For almost three years now people around the world have associated Bahrain with attacks on doctors and nurses, a damaging image that will carry on into 2014. It's a hard reputation to shake off.
When several dozen Bahrain medics in were arrested in 2011, the news quickly spread garnering major press attention and damaging Bahrain's international reputation by leaving the impression of a regime that responds to peaceful dissent with torture and sham trials. While there are hundreds who have been convicted in unfair trials in Bahrain military courts, the story of this happening to educated, articulate, western-trained medics with connections to foreign medical associations resonated with the international community as a powerful and credible narrative of the Bahraini government's violent crackdown on demonstrators in February and March 2011. Even those who know little else about the country or its 2011 protests for reform have heard the story of the dozens of medics who were arrested, tortured and given prison sentences after treating injured protestors.
The medics shared consistent and credible stories with the media about their mistreatment in custody. On visits to Bahrain in 2011 I recorded many of these testimonies from the medics -- how they were handcuffed, blindfolded and tortured into making absurd confessions about conspiring to overthrow Bahrain's government by armed force. I also attended the Bahrain court hearings for the sham trial of the 20 medics who were charged with felonies (and at another where 27 were charged with less serious offenses), witnessing firsthand how their claims of torture were dismissed by the judge.
All 20 of these medics were sentenced to between five and 15 years each by the military court. Although an international outcry from the United Nations, the United States and other governments resulted in a civilian appeal in June 2012 that produced acquittals for nine of the accused and sentence reductions for some others, Ibrahim Demastani and Dr Ali Alekry still remain in prison with a few other medics tried individually.
For the Bahrain government, the cases of the medics continues to cause major issues to the credibility of the regime's justice system. While the Bahrain courts have declared nine of the felony medics as officially not guilty, the regime still has no explanation for why they confessed to crimes they didn't commit.
Just two weeks ago, two police officers tried for torturing confessions out of some of the medics were formally cleared when the courts refused a challenge by the public prosecution against their earlier verdicts of not guilty. The failure of the Bahrain authorities to convict those who ordered and carried out the torture of the medics continues to damage the country's already dismal international image.
These latest acquittals of a policeman and a policewoman (a member of the country's ruling family) who were reported by many of the medics to have committed torture raises more awkward questions about Bahrain's failure to tackle its culture of impunity. If these two are innocent of the torture, who does the Bahrain regime think is responsible, and what is it doing to convict them?
False claims of reform by the Bahrain government are exposed by its continuing failure to hold its torturers to account. As political polarization increases, sectarianism deepens, its economy weakens, and its protests become more violent, Bahrain appears to be sliding towards greater instability. The government's response has been only to intensify repression and refuse to admit the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture into the country this year or last year.
Meanwhile, international criticism of the crackdown is fading; the U.S. government, once one of the loudest voices complaining about the treatment of the medics, is increasingly mute in the face of further crackdown, and continues to arm the Bahrain regime.
While the issues of torture, unfair trials and impunity range far beyond the cases of a few dozen medics -- with Bahrain's jails full of other political prisoners - the cases of abuse and torture of these medics remains the regime's international signature, and will linger as a stain on the country's reputation until justice is done. And that could be a while. As one of the medics tortured in 2011 told me, the recent acquittals of the police officers were a strong sign that those who ordered the torture are unlikely ever to be held to account.