Voices from Bahrain: Persecuted doctors continue struggle with BRAVO

Dr Nabeel Hameed is a neurosurgeon, one of only three in the entire country of Bahrain. Yet Wednesday he was sentenced to three months in prison and $700 in fines for the conviction of “illegal gathering” — one of 23 health professionals convicted on these charges.

Dr Hameed was among the physicians, nurses and medical staff of Salamaniya Hospital arrested for treating anti-government protestors during the demonstrations at Pearl Roundabout in March 2011. Their charges included inciting sectarian hatred, promoting the overthrow of the government, harbouring weapons, illegally occupying the hospital, and theft of hospital equipment.

Dr Nabeel Hameed, a Bahraini neurosurgeon, has joined other persecuted doctors to start BRAVO, the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization. Photo by Fabio Pereira.

During the brutal crackdown against the demonstrators, about 30 people were killed and hundreds injured, many of whom ended up in the largest hospital in the capital, Salamaniya.

On 15 March 2011, the Bahrain Defence Forces seized control of the hospital, eventually detaining and interrogating some 48 doctors, nurses, medics, ambulance drivers and other hospital staff. Many later came forth and reported that they were tortured while in detention – including Dr Hameed, who was arrested a month after the government seizure of the hospital and detained for about three months.

“We became automatic witnesses,” Hameed explained to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “That’s a problem. When we saw the protestors, straight away we became automatic witnesses. To take our credibility away, [they] accuse us of a crime.”

Hameed was accused of killing, rather than treating, a protester who had died at the hospital after his care. The interrogators claimed he had done so to tarnish the public image of Bahrain.

International human rights organisations, including the IRCT, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, as well as other groups such as the World Medical Association (WMA), condemned the arrest and detention of medical staff in Bahrain.

“While various criminal charges were brought it appears that the major offence was treating all the patients who presented for care, including leaders and members of the rebellion…” WMA wrote in their statement. The global organisation condemned the acts of the Bahraini government, saying it violated the hospital staff’s commitment to medical neutrality.

“If we help others, maybe we can also help ourselves”

The Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) emerged largely from the controversial targeting of doctors and medical staff. Four of the founders were physicians at Salmaniya medical centre.

“We started [BRAVO] out of a need,” he explains. “In some ways, we thought that if we can help others, maybe we can also help ourselves.”

Within a year of being established, BRAVO has already set up three programmes. They provide treatment for eye injuries, a devastatingly common occurrence now in Bahrain as buckshot is a common weapon used against protesters. Victims are, for example, given a glass eye and provided with therapy to train the remaining eye. They have also set up group therapy sessions for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Finally, they have a psychotherapy programme for the families of those imprisoned or tortured.

Hameed’s own family, he says, is doing as well as can be expected. His youngest son was born just a few months after his imprisonment. After being in Copenhagen for the last few days when we spoke, he was excited to get back to his “beautiful wife and kids.”

“But the children in Bahrain,” he says; “these days they’re playing with barricades instead of toy cars.”

There have been large, well-attended protests on the street in Bahrain, particularly in the capital Manama, since the start of the Arab Spring last year. But Bahrain hasn’t followed the narrative of Egypt or Tunisia; despite ongoing protests and a brutal crackdown in March of last year, there has been no change from the Al-Khalifa royal family rule.

In June of last year, the government commissioned an independent report on the allegations of human rights abuses in the country, called the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI report, released in November 2011, was applauded for its forthrightness and frank examination of the abuses in the country, including violent police abuses on the streets and torture within detention facilities. Since the report, some changes have occurred – for example, the trials against the doctors moved to a civilian court instead of a military one; but many have criticized the lack of proper reform.

However, Hameed sees the government actions since the report as “beautified, not as flagrant violations” in comparison with the brutal treatment of 2011.

The government, he says, would like Bahrain to be viewed internationally as the pinnacle of human rights in the Arab world. And they have taken actions, even within recent weeks, to drain the opposition movement.

Indeed, in the days after I spoke with Hameed, 31 Bahrainis – opposition activists who had organised public protests – were stripped of their citizenship for undermining “state security”. Just a few days prior, the government banned public demonstrations, with the Interior Minister saying that “repeated abuse” of the rights to freedom of speech and expression could no longer be accepted.

It’s been the constant attacks and judicial harassment for his public speech that seems to have kept Hameed consistently aggrieved during this process. He stands firm on his right to freedom of expression. Despite the arrest, the torture, the ongoing court cases and the persistent threat of more, he’s defiant, not hostile, but decidedly non-compliant. He will continue to speak against the human rights abuses in Bahrain.

“I don’t mind them personally calling me a criminal. But not a traitor.”

Facing this most recent conviction, it is unknown whether Hameed will lose his license to practice medicine. For the time being though, there is some relief that at least he will not have to go to jail again – he has already served three months and will therefore not have to return. However, the fact that the judge in this case refused to hear any claims of torture from the medics, reflects much of the most recent criticism of Bahrain – that one year after the BICI report, few reforms have taken root.

Tessa is Communications Officer at IRCT.

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