Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Saturday, 25 June 2011 11:59 UK

Bahrain doctors in prison for daring to speak out

Protesters' tents burn in Manama's Pearl Square in March 2011

Rupert Wingfield Hayes
BBC News, Bahrain

As the Arab Spring protests continue - and world attention shifts to other places - a group of Bahraini doctors go on trial for speaking to the foreign media.

Amid the violent turmoil of Libya and Syria, it is easy to forget what happened on the island of Bahrain three months ago.

It is certainly what the officials at Formula One would have liked. And it is certainly what the Bahraini royal family and its many friends in the Western business community would also prefer.

Bahrain's royals are nothing if not charming.

Over lunch of pan-seared sea bream and chilled spinach soup, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Mubarak spoke wistfully of his love for Leeds football club and of rainy days at Elland Road back in the 1970s, when Leeds was one of the great English clubs.

The recent street protests were, well, unfortunate.

The protesters had pushed too far, demanded too much, the country was descending into anarchy.

The king had no option but to step in and restore order. The violence was regrettable, but reports of it were exaggerated. And now there will be a genuine dialogue with the opposition.

Doctors on trial

By the end of lunch, I was starting to believe that the Western media had perhaps got it wrong. Until my mind's eye flashed back to the scene I had witnessed a few hours earlier.

Troops guard an entrance to Manama's Salmaniya Hospital in March 2011
Many injured protesters were treated at Bahrain's Salmaniya Hospital

In a military court room on the outskirts of Manama, I had sat and watched as 20 doctors had shuffled into the dock, their heads shaved, their clothes rumpled.

Some were young, others older and grey.

They could not squeeze enough chairs into the dock, so the young ones stood and allowed the older ones to sit.

For three hours, I watched as the prosecution made its case.

The doctors were, it alleged, part of a militant Shia clique that had taken control of Manama's biggest hospital and used it as a base to try to overthrow the royal government.

They had spread false rumours, used ambulances to ferry weapons, including machine guns, to the street protesters.

They had refused to treat patients from Bahrain's minority Sunni elite and they had stolen blood from the blood bank.

It was a strange collection of charges.

Torture claims

The evidence against them is equally murky. The first prosecution witness, a government official, kept referring to confidential sources and to confessions made by the defendants.

Confessions are always a very suspect form of evidence.

A injured protester is treated in hospital
Doctors spoke out about the injuries suffered by protesters

Ask anybody who has experienced torture and they will tell you that almost everybody breaks in the end.

And one of the most effective ways of making someone sign a confession is to stop them sleeping.

In China, I once met a man who had confessed to killing his own wife after being kept awake by police for 10 days and nights.

His wife was alive.

So what the wife of one of the doctors in Bahrain told me was all the more disturbing.

In a brief meeting outside the court, her husband had told her he had been blindfolded and handcuffed, and forced to stand up for three weeks.

Forcing someone to stand does not sound like torture, but that is exactly why it is so effective.

As the world now turns its attention to more pressing stories... there is a real danger that the Bahrain doctors will be forgotten

Back in my hotel room, I trawled the internet and BBC archive for video of the men I had seen in the dock that morning.

It did not take long. There they were on the BBC and al-Jazeera speaking out passionately, as wounded protesters were rushed into the emergency room behind them.

One of the doctors, a softly spoken man called Ali Al Akri, struggled to hold back tears as he pleaded with the government to stop the killing, to stop shooting the protesters.

In court, the prosecutor had called Ali Al Akri the main ringleader of the doctors' conspiracy.

He did not look like a ringleader to me. Passionate, angry, distraught, yes. The leader of an anti-government coup? No.

His real crime was to have spoken out to us, the foreign media. To have told the outside world what was going on inside his hospital. Of the effects of buckshot and tear gas. To show X-rays of high-velocity bullets embedded in protesters' bodies.

They were images that brought shame and international opprobrium upon friendly, liberal, sophisticated Bahrain.

And it is for that, that the Bahrain doctors are now being punished.

As the world now turns its attention to more pressing stories - in Libya, Syria and beyond - there is a real danger that the Bahrain doctors will be forgotten and that the Bahrain authorities will be quietly allowed to get on with persecuting those who dared to stand up and to speak out.

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