Two years ago this week, in the shadow of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, 20 Bahraini medics were sentenced by a military court to prison terms of between five and 15 years. They were targeted by the Kingdom after treating injured protestors during the Bahrain uprising in early 2011 and then telling the international media the truth about the scale of the Kingdom's crackdown. The medics were then tortured into making false confessions and given military court show trials. There was such an international outcry at the medics' verdicts that the Bahrain government promised to retry them in civilian courts. That same week, the leaders of the Bahrain Teachers Association - Mahdi Abu Deeb and Jalila Al Salman - were also convicted by a military court.
Fast forward to today and it's clear that not much has changed in Bahrain. Despite promises by the Bahrain government, the medics and teachers' appeals played out in unfair civilian court proceedings. Some medics acquitted and some had their verdicts confirmed. Of the original 20 sentenced to prison, two medics, Dr. Ali Al Ekri and nurse Ibrahim Demastani, remain in prison today. The teachers lost their appeal. Al Salman ended up serving her time and is now out of jail. Abu Deeb is still in prison serving the remainder of a five-year sentence.
While the U.S. government has publicly expressed concern about these cases, and said it was "deeply disappointed" by the convictions in the medics' cases, it has not stated that the trials were unfair. The U.S. Embassy in Manama sent observers to these and other prominent show trials, but failed to say publicly that the proceedings fell far short of international standards. Several of the defendants told Human Rights First that there were disappointed that the United States did not speak out about the unfair court procedures.
Jalila Al Salman, who spent three months in prison for her association with the protests, was one of those tortured and then convicted in military and civilian courts. She told Human Rights First,
U.S officials came to observe the civilian court [trial]. They take their notes and leave. One from the State Department was there and he asked me for some translation, but that's all. I was hoping that because they're watching everything that they will write something to the authorities of Bahrain saying this is not right. They gave us the feeling that everything is fine, but if it was, how come we were convicted?
Al Salman and others disappointed in the U.S. response had expected more because the United States government has publicly commented on unfair legal proceedings in other countries. For example, a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Republic on December 10, 2012 noted:
The United States urges the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic to pay special attention to fully establishing the rule of law. We note that the problems of torture and pervasive shortcomings in the law enforcement and judicial systems have led to the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of too many citizens based on legal proceedings that fail to meet domestic or international standards.
Several medics told Human Rights First that they could not believe the United States remained silent about their trials, especially since Bahrain is such a close U.S. ally and home to the Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Rula al Saffar, head of the Bahrain Nurses Association, was one of those tried in the medics' case. Rula, who spent 18 years in the United States working and training to become a nurse, shares this frustration. At her show trial in military court, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but she was later acquitted by the civilian court. Since her acquittal, has made several trips to Washington, DC, to advocate on behalf of her fellow medics and others unfairly tried. "The United States should speak out about the trials - its officials saw that there was no real evidence, that the medics were innocent, that they had been tortured into confessing to things they hadn't done. The United States should call for those jailed to be released immediately because they're innocent and had a show trial," she told Human Rights First.
Dr. Ali Al Ekri is an orthopedic surgeon who was convicted in the medics' case and remains in prison serving out a five year sentence. His wife, Fareeda Al Dallal, told Human Rights First,:
He and Demastani are scapegoats. The United States saw the truth of what happened, but has stayed silent. These were unfair, political, ridiculous trials -- Dr Al Ekri is now supposed to have overthrown the regime without help or weapons. The United States should say the convictions should not stand.
The United States' silence may have other unintended consequences, too. Some have interpreted the presence of U.S. officials at court proceedings as some sort of validation of the fairness of the trial. A poster circulating on social media that is critical of the Bahrain medics' claims of an unfair trial reads, "THE TRIAL OF DOCTORS WERE [SIC] ATTENDED BY HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS, AMERICAN OFFICIALS AND DIFFERENT MEDIA CHANNELS."
In addition to the medics and teachers' proceedings, U.S. government officials have observed military and civilian courts hearings in several other cases, including those of 21 prominent dissidents. These dissidents include much of the Bahrain peaceful political leadership. U.S. criticism noting that these dissidents' trials failed to meet international standards might lead to their early release from prison, which would be a step towards meaningful reform and negotiation and in the Kingdom.
Bahrain is acting as if it has a free pass to use political prosecutions as a means to silence dissent. Just last week, Khalil Marzooq from the Al Wefaq opposition group was arrested and will be held for at least 60 days, and the past few days have seen dozens more protestors sentenced after unfair trials, including prominent human rights defender Naji Fateel, who was handed a 15-year sentence.
The United States has a lot at stake in Bahrain. It's not too late to publicly declare that the convictions in these cases should not stand and that all political prisoners in Bahrain, including the medics and teachers who were convicted two years ago this week, should be released. It's time for the United States to make clear that no ally - even one that hosts a naval fleet - is above the rule of law.