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Human Rights Watch calls for medics' convictions to be overturned, freedom of speech charges to be dropped

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Beirut, October 22, 2011 - Medical staff convicted by a military court of alleged serious crimes during the period of anti-government protests in Bahrain in early 2011 were subjected to abuse and torture in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Given the fundamental unfairness of the trial, including that civilians were tried in a military court, Bahrain's High Court of Appeals should reverse the convictions of 20 medical staff when they hear their appeal on October 23, 2011, and order an independent investigation into the defendants' allegations of abuse and torture.

The prosecutors should drop all charges based solely on their exercise of freedom of speech and assembly, and ensure a new trial for defendants in a civilian court only if there is evidence of possible criminal activity, Human Rights Watch said. On October 5, Attorney General Ali Al Buainain announced that the appeal will "be equivalent to a retrial." Human Rights Watch interviewed 7 of the 20 medical staff convicted of serious crimes, who told of severe abuse in detention and extensive violations of their rights to a fair trial.

"The appeals court should decisively overturn the unfair verdicts against the medics and dismiss outright all politically motivated charges," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The new hearing should also disallow allegedly coerced confessions."

On September 29, the National Safety Lower Court, a special military court, convicted the 20 doctors, nurses, and paramedics on charges including forcibly taking over the Salmaniya Medical Complex and refusing treatment to patients based on sectarian affiliation. The court also convicted the 20 of transparently political offenses, such as "instigating hatred against the ruling system," "incitement to overthrow the regime," and "spreading false news."

On March 16, the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) took control of the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the largest medical complex in Bahrain. Beginning on March 17, security forces arrested 48 medics, 28 of whom separately face lesser misdemeanor charges before a civilian court for speech-related offenses.

Medical staff interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that interrogators subjected them to physical and psychological pressure during pretrial detention, typically to coerce confessions. Authorities held many of them for weeks, much of that time incommunicado. None could meet with their lawyers to prepare their defenses prior to the military court trial. Many saw family members and lawyers for the first time on June 6, at their first trial session.

"I was handcuffed and blindfolded [and] interrogated for seven days," Dr. Rula al-Saffar, 48, head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, told Human Rights Watch. "The interrogations started at 3:30 p.m. and went on until 5 or 6 a.m. the next day. I was electrocuted in my face and my head. They said, "We are going to rape you.'"

Procedural flaws in the treatment of the detainees and in their trials violated both international human rights law and Bahraini laws, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities refused to allow defense lawyers access to the defendants until immediately prior to the first session of the trial, resulting in inadequate time for preparation of their defenses. The court refused to order independent medical exams of those claiming they were tortured, and relied on coerced confessions in reaching verdicts. It is never appropriate to try civilians before military courts, which do not meet international fair trial standards, including on the independence of the judiciary.

Defense lawyers and medical staff told Human Rights Watch that they asked the court to nullify the confessions because defense lawyers had not been present during the formal interrogations at the Office of the Public Prosecutor. But the court verdict, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, states that neither the defendants nor their lawyers had made such requests during the interrogations period.

He "was the investigator, the interrogator, the torturer, and then he was a witness who testified against us in the court," said Dr. Ali al-Ekri, 44, one of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch, referring to the interrogator who was the main witness against them at their trials.

Human Rights Watch's review of the court verdict as well as testimony of defendants and their lawyers indicate that the special military court judges relied on confessions where there was evidence these had been coerced, and "secret evidence" submitted by the chief interrogator.

Bahrain is a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Arab Charter against Human Rights, all of which prohibit torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Bahrain's constitution also prohibits torture. Article 19 (d) says:

No person shall be subjected to physical or mental torture, or inducement, or undignified treatment, and the penalty for so doing shall be specified by law. Any statement or confession proved to have been made under torture, inducement, or such treatment, or the threat thereof, shall be null and void.

"These trials were a mockery of justice from start to finish, and the verdicts should be completely overturned," Stork said.

Click here for details on some of the convicted medics' cases and violations of due process, as well as background information
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