The trial was like a scene from a bad play: for seven hours in June, third-rate actors played the roles of unscrupulous prosecutors and a military judge fabricating evidence to convict twenty doctors and medical staff of trying to overthrow the Bahrain monarchy. The judge scolded defense attorneys when they cross-examined state witnesses, who testified under oath that Shiite Muslim medics had occupied Bahrain’s main hospital and denied treatment to Sunni patients. He either objected to the questions or responded to them himself.
Of course, the court session in the capital of Manama was no act. Bahrain’s justice system was using flimsy evidence to punish and humiliate not only health workers who’d treated injured antigovernment protesters during last winter’s pro-democracy rally but also anyone who stood against the monarchy. At least thirty-three people have been killed in the unrest since the uprising erupted on February 14 in the capital’s Pearl Square, with many protesters demanding a republic. Hundreds more have been wounded, many severely beaten by security forces while in the hospital, according to human rights groups.
“Who are these people prosecuting us, judging us?” Dr. B., one of the accused, remembers thinking as she and other defendants watched the surreal proceedings. “It’s scary what they’re capable of doing. The security forces shoot people, put bullets in their heads and then accuse doctors of breaking and smashing their brains and causing their death.” Dr. B., who asked not to be identified to avoid government retaliation, had to sign a paper pledging not to speak to the media when she was released on bail after nearly two months in jail. “It looks like I’m with the worst actors in the world, like when you go to theater. It’s so boring. But I have to watch it.” If convicted on various national security charges, she and other defendants could be sentenced to as many as 130 years. At a minimum, they could be jailed 15–20 years.
After police killed at least five people three days after the protests began, demonstrators wanted nothing less than to tear down the whole system. They made dialogue with the government conditional on the ouster of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The radical shift in their demands played into the hands of Saudi Arabia, which from the outset had opposed any reform. With a green light from the United States, the Saudi-led invasion by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on March 14 killed any hope of reform and democracy. The troops arrived right after a visit to Bahrain by former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a key US logistical and command center not only for the Gulf but for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean.
The crackdown did not end in Pearl Square. The government has since been carrying out a systematic campaign of violent repression against its citizens, which was not eased by the lifting of the state of emergency on June 1. Security forces are still deployed in the streets, protests are violently attacked, military trials continue, people are still arrested and tortured (several have died in custody), and Bahrain state television continues to sow sectarian hatred against Shiites.
The crackdown hasn’t spared Shiite mosques: scores have been destroyed or seriously damaged, allegedly for not having building permits, giving credence to the common view that the government is trying to bring Shiites to their knees. With most activist leaders languishing in jail, Bahrain’s opposition is all but crippled. Wefaq, the country’s main Shiite opposition party, pulled out of the national dialogue in July and has said it will boycott a special parliamentary election scheduled for September.