Amy Hughes in Bahrain
The majority Shiite population are fighting the ruling Sunni monarchy for equal rights and democracy. Twenty Bahraini doctors and medical staff continue to wait for their day in court to appeal their convictions. They were charged with using their positions for political purposes, treating pro-democracy protesters.
More than 40 people have been killed and thousands injured in clashes between protesters and government forces. An official, independent commission found security and police officers guilty of using excessive force.
And the government promised to implement reforms suggested in the report by the end of Februrary. But the Egyptian-American judge Cherif Bassiouni, who led the commission, recently said Bahrainis could be forgiven for thinking the government's plans were a “whitewash''.
The Bahraini government desperately wants to show the world it is serious about implementing reforms. But, while the King and others claim changes are on track, most foreign journalists have been denied entry into the country. I managed to get a visa, and get into Bahrain, but my interviews with doctors and protesters were very carefully arranged to avoid me, or my subjects being arrested.
Dr Fatima Haji and her colleagues were on the frontline at Salamaniya Hospital treating the injured. “It was a shock. The attack was very brutal. All the shots were not in the legs, but direct shoot to kill. All the shooting was either to the head, chest or genitalia. I’ve seen a 60-year-old man brought to the emergency services with a direct shot to the head, his eyes separated with nothing in the middle. He was not even protesting. He was just trying to help. We did our duty. We helped everybody, protesters or none.”
For doing their duty, Dr Haji and 46 others were arrested, tortured, and suspended from their jobs. I’m granted an interview with Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, an International Counsellor from Bahrain’s International Affairs Authority to talk about recent events. I ask him about the decision to prosecute the medical staff. “Those days are behind us and we have the civilian courts to look after their cases at the moment. The report says there are medics who broke the ethics code and I’ve got proof to show you that the hospital grounds inside were used for political reasons.''
Dr Haji and the rest of the medical staff deny the charges, “We did not ask them about their political backgrounds. We treated people who were protesters and security forces. There were doctors arrested from theatre rooms, beaten, tortured ... and this all happened in front of the others.”
She was arrested after speaking out on Al Jazeera, and later tortured. “They blindfold me, handcuffed me. They were spitting on me. It was a nightmare. They started started questioning me. I said I have no role, I’m just a doctor. The beating started. I was tasting my own blood. I got electrocuted in the head. I lost my vision that night. They threatened me on multiple occasions that they would rape me. They wanted me to produce sounds that were sexually motivating them. They threatened to bring my son and harm him. After that I said, okay, I’ll do anything you want to make it stop.”
After signing the confession, Dr Haji was held for 22 days before being released.
Sheikh Abdulaziz says 27 medical staff cleared of wrongdoing have returned to work, or will do so shortly, but Dr Haji disputes the claim. Meantime, she and 19 of her colleagues are waiting to appeal their sentences and have little hope of being cleared. And Dr Haji remains sceptical about government reforms.
“The government gives different statements in two different languages. They always use the English language for the media and the governments and the embassies which says that this is a re-trial and we will drop their confessions and we will drop their other charges but when it comes to the Arabic version, the language is different. This is not a re-trial. This is an appeal and they will not drop our confessions. So we don’t trust the public prosecutor, neither the government.“
Dr Haji and her colleagues aren’t allowed to work in the medical field and, desperate to restore her income, she even applied for a job as a waitress, but was turned down because of the controversy. She‘s also banned from leaving the country. “So I’m jobless, without a salary. Basically, we are in a big jail in this country.”
She also says photographs of her meeting friends appear on Twitter and Facebook sites of those directly linked with Bahrain’s Criminal Interrogation Directorate. Despite the surveillance, angered by human rights violations, Dr Haji has become a protester. “Each person has a right to participate in the political process. They can actually elect the government that’s ruling the country. They want a better place to live, equal rights, better participation in government. Every time the government uses excessive force, their demands get higher and higher. “
Just over the weekend a group is denied permission to peacefully march at a funeral. They marched anyway, and were fired upon with tear gas. I asked Sheikh Abdulaziz about the continued excessive use of force “They didn’t apply for anything. They went for a burial, a very sacred thing. However, what took place was more than a burial. They approached the main highway to once again politicise a situation and disrupt traffic. Those kind of marches are denied, therefore it’s not a matter of allowing protests to take place or not, it’s being organised and not being allowed to affect other people’s lives in a negative way.”
But just a few days after that interview, it was security forces who disrupted traffic, shutting two main highways to the capital. There were rumours of a march near the old soukh and we headed into town to see proof of a peaceful protest. We are wearing Abayas, the traditional female body covering, and veils but our trainers are a dead giveaway, the uniform of protesting women.
We pass checkpoints where I’m forced to conceal my recording equipment from security forces, and the streets are eerily quiet. Southeast Asian shop owners pull their shutters down and stand watch, waiting for trouble. Anyone standing in the streets is considered suspicious. We hear whistles, coded calls among those waiting to protest, while police in full riot gear sweep the streets, threatening violence and helicopters patrol overhead.
Dr Haji pushes me through an open door of a “safe” house, an apartment building, where I head up one flight of stairs to a balcony offering an open view of the street below, where I can discreetly record what’s happening.
Once the police pass, we hear chanting, the sound of a peaceful protest ... finally, a group of 20 Bahrainis peacefully walk the streets chanting for equal rights. They appear unarmed and pass by after just 10 minutes or so. Meantime, police return, armed with tear gas and spray guns, blasting a burning, blinding chemical into the eyes of anyone near the protesters. The police sweep before and after, felt longer than the entire protest ... and makes me wonder if events like this aren’t being exaggerated by security forces and their presence.
Mahmad, a Sunni woman sympathetic to the cause, suffered the security forces spray. She argues the debate is not simply a Sunni-Shiite divide. “It’s not at all a religious issue. Nobody is giving us our right. We want to change the Prime Minister. He was elected 41 years ago.”
Sheikh Abdulaziz says no matter what reforms come, none will put the Prime Minister in jeopardy. “The Prime Minister is an international leader. The tradition of this region maybe doesn’t allow us to dimiss a person in such a manner. He is respected and we look up to him as a father figure.”
That may be, but I ask Sheikh Abdulaziz if the continued use of force and tear gas is the way forward. “By no means are we going to allow a handful of people to infringe on the rights of the Bahraini people who are screaming out to restore their lives. We have to enforce the law, but at the same time we have to allow the political expression, freedom of expression, in a peaceful manner.”
But the government has demolished the now iconic Pearl Roundabout, the site of the first protests last February, saying there were plans to turn it into an intersection. Meantime, the road remains blocked with armed officers. And the protests have become a vicious cycle – permits applied for, and routinely denied, yet conducted anyway. Excessive force used by police is now met with equally violent force by some youths fed up with the suppression. Officials like Sheikh Abdulaziz claim reforms are happening and doctors are going back to work.
“There’s a deadline that by the end of February, all the 23 or 24 changes from the report will be implemented. We are over half-way there. I think it’s for the man on the street to feel the change has taken place, its’ going to take some time for them to feel it.”
But Dr Haji doesn’t buy it. “We are just over two months after the report and it’s not more than ink on paper. The first hearing they brought new evidence. All of us are without a job, without salaries ... there are others, doctors who are not accused of anything and they are suspended for ten months and they are not back to their jobs. Nothing what they promised is happening in reality. It’s just ink on paper.”
The real test will come at the trials where Dr Haji and 19 other medical workers will, eventually, learn their fate. “None of us is optimistic now.” I ask if she can ever feel free in Bahrain. “As a doctor, yes, I’ll be happy to go back to my job, do my duty, do whatever I dreamt of helping people. But be free? No. And if the government does not drop the charges on the other political prisoners ... democracy, freedom, basic rights, then no, I won’t feel either free or happy.”
If Dr Haji and her colleagues represent the men and women on the street in Bahrain, then there’s a long way to go before anyone can be convinced things are changing for the better.