September 30 2011 12:01AM
Dr Ali al-Ekri, an eminent surgeon, was educated at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Returning to his native Bahrain, he became caught up in the anti-government protests in February and March this year. Dr al-Ekri was not one of the young men demonstrating at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Rather, he became their doctor.
Working at the nearby Salmaniya Medical Complex, Dr al-Ekri and his colleagues fought to save the lives and ease the suffering of those hurt in the clashes between the protesters and the security forces. These medics, in other words, did their job under enormously difficult circumstances. Several were interviewed at the time by international news organisations, including journalists working for this newspaper. For doing that job, and, one suspects, for doing those interviews, these courageous men and women have received lengthy jail terms of up to 15 years.
The sentences handed down to the 20 medics by a military court in Manama yesterday are an affront to the most basic values of a civilised country. The trial itself made a mockery of justice. Civilians should not be prosecuted in a military court. The charges, all of which were denied by all the defendants, were the sort of catch-all accusations favoured by the most paranoid totalitarian regimes. The court session lasted seven minutes. The defendants were not present. No evidence was produced. Defence lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Most damningly, according to many credible accounts, confessions to the crimes signed by the accused were extracted under torture.
However, even had the trials been conducted in conditions of the most rigorous fairness, the charges, verdicts and sentences would remain a disgrace. Plainly, as extensive television footage showed at the time, the accused were trying to alleviate suffering. They were not trying to overthrow the Government, destroy public property, incite hatred, co-ordinate opposition or anything remotely akin to such an action. Such allegations insult the intelligence of the international community. Even regimes in other respects more brutal than that run by the Al-Khalifa dynasty have in recent months shown a greater regard for the neutrality of civilian medical professionals.
The Bahraini Government’s already tattered reputation as a benign regime (by the standards of the region) now lies in shreds. The kingdom’s more thoughtful citizens — its businessmen, diplomats, the more progressive members of its ruling clan — should be embarrassed by yesterday’s events. Those Bahrainis anxious to heal the sectarian scar exposed in March should do all in their power to ensure that, when the appeals are heard this weekend, these verdicts are overturned.
The Sunni minority that controls Bahrain has long been afraid of an uprising of the Shias, who form 70 per cent of the population. Such is the fear of the “Iranisation” of this tiny archipelago that the Government did not hesitate to call in foreign troops, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to suppress the protests. And such is the Western allies’ fear of the loss of Bahrain as a military base, both to resupply troops in Afghanistan and to guarantee oil supplies through the Gulf, that the diplomatic pressure applied to the Al-Khalifas after their crackdown in March has been light.
That pressure must now be increased. The Pentagon should hasten its reported search for an alternative base for its Fifth Fleet. British businesses trading with Bahrain should examine these sentences and their own corporate consciences. Most immediately, the organisers of Formula One, urged on by their sponsors, should reconsider the decision to stage the rescheduled Bahraini Grand Prix next April, stating instead that pending a reversal of these verdicts the country is not a suitable host for such a hitherto prestigious event.