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Bahrain to drop charges against medics, or not

The government said last week that only five medics would be prosecuted, but all 20 of them are still on trial.
Last modified: 21 Mar 2012 10:22
This February 2011 file photo shows wounded demonstrators being rushed into Salmaniya Medical Complex. [EPA]

The so-called "medics trial" has been one of the most controversial issues stemming from the unrest in Bahrain.

To recap, if you're not familiar with it: Beginning in March, security forces arrested 48 staffers from Salmaniya Medical Complex, the largest hospital in Bahrain. Twenty of them were convicted by a military court and sentenced to jail terms of between five and 15 years, a verdict criticised by the UN as "harsh." (The rest were charged with misdemeanours; a list of their names is here.)

The 20 were convicted of attempting to overthrow the government; rights groups say they were prosecuted simply for treating wounded protesters and taking part in demonstrations themselves.

Their cases are now being retried in a civilian court, and the whole affair continues to draw international criticism.

Which brings us to today, or rather last week, when the public prosecutor said he would drop charges against most of the medics:

"The public prosecutor... has stated he will only be presenting evidence for a small number of accused involved in the most serious criminal violations," he said in a statement, reported by the Reuters news agency. "Of the criminal cases involving medical professionals, only five have been accused of serious criminal charges."

But when their trial resumed last week, all 20 of the medics were in the courtroom. And Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, the justice minister, now says they will remain on trial, even though the public prosecutor doesn't plan to present any evidence against them: "Until there is a final judgment, all of them are accused," he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

I asked him to clarify the issue during an interview after the press conference. This is an excerpt from our exchange - he reiterated that all 20 would remain on trial, but said 15 of them should eventually be punished by the medical association in Bahrain, not by the criminal court. (The italicised text is a question from me.)

There is responsibility on the part of the doctors... so he [the attorney general] found that maybe this is more appropriate for a professional to have a punishment from his or her peers, more than getting into a criminal court.

But they're still going to go through the trial process? All 20 of them?

I think what I am seeing now is that the attorney general has already presented his evidence, last session, for nine hours, ten hours, and I believe that it [the trial] will reach an end. However you will still be accused until you receive your acquittal from the court, and this is an issue that will be left to the court itself, we will not give any kind of direction in this case.

One Bahrain watcher on Twitter called this the government "trying to have [its] cake and eat it [too]... claiming to have dropped cases while prosecuting at the same time."