Elections held in Bahrain over the weekend are the latest ruse by the regime to feign democratic change. While the charade of ballot box rituals is taking place, the trial of health workers expected to appear in court this week is a fresh reminder that repression in the kingdom is far from over. It is also evidence that repression is not linked to activism and extends well beyond the streets and detention centers.
The health workers were amongst the first victims of the Bahraini regime’s crackdown in March. They were not opposition leaders or activists. Unlike journalists and human rights activists, the risk of being imprisoned did not come with the territory. They were simply treating patients. It was not their fault that they became witnesses to some of the regime’s most heinous crimes. They had treated injured protesters. As a result, over forty health workers were arrested and imprisoned. Many were tortured brutally. State TV and pro-regime newspapers accused the doctors and medics of “occupying” the main hospital, refusing to treat people they claim were injured by the protesters, and of causing the deaths of many injured. The reality, of course, was that the main hospital was occupied by the military the day Saudi Arabian forces arrived in Bahrain. Injured protesters could not enter the hospital and doctors and medics who were in the hospital during the military takeover could not leave. Ambulances were not allowed to leave the hospital to pick up injured patients and those who attempted to do so disappeared.
Twenty-eight of the doctors and medics were accused of misdemeanors. They were released in June. The rest were charged with felonies. The regime slowly began releasing the remaining health care workers due to mounting international pressure. The 14 remaining health care workers, along with many of their fellow prisoners — around 200 in total according to the Bahrain Center of Human Rights estimates — went on hunger strike. Their children, as well as doctors from all over the world, most notably in Ireland, joined them in solidarity. Skeptics of the effectiveness of hunger strikes in the face of dictatorial regimes, myself included, were proven wrong. The Bahraini government succumbed to international pressure and released the remaining 14 health care workers on September 7.
But the regime resorted to other less obvious ways of persecuting the health workers. Charges against the doctors were not dropped, riot police attacked well-wishers welcoming the doctors back home, there were reports of arrests as tweeted by human rights activists Nabeel Rajab and Maryam Alkhawaja from the Bahrain Center of Human Rights, and sectarian hatred continued to be spewed by pro-regime newspapers regarding their release.
Meanwhile, it was becoming apparent that the health workers were still not going to be reinstated despite the King’s announcement months ago that they would. Several days after the release of the 14 health workers, Bahrain’s Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa issued an order to employ “volunteers” — those that had volunteered to teach at the Ministry of Education after the mass purge of Shia teachers or anyone associated with the opposition occurred. These volunteers were opportunists grabbing positions they were barely qualified for. Many were receiving salaries without even teaching. Now they are official Ministry of Education teachers, except that they don’t have the necessary qualifications and they don’t have to show up to work. The Ministry of Health issued a statement that there would be no reinstatements for the next three months. The announcement of the prime minister came after “threats” by pro-regime religious leaders that a Sunni opposition would soon develop if the government does not employ the volunteers. There were conflicting announcements that are most likely intended to confuse the public about the regime’s intentions. But the Bahrainis are not fooled. The protest movement will continue. There is no turning back now.
Luma Khaled is the pen name of a Bahraini activist. This article was first published in Al-Akhbar on 25 September 2011 under a Creative Commons license. Cf. Justin Gengler, “(Traffic) Circles of Violence” (Religion and Politics in Bahrain, 19 September 2011); Justin Gengler, “Back to Square One: What Has Changed in Bahrain since February?” (Religion and Politics in Bahrain, 24 September 2011).