Bahraini health workers to be retried before a civilian court

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6547 (Published 12 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6547
  1. Vivienne Nathanson, director of professional activities1,
  2. Eleanor Chrispin, senior ethics adviser2
  1. 1BMA, BMA House, London WC1H 9JO, UK
  2. 2BMA Ethics Department, BMA
  1. vnathanson{at}bma.org.uk

Bahraini authorities must now show that defendants are given a fair trial

News that the 20 Bahraini health workers who were sentenced on 29 September to up to 15 years imprisonment for “attempting to topple the government” will be given a retrial before a civilian court was initially met with enthusiasm.1 However, subsequent statements from the lawyers of the accused indicate that the announcement of a “retrial” may have been more of a political move, aimed at appeasing international concerns rather than initiating substantive new legal proceedings.2 Such a move is perhaps not so surprising, given how sensitive to international opinion the authorities in Bahrain have been over recent months.

Repeated assurances from the Bahraini government had led many, including the BMA,3 to hope that Bahrain would use the final stage of this particular trial to show some genuine commitment to human rights and to rebuilding its severely damaged reputation. In a meeting with the Bahraini embassy in London in September, officials described to BMA representatives Bahrain’s distress at being portrayed as a repressive intolerant regime. They were at pains to emphasise the government’s strong desire to heal the fractures caused by the country’s period of civil and political unrest. This healing, they made clear, would not be possible while organisations such as the BMA continued to “besmirch” Bahrain’s reputation by speaking out on behalf of the health workers. The BMA’s invitation to the embassy had been prompted by a letter—published in the Guardian at the end of August—4 highlighting concerns about the ongoing trial process, which followed several months of public statements on the plight of health workers in Bahrain.5 6 The BMA responded to embassy officials by stating that the way to quash criticism was to show that the judicial process the health workers were undergoing was free and fair. The BMA, along with Amnesty International and others, expects states to respect and protect medical neutrality; international humanitarian law requires them to do so. The BMA asserted that it would be loud in its protests against any apparent trial for the “crime” of treating insurgents or enemies of the state.

The subsequent verdicts against the 20 health workers, which were met with widespread international outrage and condemnation,7 8 9 showed that Bahrain is perfectly capable of damaging its own reputation without any intervention from the outside world. The health workers, who deny all charges against them, were tried before a special security court, led by the military, in a process that seems to have failed to meet international standards for a fair trial, and were found guilty in a final court session that lasted just seven minutes.10 International observers report that in previous hearings the defendants had not been allowed to give testimony in their own defence or to enter allegations of serious ill treatment while in detention.11 Among the alleged criminal activities of the sentenced doctors and paramedics are inciting hatred of the regime, occupying the Salmaniya hospital by force, stealing drugs, inviting foreign media into trauma areas, and stockpiling arms at the hospital.10

If Bahrain is committed to rescuing its reputation, a genuine retrial is an essential first step. Meanwhile, 28 other health workers stand accused of less serious offences or misdemeanours and are being tried before an ordinary court in a process that is due to resume on 24 October.11 Bahrain must show the watching world that all 48 people concerned have been given access to due process and are being tried on the basis of sound evidence, rather than simply for meeting their fundamental ethical duty to treat without discrimination. Until that happens, the BMA and others will continue to campaign in the strongest possible terms on their behalf.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6547


  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.


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