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Bahrain: Senator Averil Power August Letter
Following her participation in an independent Irish delegation to Bahrain, including Front Line Defenders Deputy Director Andrew Anderson, Senator Averil Power sent this letter and report to Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore.
An Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore T.D. Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade 80 St. Stephen’s Green Dublin 2
22nd August 2011
Firstly I would like to thank you again for your support for the Irish Delegation’s visit to Bahrain. Your letter of support was of great assistance to us. I would also like to thank you for arranging for Deputy Head of Mission, Robert O’Driscoll, to meet us in Abu Dhabi airport. Robert met us at 7:30am and, despite the fact that he was on crutches, personally guided us through the airport to our flight. He also kept in touch with us while we were in Bahrain, which we greatly appreciated.
While I know that you will no doubt have read the media reports about our visit, I have attached a formal report on the various meetings that we had over the course of our two days in Bahrain.
Since we returned to Ireland, we have been monitoring events in Bahrain through Frontline and Professor McCormack’s contacts on the ground and through the social media.
We are encouraged by the release of Dr. Rula Al Saffar, the head of the Bahrain Nursing Society and and Jalila al Salman, deputy head of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association on 21st August 2011. Both had been on hunger strike since 4th of August.
However, 10 medics are still in custody, and we are gravely concerned about the immediate medical risk to some of these. In addition, the detained ophthalmology consultant Dr. Saeed Al-Samaheji recently suffered from a ruptured aneurism to the brain and is currently in hospital following a serious operation.
Also, as we highlighted to the Minister for Health during our visit, there are serious concerns that one of the doctors who remain in detention poses a suicide risk.
I urge you to continue to do everything you can to help secure the release of those who remain in custody in Bahrain following the anti-government protests last March.
We feel that the next few weeks will be crucial. As you know, there is a culture in the Middle East of prisoners being given a royal amnesty during Ramadan. With Ramadan expected to end on 29th or 30th of August, we are anxious that as much pressure as possible be put on the Bahraini authorities to release the imprisoned medics before then.
Le gach dea-ghuí,
Senator Averil Power
Report On The Irish Delegation’s Visit To Bahrain
An Irish delegation visited Bahrain on 13th and 14th July. The group comprised two doctors, Professor Damian McCormack who headed the delegation and Professor Eoin O’Brien. The other members were former Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews; Senator Averil Power; Andrew Anderson, Deputy Director of Frontline Defenders; and Khalid Ibrahim of Frontline. Marian Harkin MEP joined the delegation on Thursday 13th July as an official representative of the ALDE Group from the European Parliament.
During a two-day visit we met close to 100 people from all sides of Bahraini life.
On Wednesday 13th July we met with the families of the detained doctors and some of the recently released medical personnel and listened for three hours to many heart-breaking testimonies of torture and ill-treatment which deeply affected all of the delegation.
One testimony stated: “I was taken to a room blindfolded and handcuffed with my hands behind my back. After hours of standing against a wall I was verbally insulted and then placed in solitary confinement for 10 days in a small dirty cell, during which time I was tortured, sexually molested by both male and female interrogators and beaten with a hose on the back and neck. I was then moved to a gaol where I could hear other prisoners being tortured and I was interrogated repeatedly. I was filmed signing many papers the content of which no longer mattered to me, but among which was a confession that I had stolen drugs from the Hospital and that I had incited disturbance.”
This is typical of the experiences recounted to us. All the statements given were clear, consistent and credible and left us in no doubt that those who had been imprisoned had been the victims of serious breaches of their basic human rights.
Medical students and recent graduates spoke of how they are being prevented from continuing with their studies and in-hospital training and their fear that the Bahraini government is now implementing a policy of sectarianism in education, training and employment.
The delegation was given separate meetings with the management of the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At each of these meetings, the case against the imprisoned medics was outlined by the various officials. In our opening remarks at all meetings the similarities between Ireland and Bahrain were acknowledged – island communities, relatively small populations, religious conflicts (Catholic versus Protestant in Ireland, Sunni versus Shia in Bahrain), and the close medical ties between the islands for a quarter of a century. These niceties aside, we pointed out that Ireland differed in that freedom of speech was a cornerstone of our democracy, and most importantly persons accused of felonies and crimes were ‘innocent until proven guilty’. We stressed that nowhere else in the world had so many doctors and medical personnel been held incommunicado and allegedly tortured as in Bahrain and that this was totally anathema to the basic values of international human rights law and practice.
The most significant of our official meetings was with Dr. Fatima Al Balushi, Minister of Human Rights and Social Development and acting Minister of Health.
Dr. Al Balushi, was erudite, confident and particularly concerned about the public image of Bahrain. She stated that she was proud of the human rights achievements in Bahrain, and she saw Bahrain as a model for the Middle East and a champion for humanitarian issues, such as women’s rights and religious freedom. She said that the Arab Spring had hit Bahrain like a tidal wave for which it was not prepared and that it had brought the country to the verge of civil war. The protests, which had started peacefully, had soon escalated into chaos with Salmaniya Hospital being captured by demonstrators. She showed the delegation video footage which she claimed incriminated the doctors. Asked if the allegations of kidnapping, detention and torture were true, she answered that if such was found to be the case the perpetrators would be duly prosecuted; that mistakes had been acknowledged by the King and redressed by the appointment of an independent commission to investigate violations of human rights. She highlighted the transfer of trials from military to civilian courts and the release of most of medical detainees.
We urged her to do what she could to secure the release on bail of the fourteen medical personnel who remained in prison and stressed that such a humanitarian gesture would be very significant step towards healing the wounds to Bahrain's reputation. When she stated that she would speak with King Hamad and request the release on bail of the remaining medical personnel, we warmly welcomed this, particularly as she had told us that the other medics had been released from custody after her personal intervention.
At the meeting with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, we also met with Dr Nabeel Al Ansari who had been appointed by the Government as the head of the Bahrain Medical Society after the previous head of the society had been forced out by the authorities for criticising the military crackdown on protestors in March. We were struck by his aggressive and confrontational approach to the delegation, which contrasted dramatically with the carefully diplomatic demeanour of Minister Al Balushi, and also by the vitriol with which he criticised the imprisoned medics. Our final visit was to the home of Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahraini Centre for Human Rights. Nabeel showed the delegation how his house has been targeted with tear gas for speaking out about human rights abuses in his country.
Before departing for our return flight to Dublin, we held a press conference in the Ramada Hotel. The delegation had agreed in advance of the press conference that we would be very measured in our use of language, that we would stress the courtesy that had shown to us by Minister Belushi and that we would avoid statements that might make it difficult for the Government to ‘save face’ if it released the medics. However Dr. Nabeel Al Ansari and other pro-government members of the Bahrain Medical Society interrupted the conference with the purpose of making it difficult for us to communicate our reasoned views to the media. Despite this, several delegation members were able to give one-to-one interviews afterwards.
This incident highlighted for us the extent of the animosity that is being whipped up in Bahrain through fabricated charges against the doctors and the impact that growing sectarianism is having on a previously peaceful society.
We left Bahrain hopeful that Minister Al Balushi would hold true to her commitment to request that the King release the remaining medics on bail.
Since then however there have been repeated attempts by official sources and sections of the Bahraini media to misrepresent the purpose of our visit. It has been claimed that we arrived under the pretence of being tourists and then sought meetings, despite the fact that we had been made the purpose of our visit known to the Bahraini authorities in writing in advance of our trip. The Head of the Bahraini medical society has repeatedly claimed on twitter and in the media that the delegation had refused to meet with him, despite the fact that we had met with him for over an hour with government officials. He has also described the delegation as terrorists, while pro-government activists have claimed on twitter that we are paid agents of the Iranian regime.
Since we returned to Ireland, we have been monitoring events in Bahrain through Frontline and Professor McCormack’s contacts on the ground and through the social media. We are extremely concerned that the overall position in Bahrain has not improved since we left, and indeed in many respects appears to be getting worse. We are determined to continue to try to keep the spotlight on the human rights abuses there and in particular on the position of the medics who remain in custody. Towards this end, Professor O’Brien has had an article accepted for publication shortly by the Lancet, which having the largest global circulation of all medical journals, will alert the medical profession worldwide to the fate of their colleagues in Bahrain.