) reported that the health professionals were arrested following an intense crackdown on protesters in mid-March in which the government sent in security forces, backed by helicopters and tanks, that attacked people in the Pearl Roundabout area, the Financial Harbor, and the Salmaniya Medical Complex and “violently cleared the area.”
The 48 health professionals were held in incommunicado detention for several weeks. Many of them allege that they were tortured during that time period and forced into making confessions. Their trial began on June 6, 2011, before the National Safety Court of First Instance, a military court. According to AI, in most cases the defendants’ families did not know their whereabouts for most of this time and were only allowed to see them during the first session of the trial. At the June 6 hearing, the group of 48 was split into two groups. Twenty of them were accused of felonies or more serious offenses (Case No. 282 of 2011). (The case of the group of 20 is described in detail below.) The remaining 28 were accused of misdemeanors or less serious offenses (Case No. 191 of 2011).
Following widespread international criticism of the Bahraini government’s handling of the early 2011 protests, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)—comprised of five international and well-respected judicial and human rights experts—was established, by Royal Decree, on June 29, 2011, by the King of Bahrain. The stated purpose of the commission was to investigate abuses committed during the February-March protests in Bahrain and other abuses in the following months. The BICI’s report was published on November 23, 2011.
As summarized by Human Rights Watch, the report confirms systematic and egregious rights violations by the Bahraini government in suppressing pro-democracy protests earlier in 2011. It concludes that a lack of accountability by Bahraini authorities led to a “culture of impunity” and systematic violations of international human rights law as well as Bahraini law. The 489-page report describes systematic patterns and practices of abuse by Bahrain’s security, military, and judicial branches. These abuses included excessive use of force against protesters leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries, arbitrary arrests and detentions, psychological and physical abuse of detainees that in “many cases” amounted to torture, and a pattern of due process violations and unfair trials. The report also documented the unfair and summary dismissals of thousands of professionals, workers, and students.
With regard to specific findings in the BICI report relevant to the health professionals’ case, the commission—in addition to finding that many detainees were tortured—also found:
. . . the allegations that medical personnel assisted the demonstrators in the form of supplying them with weapons [are] unfounded. The only evidence presented to the commission supporting such allegations consists of pictures provided by the [Government of Bahrain] showing two Kalashnikovs on the floor of SMC. These photographs, whose sources cannot be authenticated, do not connect the two weapons to the medical personnel. There were other allegations that medical personnel took scalpels from the inventory and had them transferred to the roundabout. The Commission is unable to verify the veracity of these claims, but it notes that it has received no accounts of anyone using scalpels as a weapon at the roundabout or anywhere else.
The defendants have received no medical treatment for the physical and mental sequelae that resulted from the torture.
The Case of 20 Health Professionals Charged with Felony Crimes
As noted above, the trial began on June 6, 2011 before the military National Safety Court of First Instance. The group of 20 health professionals were charged with a number of serious crimes, including “possession of unlicensed weapons”, “attempting to occupy by force a public building [the Salmaniya Medical Complex]”, calling for regime change”, “seizure of medical equipment”, “spreading false news”, “public gathering without authorization”, “carrying out unnecessary operations resulting in the deaths of patients”, and “denying patients’ treatment on sectarian bases.” On June 29, 2011, the King of Bahrain decreed that all cases linked to the February-March 2011 protests would be transferred to ordinary civilian courts; however, he issued a further decree on August 18, 2011 (Decree 28/20011) ordering that the National Safety Court of First Instance continue to deal with felony cases (only misdemeanor cases would be referred to civilian courts).
According to Amnesty International, the trial of the 20 did not meet international fair trial standards in a number of ways. The proceedings were held in a military court despite the fact that the defendants have no connection to the military. AI reported that, during the September 7 hearing—which was attended by representatives of the British, French, and U.S. embassies, two members of Bahraini NGOs, and an AI observer—the president of the court frequently interrupted defense witnesses and at times prevented them from giving evidence. The judge reportedly agreed with defense lawyers to refer two of the defendants for medical examination following allegations of torture, but did not permit them to give their testimony to the court. In response to CHR letters of concern written to the Bahraini authorities, the Acting Minister of Health sent CHR a response detailing accusations against the doctors that directly contradict the extensive documentation of internationally respected organizations. Many of the 20 defendants started hunger strikes in protest against their detention and trial. Gradually, all were released on bail in August and September 2011.
On September 29, 2011, all 20 health professionals (see Appendix I) were convicted of a range of serious crimes by the military court. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 15 years. (See Appendix I for a list of the 20, their sentences, and their current status.) On October 5, 2011, Bahraini Attorney General Dr. Ali Al-Boainain announced that the Department of Public Prosecution had “studied” the September 29, 2011, judgment handed down by the National Safety Court of First Instance (a military court) and determined that the cases of the 20 health professionals who should be sent to a civilian court for a retrial. Dr. Al-Boainain stated that “the retrial will be conducted before the highest civil court in Bahrain. The Department of Public Prosecution seeks to establish the truth and to enforce the law, while protecting the rights of the accused. By virtue of the retrials, the accused will have the benefit of full reevaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defenses. . . . No doctors or other medical personnel may be punished by reason of the fulfillment of their humanitarian duties or their political views. Pending the outcome of the retrials, the accused shall not be detained.”
The appeal hearing of the 20 health professionals began on October 23, 2011, before the High Criminal Court of Appeal, a civilian court. At the hearing, which lasted about 30 minutes, there were several positive developments. Three serious charges that had been brought against the defendants reportedly were dropped—“incitement of hatred against the regime”, “spreading false news”, and “inciting others not to comply with the applicable laws or to do any act that constitutes a crime.” The Attorney General also withdrew the defendants’ confessions, which they claimed had been obtained under duress or by torture. Lastly, the court reportedly ruled that defense lawyers would be permitted to present witnesses at the next session, scheduled for November 28, 2011, and the defendants would remain free on bail pending a final verdict.
On November 28, 2011, the second appeal hearing was held. According to Amnesty International (AI), delegations were present in the courtroom from AI and other NGOs, as well as foreign journalists. At the hearing, the prosecution presented a collection of weapons (knives, chains, swords, and two Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition) as evidence against the defendants, which it claimed were confiscated by police from the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) during the unrest. These weapons had not been entered into evidence by the military prosecution during the defendants’ initial trial before the National Safety Court. The defense lawyers lodged complaints that the weapons were presented in court without having been listed in any of the court records. AI also reported that the court agreed that the prosecution and defense would both be permitted to provide documentary evidence to support their cases at the next hearing, scheduled for January 9, 2012. The defense lawyers also made the following requests to the court: the travel ban imposed on most of the health professionals be lifted, allegations that torture was used against some of the defendants be investigated, the defendants be reinstated in their jobs, the defense lawyers be allowed to use the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report in their defense, and that they be given a list of the weapons presented as evidence against the defendants. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that charges of taking part in illegal gatherings, reporting falsified news, and not carrying out their medical profession properly were also dropped by the prosecution. By early 2012, the 20 health professionals faced two remaining charges; both are serious: “possession of unlicensed weapons” and “occupation of a public building” (the Salmaniya Hospital).
On January 5, 2012, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) representative Richard Sollom’s request to visit Bahrain for the next hearing was denied by Bahraini authorities. The government requested that he postpone his visit until the end of February. When Sollom ignored the request and flew to Bahrain, he was refused entry.
At the January 9, 2012 hearing, the judges rejected requests by the prosecution that former health minister Dr. Faysal al Hamir and interim health minister Dr. Nazar al-Bazarna (who was appointed health minister at the height of the unrest in February 2011, but resigned within three weeks) be summoned to testify. The judges also rejected the defense lawyers’ request to have the weapons (presented by the prosecution at the November 2011 hearing) excluded from the trial because they were not introduced during the original trial. The judges made this decision after the prosecution claimed they had not had sufficient time to submit evidence at the initial trial. According to press accounts, the judges agreed to study the section of the BICI report that states that the health professionals’ confessions were made under duress. A list of doctors on duty at SMC from February 18–March 30, 2011, the names of the patients treated at the hospital, and the medicines given were ordered to be produced at the next hearing. The prosecution reportedly presented the judges with a National Unity Assembly publication that included 282 complaints against the medics from civilians connected with the events at SMC.
In mid January 2012, Brian Dooley of Human Rights First was denied entry into Bahrain. In a press release he stated, “In recent weeks protestors have been attacked by police using tear gas, resulting in several deaths. There have also been fresh reports of torture in custody. The Bahrain regime admitted today that another man has died in custody in recent days. It did not elaborate or give further details about that incident.” Requests made in January and February 2012 to visit or attend trial hearings by human rights groups, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Freedom House, and Human Rights First, were rejected; the government of Bahrain suggested the groups reapply in March. (Human Rights First did reapply and was permitted to send a representative to attend hearings held in March 2012.)
The next hearing was held on January 30, 2012. Press reports indicated that the court decided at that time to order a court-appointed medical panel, including a medical examiner from the Ministry of Health, one from the Ministry of the Interior, and one from the Arabian Gulf University, to examine the 20 medics. (A number of the medics were examined by doctors from the BICI in August 2011, and the doctors wrote forensic reports, but the Bahraini government refused to allow those medics who had been examined to have access to the reports. (This decision was reversed in March 2012.))
The court reportedly ordered the submission of recorded telephone calls to police by defendant Sayed Marhoon al Wedaei, former Accident and Emergency Department head. Defense lawyers stated that the recordings showed al Wedaei’s cooperation with authorities during the incidents at SMC. They also requested that the court reinstate the defendants’ jobs, arguing that they were still unable to practice medicine, but the judges did not respond to the request. (Although eventually the 20 health professionals were all released from prison, most were prevented from returning to work until recently, making it difficult to support themselves and their families for many months.) The defense lawyers also requested that the travel ban imposed on the defendants since their arrest be lifted. Their request was denied.
The next hearing took place on February 28, 2012. Subsequent hearings were held, approximately, on a weekly basis, including on March 4, 8, 15, 20, and 27, 2012, and April 4, 2012.
On March 27, 2012, the court released forensic medical documentation, written by medical examiners that had been appointed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, on eight of the health professionals who have alleged that they were tortured. (According to defense lawyer Abdulhadi al Qaldoom, two of the reports were missing.) The remaining 12, who also allege they were tortured, requested to be examined by independent medical examiners. A list of international medical experts suggested by the defense team was rejected by the court.
At the April 4, 2012 hearing, the lawyers for the defense presented to the judges 275 signed testimonies by witnesses. They also gave the judges documents prepared by government officials praising the work of the health professionals during the protests. As requested by the court, the defense lawyers also provided the judges with records of the patients who were treated at the Salmaniya Medical Complex during the protests. According to the defense lawyers, they include patients from not only Bahrain, but also Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Syria, and Yemen. The health professionals’ lawyers also stated that they would now accept as evidence the medical reports that had been made by the military prosecution, the National Security Agency, and the Interior Ministry because they were completed just days after the defendants allegedly were tortured.
At a hearing in late April 2012, the prosecution made a final summation of its case and requested the court to uphold the convictions of the 20 health professionals. At the final hearing on May 10, 2012, the defense gave a summation of its case. Some of the main points presented by the defense were: (1) the government media continues to defame the health professionals; (2) systematic torture of those detained during the uprisings was proved in the BICI’s report; (3) most of the health professionals who have filed a complaint that they were tortured have not had a full investigation of their claims; (4) the detentions were illegal, i.e. without warrants, with excessive force, etc.; (5) prosecution witnesses who worked at Salamaniya hospital never testified that there was an occupation of the hospital; (6) the only witness for the possession of weapons charge is Mubarak Bin Huwail, whose testimony is unreliable because he is the officer who illegally arrested the accused and interrogated them under torture; (7) numerous mistakes and inaccuracies were made by the prosecution in the investigation and in the evidence it presented to the court; and (8) the defense presented a letter from Assistant Undersecretary for Primary Health Care Dr. Mariam Aljalahma in which she thanks and praises all doctors for doing their duties in treating patients all over Bahrain in different health facilities during the crisis.
The High Criminal Court of Appeal held its final session on June 14, 2012, at which time a verdict was handed down for each of the 20 health professionals. Nine of them were fully exonerated (Nada Sa’eed ‘Abdelnabi Dhaif, Fatima Salman Hassan Haji, Ahmed ‘Abdulaziz Omran Hassan, Najah Khalil Ibrahim Hassan, Hassan Mohammed Sa’eed Nasser, Roula Jassim Mohammed al-Saffar, Zahra Mahdi al-Sammak, Mohammed Faeq ‘Ali al-Shehab, and Sayed Marhoon Majid al-Wedaei). A further three (Nader Mohammed Hassan Dewani, Bassim Ahmed ‘Ali Dhaif, and ‘Abdulkhaleq ‘Ali Hussain al-‘Oraibi) had their prison sentences reduced to time served. Six had their sentences substantially reduced. The remaining two are believed to have fled the country. Because the two did not appear in court during the appeals process, their original 15-year prison sentences were upheld. The nine who appeared in court and were not exonerated made a final appeal to Bahrain’s Court of Cassation. The Court announced on October 1, 2012, that the convictions of all nine were upheld. The next day, on October 2, the six health professionals who had not finished serving their sentences were arrested and taken to prison. Subsequently, three were released after completing their sentences: Mahmood Asghar ‘Abdulwahab was released after serving the five days that remained of his sentence, Dheya Ibrahim Ja’far was released after serving the two months that remained of her sentence, and Ghassan Ahmed ‘Ali Dhaif was released after serving the remainder of a one-year sentence.