Thursday, October 06, 2011

Bahrain: Teachers, doctors and rights activists sentenced, some to life in prison

Source: IFEX

Bahrain's widely boycotted by-elections on 24 September and 1 October were the background setting for multiple military court hearings that condemned dozens of journalists, activists, teachers and doctors to long prison terms. They were targeted for speaking out in favour of reforms during demonstrations in February or simply for doing their jobs, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and other IFEX members. Among those arrested during the elections were 45 female protesters, some of whom have been reportedly tortured.

On 23 September, 38 women and seven girls held a demonstration in a mall calling Bahrain's elections a sham process, since they were boycotted by the opposition. All were immediately detained and many were tortured, according to their lawyers, who saw bruises on their faces when they caught a glimpse of them being led from interrogation, report local Bahraini rights groups and Amnesty International. Lawyers and family members have been denied access to the women, say the rights organisations. While some were released, BCHR reported that 16 women and girls and four young men were to appear before a Criminal Court this week.

On 28 September, the appeals of 14 human rights activists, journalists and bloggers were quashed in a very brief military hearing, report BCHR, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International (WiPC) and others. The sentences, ranging from two years to life, stem from February's mass, peaceful pro-democracy protests. Another seven had been sentenced in absentia and their cases were not appealed.

WiPC observed the court hearing of the 14 activists in partnership with IFEX and reports the military judge gave no reasons for his decision. After the hearing, monitors were able to briefly meet with the defendants, who were in strong spirits at the time and said they had been on hunger strike for several days to demand the release of the female mall demonstrators.

Since then, BCHR and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) have expressed deep concern about the failing health of the activists, including blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, who is also the head of the human rights office of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy. He was sentenced to life in prison, along with rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, former BCHR president, who suffered facial fractures during torture.

On 29 September, 20 health workers were given five to 15 years in prison for treating those wounded during February's demonstrations, report BCHR and ANHRI. The verdict was particularly shocking because the medics were sentenced after carrying out their jobs at Salmaniya Hospital, where the wounded were taken after soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in Pearl Square.

One of the medics sentenced is Dr. Fatima Haji, 33, who has a 3-year-old son. She was given five years and says she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and held in solitary confinement until she confessed to false crimes. Other health workers face 15-year sentences for condemning the government crackdown in international media interviews, reports AFP.

Today (5 October), on World Teacher's Day, BCHR also points out that several teachers have been detained and tortured in Bahrain and 150 teachers have been out of a job since March for going on strike in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement. In the last week of September, Mahdi Abu Deeb, president of Bahrain's Teacher's Society, was sentenced to 15 years, while vice-president Jaleela Al Salman was sentenced to three years, reports BCHR. Abu Deeb reportedly stopped eating on 11 September and later stopped taking his medication, and is in grave health, says BCHR.

Bahrain's by-elections were held to fill seats that were vacated when MPs quit because of the Bahraini and Saudi armies' killing of an estimated 30 demonstrators in February. Fourteen of the 18 MPs running had no competition, according to news reports.

This week, CPJ announced that one of those arrested in the wake of the protests, Mansoor al-Jamri, former editor of daily "Al-Wasat", has been awarded a 2011 International Press Freedom Award. CPJ commended "Al Wasat," which the government shut down in April, for its non-sectarian coverage at a time when authorities are attempting to paint the protests simply as a Shiite-vs-Sunni conflict. Al-Jamri, who remains free, was arrested for reporting "false news" and his trial is scheduled for mid-October, according to CNN.