x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Bahrain's 'important step to justice'

After the attorney general ordered a civilian court retrial for 20 Shiite medics who were sentenced to up to 15 years in jail over anti-government protests, Amnesty International praised 'an important step towards justice'.

Senior nurse Rula Saffar, in the foreground, with other medics who areamong a group of Bahraini doctors and nurses originally sentenced to long prison terms for links to anti-government protests. Hasan Jamali / AP Phot
Senior nurse Rula Saffar, in the foreground, with other medics who areamong a group of Bahraini doctors and nurses originally sentenced to long prison terms for links to anti-government protests. Hasan Jamali / AP Phot

MANAMA // Earlier this week Rula Al Saffar was facing the prospect of spending the next 15 years in prison after she was convicted on charges including incitement to overthrow the Bahraini government.

But on Wednesday, she was granted an unexpected reprieve when the country's attorney general ordered a civilian court retrial for her and the 19 other medics who were sentenced last week to between five and 15 years in jail.

Despite the news, Mrs Al Saffar, a 49-year-old nurse, said yesterday that she still had many questions. "We were hoping that all charges would be dropped because we are innocent," she said. "There are also three medics sentenced by the military courts still in jail. Are they going to have retrials too? There are many unanswered questions and we don't feel secure yet."

Amnesty International commended the decision yesterday, saying it was an "important step towards justice".

The long sentences handed down by Bahrain's special military court had sparked harsh responses from the UN, the US government and others who expressed concerns about whether the doctors, nurses and paramedics, all Shiites, had been given access to a fair trial.

In a statement released late on Wednesday, Ali Al Boainain, Bahrain's attorney general, said the public prosecution sought 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 re-evaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defences," he said, adding that medics would not be punished for political views or fulfilling "humanitarian duties".

The attorney general also announced that he would assess other judgments by the special military court and order further retrials if necessary.

So far, activists estimate that more than 200 people have been sentenced to a combined total of more than 2,000 years in prison by the court set up during the state of emergency that ended in June following the crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

Mrs Al Saffar says she volunteered at Salmaniya Medical Complex, supporting staff as they struggled to cope with the hundreds of injured, their family members and protesters who had converged on the hospital grounds in February.

"We were doing what we were supposed to be doing," she said. "We swore an oath that we will help. We will provide care whenever it's needed."

However, the authorities did not take the same view. They arrested her in April and eventually charged her in connection with events that took place in February and March at Salmaniya, Bahrain's main hospital.

Authorities alleged that Mrs Al Saffar and the 19 other medics took part in crimes including inciting hatred against the government and encouraging illegal protests, charges they strenuously deny.

Mrs Al Saffar, the president of the Bahrain Nursing Society and an assistant professor at the College of Health Sciences, travelled to Lebanon after the war in 2006 and Gaza in 2009. When the crisis broke out in Bahrain in February, she said it was her own country that was calling her to help.

"If I was able to go to Lebanon when they needed somebody and to Gaza when they needed somebody, my country was calling me in February and that's why I was" at the hospital, Mrs Al Saffar said earlier this week before the retrial was announced. "The only difference was they were attacked by foreign countries; my country was attacked by my own."

At the beginning of April, a couple of weeks after security forces took control of the hospital complex, Mrs Al Saffar was called to a police station for questioning.

"I told my husband, 'I'll see you in around two hours'," she recalled. "Then they dragged me into a room, locked the door, blindfolded and handcuffed me and started pushing me all over the place."

That was the beginning of her 139-day ordeal. During her time in jail, Mrs Al Saffar claims she was beaten, given electrical shocks and threatened with sexual assault. She says a policewoman cut several inches off her long hair.

Mrs Al Saffar was detained at the police station for a week, during which time she says she was made to stand for hours, blindfolded and handcuffed in extremely cold conditions. At one point she says she was taken to a room full of men who taunted her saying they would "have fun with her" if she did not cooperate.

"I never ever thought that my own blood, my own countrymen could do such things to me," she said.

Bahraini authorities have maintained they would investigate any allegations of mistreatment in jail.

After a week in detention at the police station, Mrs Al Saffar was moved to a women's jail, where she spent the next five months. During her time in prison, she believes she came across up to 250 female prisoners jailed in connection with the crackdown who had suffered some form of abuse.

Eventually on August 21, Mrs Al Saffar was released before a verdict had been reached in her case. She stepped out of jail with a shock of white hair, a shadow of her former self, having lost about 20 kilograms.

In the weeks that followed, all of the medics facing similar charges had been released pending their judgments. Then, on September 29, the group of 20 received sentences of between five and 15 years.

"I'm stronger now. My spine is stronger and harder. They will never be able to break it," Mrs Al Saffar said.

She said the imprisonment has not changed her attitude about helping those in medical need. "Would I do this again? Yes. Again and again and again, to help when there is need."

This is the message, she says, she will repeat during her upcoming retrial.