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Bahrain: some relief, but still a lot of concern

By Vivienne Nathanson, BMA director of professional activities

The news that a number of the doctors convicted in Bahrain a year ago have been absolved of any criminal activity is good news, and a great relief for those of us following their trials with concern.

But the news that nine of their colleagues have been found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, mostly for very short periods (though one was sentenced to five years and another to three) gives very serious concern. We saw no evidence presented that indicated any crime.

Why does this interest the BMA?  First, these are medical colleagues who appear to have simply been doing their normal clinical work during extraordinary times. While civil unrest was centred around their hospital they continued to work, including caring for protesters caught up in the Bahraini part of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Their arrest seemed to us, short of any evidence of criminal activity, to smack of a government seeking to stop doctors treating all, regardless of politics. And such a move has serious implications throughout the world.

Our actions on human rights always have a health focus. We act, usually by writing letters and, where possible, meeting officials, when a health worker is involved or when a prisoner’s access to healthcare is denied.

And our letter writing and meetings have an effect.  Thirteen years ago a presidential pardon was issued to a GP academic imprisoned in Nigeria, following an intense letter writing campaign. And arguably the retrial of the Bahraini health workers followed this pressure. Sadly, our letters to Syrian authorities are being ignored, as far as we can tell, but it is not surprising given those same authorities seem to be also ignoring the UN.

Medical neutrality benefits the whole of society, including the most vulnerable. It is a marker of civilisation; we are caring even to our enemies and sits alongside other concepts of good including the Geneva Conventions.

Every health worker has a role in defending this concept; we will continue to press for full, fair and free access to care by all and for proper protection of all those offering that care.

Why we intervene

BMA procedures for human rights interventions, drawn up with advice from Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, explains the BMA's criteria for intervening in alleged abuses of human rights.

Read our procedures for human rights interventions