Bahrain's government tries dissidents while calling for dialogue

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2011 

BAGHDAD — Bahrain's military court Monday pressed the government's case against 47 doctors and nurses, ordering the medics to plead guilty or not guilty to felony or lesser charges but prohibiting any mention of mistreatment while in detention.

The hearing, which was attended by Stephanie Williams, the top U.S. diplomat in Bahrain, was the latest sign of the continuing crackdown against mainly Shiite protesters who in February started an "Arab Spring" uprising against the minority Sunni government in the small Gulf kingdom.

Apparently emboldened by the presence of a top U.S. representative, Dr. Ali al Ekri, an orthopedic surgeon, and Rula al Saffar, the head of the nursing society, said their confessions were extracted after they'd been tortured. They said they had to sign the papers while blindfolded.

But the military judge said the only response permitted was "guilty" or "not guilty," according to family members who witnessed the hearing.

When Dr. Zahra al Sammak, an anesthesiologist, insisted in describing the torture to which she'd been subjected, she was ordered escorted from the hearing. Dentist Nada Dhaif tried in vain for permission to have her lawyer speak to the judge on her behalf.

The trial of the medics, which major international human rights groups have condemned, stems from the protests in February and March when protesters wounded while demonstrating thronged the hospitals for treatment. Some of the doctors who took care of them are charged with killing and mistreating non-Shiite patients, while others have been accused of taking part in illegal demonstrations.

Those accused of felonies were told to return to court on June 20. Those facing misdemeanors said their cases would be heard on June 27.

The court hearing came one day after the government leveled new charges against two leading opposition politicians who've been in custody since May 2 and sentenced a 20-year-old female poet to a year in prison for reciting anti-government verse during the demonstrations.

The government charged the two moderate politicians, Jawad Fairooz and Mattar Ebrahim Mattar, both Shiites who quit their seats in parliament to protest the government crackdown, with inciting hatred against the regime and speaking to the news media. But the case may be shaky because the alleged crimes occurred before their resignations were accepted by the Sunni parliament, so they would have had parliamentary immunity.

Both men went before the military judge on short notice Sunday morning — so quickly that family members were unable to be in the court for the arraignment. The order seems to have come so fast that the judge forgot one charge. Members of the two politicians' families noted that the official Bahrain News Agency added a third charge: participating in an illegal gathering.

Their trials are to begin on June 21.

The sentencing of poet Ayat AlQurmezi came after allegations that her verse had incited anti-government demonstrators at the Pearl Roundabout.

The Bahrain government also dismissed at least 30 students from the polytechnic institute, an action that often precedes the announcement of formal charges.

Meanwhile, human rights advocates denounced the selection of the speaker of Bahrain's lower house, Khalifa bin Ahmed al Dharani, to lead reconciliation talks that are scheduled to begin July 1. They said Dharani's selection hadn't been discussed with the opposition and that Dharani's "every word" would be under the command of the royal court.

A leading Bahrain human rights advocate who's operating outside the island, Maryam al Khawaja, whose father is among the human rights champions behind bars, said in an e-mail newsletter that the charges against Mattar and Farooz may be related to the harsh reaction to Dharani's appointment from al Wefaq, a leading Shiite political group. Mattar is a leading member of al Wefaq.

A second possible reason for the rushed hearing was the arrival of Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor issues.

A Sunni pro-government group called the "National Unity Gathering," said in a statement Monday night that Posner's presence at military tribunals was a "direct interference in Bahrain's internal affairs" and "infringes the country's sovereignty." The group didn't say which of the many tribunals over the past two days Posner had attended.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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