An antigovernment protester holds up a picture of jailed opposition human… (Hasan Jamali / Associated…)
A Bahraini court on Thursday cleared 21 medics who had been convicted in connection with protests against the government, a victory for rights activists in the closely watched case.
The exonerated doctors, nurses and other medical personnel were among scores of health professionals arrested and charged during the unrest that erupted two years ago in the island monarchy.
Bahrain faced intense criticism from human rights groups and the U.S. State Department for pursuing the charges; many of the accused medics claimed they were tortured and forced to confess to charges such as "instigating hatred" and "taking part in illegal assemblies" after treating injured protesters.
Rights activists celebrated the court decision but said Bahrain must go further to ensure justice for the medics and investigate their alleged torture. "If we agree these guys are innocent, it needs to explain why it got a stack of signed confessions from them and how they were produced," said Brian Dooley of the U.S.-based group Human Rights First.
Government spokespeople could not be reached immediately for comment by phone or email as of Thursday evening in Bahrain.
The 21 medics who were cleared Thursday were among a group of 23 medical professionals convicted of misdemeanors after the 2011 protests. Two did not appear in court to appeal; a score more were convicted of felonies in another case, though some were acquitted.
Thursday's ruling was "the first step toward justice," said rheumatologist Dr. Fatima Haji, who was convicted and later cleared of felony charges that included spreading misinformation about protest injuries. Now that the 21 medics are cleared, "they need to have some accountability for those who made false accusations against them."
Haji cautioned that state prosecutors could still challenge the decision. Three medics remain imprisoned in the felony case, one of them sentenced to five years.
Unrest erupted in Bahrain two years ago as protesters challenged the Sunni Muslim monarchy, pressing for greater democracy and more of a voice for Shiite Muslims. The ensuing state crackdown was marked by beatings, torture and other abuses, an independent commission initiated by the government found.
Bahrain has since pledged reforms, retraining police and pursuing charges against officers. Government spokesmen say the state is working diligently to address the problems laid out by the commission; it recently launched a national dialogue on reform.
But local activists and rights groups abroad say change has been slow and persecution has continued. Police, frequently accused of using excessive force against demonstrators, have defended their actions as protecting officers who face deadly Molotov cocktails on the streets.
Beyond the street battles, Dooley pointed out that dissidents remain imprisoned on charges of trying to overthrow the government, convictions that rights groups say resulted from solely peaceful protest. Human rights activist Abdulhadi Khawaja, sentenced to life in prison in one such case, has been on a hunger strike for more than a week and a half along with his daughter, Zainab, who was sent to jail for three months on charges of insulting a public employee.
In an impassioned letter published by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, she wrote that she wondered what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would say about the U.S. "turning a blind eye to the blood and tears being split in the quest of freedom" in Bahrain, a longtime ally seen as a strategic bulwark against Iran.
The U.S. has expressed concern about human rights in Bahrain, but activists say its words have been too muted. Last year Washington resumed some arms sales to the country, stressing that the allowed items "are not used for crowd control." Dooley argued that the victory for the medics, whose case received more attention abroad, shows more pressure is needed.
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