Convicted Bahrain medics incredulous at weapons accusation

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Story highlights

  • An independent investigator says the medics will get a fair trial
  • The prosecution presents weapons, including guns and swords
  • The medics laugh at the weapons at first, then respond with anger
  • The case has sparked anger among human rights groups
Prosecutors in the retrial of 20 medics convicted of trying to overthrow the government of Bahrain produced boxes of weapons Monday that they said were found in the medics' hospital.
The weapons included swords, hammers, chains and machine guns -- and prompted incredulous laughter among the defendants.
"What went on in there was a total joke. It's -- I find it hilarious," Dr. Nada Dhaif said after the hearing. "I started laughing with the whole show that went on, with all these weapons and fruit knives and screwdrivers and hammers. And these Kalashnikovs. What are they after?"
During a break in the proceedings, the defendants said they had never seen the weapons in their lives.
"That evidence is being fabricated," Dr. Fatima Haji said.
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The medics were detained during pro-democracy protests this year and convicted in October. They are now being retried in civilian court, hoping their sentences of five to 15 years will be thrown out.
Many said they hoped the government would be more conciliatory toward them after an independent commission report last week criticized the government's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
The defense objected vociferously to the presentation of the weapons in court, saying they had not been registered as evidence and had not been presented at the first trial.
The defense also complained about not having been notified about the arms.
The hearing was adjourned until January 9.
The case has sparked anger among human rights groups, with Amnesty International calling it a "travesty of justice." The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply disturbed."
Soon after the convictions last month, Bahraini authorities announced a new trial for the medics.
"By virtue of the retrials, the accused will have the benefit of full re-evaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defenses," Attorney General Ali Al-Boainain said.
Charges against the doctors included possession of unlicensed weapons, inciting the overthrow of the government, provoking sectarian hatred and forceful occupation of a public building, officials said.
Last week's highly critical report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found that some of the medical personnel "had political ties with the opposition and pursued a political agenda. Among them were some who were seen leading demonstrations, chants against the regime."
Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, the commission chairman, told CNN that he believes that the medics are good people who wanted to do well, but that "some of them were politically involved. Some of them got carried away in the political maelstrom of what's happening. Some of them behaved in a manner which normally doctors don't behave in."
Fatima Al-Balooshi, Bahrain's acting health minister, cited the report as saying that "they were politically motivated and actually they were discriminating against expatriate" Sunni Muslim workers.
Most Bahrainis are Shiite Muslims, but the ruling elite are Sunni. Activists and human rights groups allege that the medical workers are being prosecuted for treating protesters.
The report also chastises the medics for the presence of media in the hospital: "The medical staff, however, did not attempt to prevent the media from filming inside the emergency section and on the ground floor of (Salmaniya Medical Complex) in general, thus contravening the code of ethics in terms of patient confidentiality."
But the commission found no proof that medical personnel assisted demonstrators by supplying them with weapons.
"The only evidence presented to the commission supporting such allegations consists of pictures provided by the (government) showing two Kalashnikovs on the floor of SMC. These photographs, whose sources cannot be authenticated, do not connect the two weapons to the medical personnel."
The convicted medics deny all the charges against them. "I am not a politician," said Dr. Bassim Dhaif, who received a sentence of 15 years. "I don't belong to any political party. I'm a professional, and I will continue to be a professional, and I will continue not to be part of any political party."
Bassiouni told CNN he believes the retrial is a step in the right direction: "The bottom line is, every one of them is now having his or her case reviewed again as a retrial and the government has dropped all charges based on any confessions and all charges based on freedom of expression. So I think they're in a position where they'll get a fair trial."
Protests have lingered in Bahrain for months despite a crackdown by the kingdom's Sunni monarchy, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. More than 30 people have been killed during the demonstrations, in which activists say Bahraini security forces used live ammunition against protesters.
Opposition groups say more than 1,000 people have been detained and more than 2,000 have lost their jobs for allegedly taking part in the protests.
On Wednesday, the independent commission set up by Bahrain's king, Hamad al-Khalifa, found that police used excessive force and torture against arrested civilians.
The mistreatment included physical and psychological torture -- intended to extract information or to punish those held by security forces, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry said.
Among the commission's recommendations: Protesters should no longer be tried by special military courts outside the normal legal system.
In response, the king ordered that a committee be established to implement the recommendations.