US rights activist denied entry into Bahrain

Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An American human rights activist, who intended to observe a protest-related trial in Bahrain, was denied entry into the Gulf kingdom on Sunday despite authorities' pledge of transparency.

Richard Sollom, deputy president of the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights, told The Associated Press that Bahraini airport authorities gave no reason for their refusal to allow him into the Gulf country, which was hit hard by political unrest during last year's Arab Spring.

Sollom charged that Bahrain authorities do not want international observers at the trial of doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters, which is set to resume Monday. International human rights organizations have harshly criticized the prosecution of the health professionals who were working at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Center during the massive protests in February and March.

"I am quite stunned. This was the first time a member of an international rights organization came to Bahrain after authorities promised to respect human rights and told us we can come and see for ourselves," Sollom said in a telephone interview after he landed in Dubai Sunday evening. "We can see now that not much has changed," he added.

Bahraini authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

The government had made a pledge of transparency following an international inquiry into months of anti-government demonstrations and the ensuing crackdowns that accused Bahrain of rights abuses, including denying a fair trial to arrested protesters.

Sollom holds a U.S. passport. He arrived in Bahrain on Sunday morning with a five-year, multiple entry visa. He said he wanted to observe Monday's retrial of 21 doctors and nurses who were convicted last year of anti-state crimes and received lengthy prison sentences from a special security court that was set up after Bahrain imposed martial law to quell dissent.

At least 40 people have died since February when Bahrain's Shiite majority started demanding greater rights by marching on the streets in numbers never seen before in the strategic Gulf island nation that is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.

Bahrain is a critical U.S. ally and is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Washington has taken a cautious line with authorities, urging Bahrain's leaders to open more dialogue with the opposition, but avoiding too much public pressure.

The government has accused the medics of participating in efforts to overthrow the ruling Al Khalifa family.

In November, independent investigators tasked by Bahrain's king to probe the unrest were highly critical of the special security court that has tried the medics, opposition leaders and activists behind closed doors. A 500-page report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry said the court has issued harsh sentences — including life in prison and death penalties — and "denied most defendants elementary fair trial guarantees."

The document also spotlighted abuses at the Salmaniya hospital. The authorities saw its mostly Shiite staff as opposition sympathizers. Dozens of doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters were detained during the crackdown. Many of them received prison sentences of five to 15 years.

Bahrain has abolished the special tribunal and has moved protest-related trials into civilian courts.

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