Scenes From a Bahraini "Courtroom"

There they sit, squeezed onto two benches in Bahrain's criminal court: the 20 medics who were tortured into making false confessions.
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There they sit, squeezed onto two benches in Bahrain's criminal court: the 20 medics who were tortured into making false confessions. They were arrested last year after treating protestors at the Salmaniya Medical Complex and telling the world the truth about what had happened.

Their ordeal began a year ago when the government seized them from their workplaces and homes and subjected them to severe beatings, sexual assault, electrocution, and other forms of torture for perceived association with the democracy protests which began in February 14, 2011.

Then in military trials almost six months ago, 20 were sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison. This is their appeal session. There they sit, 20 respected medical professionals, accused of carrying weapons to organize the overthrow of the government and other trumped-up charges.

The courtroom is small and triangular. The judge sits on a dais in one corner below a portrait of King Hamad, whose cabinet is unelected, its key posts filled with members of the royal family. His uncle has been the country's unelected prime minister since 1971. Dressed in clothes identical to the king's in the portrait and with the same mustache, the judge looks like an older, mini-me version of the monarch.

When the session opens in the morning, the atmosphere is an odd mix of menace and farce. The lawyers are immediately summoned to be briefed in the back room, and some of the medics shout out "Hurrah, we're innocent, just release us!" and "Don't forget Younis Ashoori" -- a hospital administrator who has been in prison for a year and is being tried separately.

The 20 include six women. Rula al Saffar, who trained and worked as a nurse in the United States for 18 years, is sitting in a sharp grey business suit chatting to the glamorous Dr. Fatima Haji. They sit on benches to right of Court Room 11 while the rest of us -- relatives, lawyers, and observers from the U.S., UK, and German embassies -- sit on the three benches to the left.

The prosecution shows a DVD on the flat screen TVs on either side of the judge, which it claims is powerful evidence against the medics. It's a choppily edited montage of stills and short clips apparently taken last year. It includes plenty of shots of ambulances driving past, the subtitles claiming the pictures show weapons being ferried to protestors. There is the filmed "discovery" of two automatic rifles, allegedly found at the hospital, part of what the government claims is the medics' cache.

The film is all very unpersuasive, not least because the shots showing the arms cache discovery is time-coded 11:45 p.m. on March 18, and the medics say the government evidence is that they were found on March 17 at 4 p.m. Various other crimes are suggested, and I must confess to breaking courtroom protocol by cracking up at the caption alleging "misuse of hospital mattresses."

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ali Al Ekri sits at the end of one bench, dapper in a suit and red tie. Much of the government film and other accusations center on him and his alleged political agenda at the hospital. He told me how, on March 17 last year, he was operating on a teenage boy when soldiers with guns and dogs burst in. He was arrested, and over the following months, tortured, given an unfair military trial, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

A succession of witnesses are summoned and questioned by the judge. Doctors and other hospital employees speak in support of the medics. By 6 p.m. only nine have been seen and the process speeds up, with witnesses asked a few questions each. It's slow going though, in part because the court secretary records everything in longhand.

There are about 70 of us in the courtroom, including half a dozen security officers who wear grave expressions and big watches. Their eyes flick lightly over us throughout the day, partially succeeding in enforcing the court prohibition against texting and sitting with legs crossed.

Despite the significance of the charges, most of the proceedings are fairly humdrum and ignite only when there is mention of a reported deal whereby charges will be dropped against 15 of the medics (not to be discussed, rules the judge) and when one of the medics' witnesses tries to raise the issue of their torture (not to be discussed either). Eventually the judge called a halt to the witnesses speaking in their defense, even though only half had appeared.

There they sat for 10 hours today, a mostly middle-aged group of medics who over the last 12 months have been imprisoned together, tortured together, and tried together. They include two brothers and a married couple. "Dr. Nada Dhaif, sentenced to 15 years, said, "It's was an historic day for people to remember and cry about. It showed the security forces were the criminals and the medics the heroes."

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