She's a princess in the royal family of one of the world's richest nations, a police officer and now, a defendant accused of torturing two doctors and a poet in a trial that has the Gulf State kingdom of Bahrain transfixed.
Princess Noura Bint Ebrahim al-Khalifa was working as a police officer when the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and threatened to topple the oil-rich nation's ruling family. Bahrain's so-called "Pearl Revolution" was put down quickly and with extreme prejudice. Prosecutors say al-Khalifa played a role by personally torturing the doctors after they were arrested for tending to injured demonstrators.
"The charge is that she used torture, force and threats against the victims Zahra al-Sammak and Kholoud al-Durazi to make them confess to a crime," Prosecutor Nawaf Hamza told Reuters.
Princess Noura is also charged separately with being present when poet Ayat al-Qurmazi was brutally tortured. Al-Qurmazi was arrested after she read a poem criticizing the royal family in front of a crowd of 10,000 people. Her attorney claims the princess was present when others applied electric shocks to the poet's face, spat in her mouth and beat her while she was in detention.
"The charge is that she used torture, force and threats against the victims Zahra al-Sammak and Kholoud al-Durazi to make them confess to a crime."
- Bahrain prosecutor
Al-Khalifa is one of several hundred members of Bahrain's royal family, and it is not uncommon for royals to hold everyday jobs. The nation is a close American ally and permanent home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, but Bahrain's dubious record on human rights has some critics questioning the relationship.
The princess was working at the time of the pro-democracy demonstrations as an officer in Bahrain’s Drugs Control Unit on the streets of the Bahraini capital, Manama. The doctors she allegedly tortured gave forced confessions that resulted in them receiving prison sentences of up to five years – later quashed by a review panel - from a military court.
Princess Noura, who first appeared in court last summer, strongly denies the charges against her, but has refused to make any public comment on the matter.
During the protests in which at least 35 people were killed – some human rights organizations have put the figure at as many as 80 – several medical professionals were arrested for treating the dying and wounded. Some 60 were later jailed, although the vast majority were released on appeal a short time later. There remains however deep suspicion that justice in Bahrain is neither transparent nor even-handed.
“The prosecution of Shaikha [Princess] Noura is an encouraging sign, but the earlier trials of low-ranking police have resulted in few convictions and sentences not commensurate with the crime," Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director of Human Rights Watch, told FoxNews.com. "We have to wait and see if justice will be served properly in this trial.”
Maryam Al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told FoxNews.com the trial is a test for the government's commitment to human rights.
"The absence of an independent and fair judiciary system in Bahrain creates a lack of trust when it comes to holding people in government accountable for human rights violations," Al-Khawaja said. "The human rights situation continues to deteriorate whilst some in government positions implicated in violations receive promotions."
Serious questions are also being asked about the U.S. relationship with Bahrain in view of the island state’s dubious record on civil liberties, and as recently as September last year representatives of 11 high profile U.S.-based NGO’s appealed to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to intervene to “stop gross violations of human rights.”
“We are writing to alert you to credible reports that the security forces of the Government of Bahrain continue to engage in human rights violations against non-violent, pro-democracy protesters and to urge you to immediately suspend further U.S. military assistance and arms transfers to the responsible units, as required by law,” the organizations wrote.
The Kingdom is seeking to prove it is earnest in protecting human rights, even at the expense of prosecuting a high-profile figure like the princess. Supporters of the government highlight the fact that the King himself ordered an inquiry into the events surrounding the demonstrations and the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) which included independent assessors, a number of whom were experienced United Nations Human Rights investigators.
But last month, there was strong international condemnation of Bahrain’s decision to uphold the sentences imposed on 13 members of the 2011 protests.
Bahrain's government claims the demonstrations were whipped up by Shia agents sent from Iran to try and undermine the rule of the staunchly pro-U.S. al-Khalifa family, followers of the opposing stream of Muslim belief to the Islamic Republic.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.comand can be followed on Twitter @paulalster