Attorney Jalila Sayed left her native Bahrain, a tiny island nation, to go to college in France and then got her degree in finance and corporate law at Fordham University in New York City.
Now she practices in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Financial and corporate law is how she makes her living. But Sayed, the 49-year-old mother of three children, takes on some cases pro bono. Currently, she’s involved in a notorious case that has received international attention—the trial of 20 medical professionals facing felony charges such as occupying Salmaniya Medical Center, storing weapons, and plotting to overthrow the government.
“These are highly educated people, fluent in Arabic and English. They were leading the life of any professional anywhere in the world,” Sayed said. “They are being portrayed as traitors, killers, and criminals. They being accused of ridiculous things like stealing blood to fake injuries. These people should have been applauded because they were working in such horrible conditions.”
The charges against the doctors stem from massive pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted a year ago this week at the Pearl Roundabout, a major traffic interchange near Manama's financial district. Medical workers were arrested after treating protestors injured in violent clashes with police and brought into Salmaniya. At a special military trial in September they were sentenced to from five to 15 years in prison. Due to intense international pressure, the convictions were overturned, and they are now being retried in civilian court.
Bahrain, which houses the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet, is a kingdom connected to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile causeway. About 70 percent of the population is Shia, but the ruling family is Sunni, and many Shias complain of discrimination with regards to employment, housing, and education. The demonstrators last year, inspired by the successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, were asking for political reform and equality.
Rula Saffar (right, below), president of the Bahraini Nursing Society, teaches at the College of Health Sciences, which is near Salmaniya. She volunteered to help treat protestors brought in with injuries from the police’s rubber bullets and tear gas. She was arrested, held, and tortured, she says, and now she is not allowed to work or to travel. Saffar claims she and the others were targeted because they’re Shia—and for what they saw.
“We are being charged because we witnessed the atrocities of this government,” she said.
Bahraini government officials asked Saudi Arabia for help in March when the protests seemed to be getting stronger, and Saudi troops along with police from the United Arab Emirates came in, cracking down harshly on opposition. The Pearl Roundabout was bulldozed, and human rights groups charge that anti-government protestors were fired from their jobs and students were kicked out of universities. Government officials bulldozed some Shia mosques, saying the buildings were illegal.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report published in November found that the government’s security forces used “unnecessary and excessive force,” killed 35 protestors, and arrested thousands. It also stated that “many detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse,” and that there was no evidence the accused medics possessed weapons or refused to treat Sunni patients.
Joe Stark, the deputy director for the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch, says government officials have targeted those they feel were part of the protests—including the doctors and nurses.
“They are punishing the population that are critical of the government,” he said. “That covers the destruction of the mosques, and dismissing students from the university—it covers a wide range of the violations.”
In spite of the dangers involved, women in Bahrain acted as opposition leaders, Sayed says.
“Definitely, women have played a major role at the heart of the protests from Day One,” she said. “Women have been imprisoned, fired, tried before military courts. Sometimes at the protests, there were more women than men.”
Saffar agrees that women were key in the protests.
“They have proved themselves during the uprising,” she said. “They have showed they’re strong—that they will stand up for what is right.”
The medics’ trial politicizes health care, Saffar says, with medical professionals afraid to offer their services in an emergency, nurses transferred to work outside their expertise, and sick people afraid to go to Salmaniya, which is now guarded by security forces. In addition, she says, police tear gas predominantly Shia neighborhoods outside the capital almost every night, causing a health hazard. While talking, Saffar continually pulls out her white iPhone to show pictures of kids and adults who she says were beaten by police or to show the effects of tear gas on houses and cars.
Although the cases are being retried in civilian court, Sayed says the judges might not allow new evidence or witnesses. She adds that even after the report about confessions being obtained under torture, those confessions might not be suppressed.
Richard Sollom, the deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, came to Bahrain in January to observe the ongoing trials, but he was not allowed in the country. Sollom says it’s totally unbelievable what is happening in a cosmopolitan, wealthy, highly educated country like Bahrain. He says when he visited the country last spring when the protests were beginning, he met patient after patient who had lost an eye from being shot with rubber bullets and many who had birdshot lodged in their skin.
“It’s my belief that the physicians at the main hospital have themselves become evidence. That’s why these physicians were systematically targeted,” he said. “The government would have us believe that these physicians committed treason and acts of sedition—it’s Orwellian. These are the good guys. They’re only doing their medical ethical duty of treating these people. When physicians see such abuses they have an ethical obligation to talk about them.”
Sayed says the situation is about as bad as it can get, with people being held without evidence under the special security court. This holds repercussions for all Bahrainis, she thinks.
“This impacts daily life of everyone in Bahrain,” she said. “It’s like a police state and anyone can be detained at any time. People are still ill-treated and tortured, beaten, assaulted, and deprived of basic rights.”