Professor Eoin O’Brien writes in todays Irish Examiner on the findings of the recent humanitarian mission to Bahrain to offer support to imprisoned Bahraini doctors and their families.Three of the imprisoned doctors, Dr Ali Al Ekri, Dr Basim Daif and Dr Ghassan Daif studied in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.
The delegation was led by Professor Damian McCormac, who was also joined by Ms Averil Power TD (member of the Irish Parliament). Ms Marion Harken MEP, Mr David Andrews former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Front Line representatives Andrew Anderson and Khalid Ibrahim. The full text of the article is published below.
“I went home from my work as usual following a day of work as an oncologist at the Salymaniya Medical Centre. I was awoken from sleep at 3 a.m. when the door of my apartment was kicked open and I was pulled form my bed by two men who then ransacked the flat, shook and searched my four-year old child, packed my personal papers and computer, and then dragged me from my flat to an a van surrounded by police cars. I protested that my child was alone and young and was told she would be looked after.
I was taken to a room blindfolded and handcuffed with my hands behind my back. After hours of standing against a wall I was verbally insulted and then placed in solitary confinement for 10 days in a small dirty cell, during which time I was tortured, sexually molested by both male and female interrogators and beaten with a hose on the back and neck. I was then moved to a gaol where I could hear other prisoners being tortured and I was interrogated repeatedly. I was filmed signing many papers the content of which no longer mattered to me, but among which was a confession that I had stolen drugs from the Hospital and that I had incited disturbance.
This harrowing account is typical of many similar reports from imprisoned doctors who have been released form prison, and from the spouses and children of doctors who remain in prison that I have heard first-hand during a recent visit to Bahrain as a member of delegation consisting two doctors, Damian McCormack and me; three politicians, Averil Power, Senator of the Irish Parliament, David Andrews, former Minister for Foreign Affairs for Ireland, and Marian Harkin, Member of the European Parliament; two members of Dublin based international human rights organisation Front Line Defenders, the Deputy Director, Andrew Anderson, and Khalid Ibrahim; and a freelance photo journalist, Conor McCabe.
During a two-day visit we met close to 100 people from all sides of Bahraini life. We were brought to the house of a family, which had suffered dearly in the aftermath of the protests, where 27 women and men were gathered representing doctors who had been released from prison to await trial, and the spouses and children of doctors detained in prison. We were brought to a secret suburban location at night to meet ambulance drivers who had been taken from their ambulances, imprisoned and tortured, and medical students, some of whom have been prevented continuing their studies.
At our meeting with the doctors and their relatives their fairness in acknowledging what had been good in the Bahrain health care system, their affection for Salmaniya Hospital where so many of them had served for many years, and their regard for the previous Minister of Health, who had resigned because he had failed to protect doctors, was in contrast to their sense of betrayal by RCSI-Bahrain and the fact that none from the many representatives of both RCSI or RCPI, who had visited the country recently for the conferring of doctors, had made any attempt to contact the families of imprisoned health care workers.
Our delegation was invited to separate meetings with the management of the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed by these officials were largely repeated but in greater detail by Dr. Fatima Al Balushi, Minister of Human Rights and Social Development and acting Minister of Health. Dr. Al Balushi, was erudite, confident and particularly concerned about the public image of Bahrain. In our preamble to all meetings the similarities between Ireland and Bahrain were acknowledged – island communities, relatively small populations, religious conflicts (Catholic versus Protestant in Ireland, Sunni versus Shia in Bahrain), and the close medical ties between the islands for a quarter of a century.
These niceties aside we pointed out that Ireland differed in that freedom of speech was a cornerstone of our democracy, and most importantly persons accused of felonies and crimes were ‘innocent until proven guilty’. We stressed that nowhere else in the world had so many doctors and medical personnel been held incommunicado and allegedly tortured as in Bahrain and that this was totally unacceptable to the ideals and principles of European democracy.
Dr. Al Balushi stated that she was proud of the human rights achievements in Bahrain, and she saw Bahrain as a model for the Middle East and a champion for humanitarian issues, such as women’s rights and religious freedom; the Arab Spring had hit Bahrain like a tidal wave for which it was not prepared and which brought the country to the verge of civil war; the protests, which had started peacefully, had soon escalated into chaos with Salmaniya Hospital being captured by demonstrators; a number of doctors have been implicated on film and the guilty doctors would be subject to legal process for subverting the primary code of providing care to the wounded.
Asked if the allegations of kidnapping, detention and torture were true she answered that if such was found to be the case the perpetrators would be duly prosecuted; mistakes had been acknowledged by the King and redressed by the appointment of an independent commission to investigate violations of human rights, the transfer of trials from military to civilian courts and the release of most of medical detainees but the doctors remaining in custody could not be released because they present a threat to national security. However she agreed to approach the King with a request form us for their release.
At the end of our visit each member of our delegation was in no doubt but that doctors had been subjected to human rights abuses that included kidnapping, detention without trial in solitary confinement, and the extraction of confessions under torture. The failure of the Bahrain authorities to recognise the importance of restoring the medical profession to its former status will have far-reaching consequences for the island. We left Bahrain moved by the gratitude of the doctors and their families for our support from outside the country, and embarrassed that we were offering so little in the face of the enormity of their suffering and courage, and knowing that we would return soon to the security of democracy leaving them to endure sleepless nights in anticipation of the unknown vicissitudes that may beset a country denied the right of democratic expression