Bahraini doctors speak out against torture

Doctors have been tortured and given long prison sentences for giving medical care to anti-government protesters.

bahrain doctor protest
Dr Haji was tortured and threatened while being detained by government forces [Al Jazeera]

Far away from the crowded village streets covered in debris from the protests and clashes with police still happening on an almost nightly basis, are the streets lined with the Bentleys, Mercedes, Range Rovers, and Lexuses that belong to many of the Bahraini doctors who are soon going to prison.

The two areas couldn’t be more different from each other, yet in both are signs that Bahrain’s uprising, which began on February 14 of this year, is far from over.

Before their sentencing on Thursday, the doctors had agreed to remain mostly silent and not speak out with the hope that the case would be swept under the rug and their charges dropped.

No one could believe it when, on September 29, 13 of the medics received 15-year sentences, two 10-year sentences, and five received five years. Their charges ranged from possessing weapons, to occupying a hospital, to inciting hatred of the regime. All had already been imprisoned from a few weeks to five months, when they claimed they were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they say they didn’t commit. Doctors have said they were only doing their job and treating people in need of medical care.

This is the first time that a group of doctors have been put on trial and punished for being on the frontline during any of the Arab uprisings to sweep North Africa and the Middle East.

This is the first time that a group of doctors have been put on trial and punished for being on the frontline.

Dr Nada Dhaif, an oral surgeon sentenced to 15 years, said that this amount of doctors being jailed is a truly “unique case” in the “history of any revolution or unrest, and in the history of medicine.”

When the sentences were announced, the doctors’ silence ended. Global media immediately picked up their case, and international human rights groups condemned the charges as “ludicrous”.

Abdul Aziz Bin Mubarak, an adviser at the government’s Information Affairs Authority, told Al Jazeera on Saturday, “this has nothing to do with treating the protesters. [The medics were] collaborating with the hard liners … to overthrow the regime.”

“This is an attempted coup d’etat” by the medical workers, the counselor said.

The military public prosecutor, Yusuf Flaifal, put out the state’s version of events that said doctors had gathered in February at a nurse’s home where they plotted to overthrow the regime.

In the home of one of the doctors (for safety reasons Al Jazeera was asked not to mention whose home) the medical workers mocked Flaifal’s report and the charges against them.

On the day following the sentence, one doctor broke down in tears at thought of returning to jail, another walked around furiously and another cracked jokes to keep the mood light. After spending time with the doctors it’s clear they’re worried that the their hours surrounded by loved ones at home are numbered.

However, rather than sit and wait to be taken away, the doctors are now telling their stories, including what they saw when more than 30 people were killed and hundreds injured during the month of massive protests before Saudi troops entered Bahrain and martial law was declared on March 15.

This, they say, is the real reason they were targeted.

A doctor’s cry

Dr Fatima Haji, a rheumatologist sentenced to five years on Thursday, says she still gets chills when she sees the video from February 17.

Filmed by Al Jazeera, the video shows a group of medics assisting Dr Haji, who appears hysterical from what the viewer can only assume must’ve been something horrific she witnessed in the hospital.

Haji said that what she had seen was a man in his 60s being brought in with a fatal head wound. She was told it was Isa Abdul Hasan who was killed by police while assisting the injured outside Salmaniyah hospital.

“I’m a very strong person, and during [almost 10 years as a doctor], I never cried at the hospital,” Dr Haji said. “I never saw that type of injury in my life.”

“I’m a very strong person, and during [almost 10 years as a doctor], I never cried at the hospital … I never saw that type of injury in my life.

– Dr Haji

She said that she wouldn’t have been as bothered “if they brought somebody with his leg cut off, because you would know that it’s an accident and that happens, it’s his destiny. I would feel sorry but I would not stand crying.”

“But seeing a person who died because the government decided to kill him because he happened [to be] at the line of the clash between security and protesters [was too much],” she said. “He was not even protesting for God’s sake, he was trying to help the injured people and he was killed.”

“I just started shouting: ‘What the hell did this guy do, he was an old man. What did he do to deserve this?'” That’s when she says she went hysterical, unaware of what was happening around her.

Abdul Hasan’s death made her think differently about the country and the protest movement that was then just picking up steam. “After [his death] I became more concerned about Bahraini people and their basic rights. There are lots of violations happening and no one is actually supporting them or helping those people.”

In the subsequent weeks, Dr Haji saw a number of other injuries, some fatal, but never again did she break down.

After martial law was enforced, Dr Haji was suspended from the hospital in early April. On April 17  her home was raided by police and intelligence in the middle of the night and she was taken to interrogation, it was that video she was questioned about.

In the interrogation room, with her eyes mostly blindfolded and hands cuffed, Dr Haji says she was beaten by a woman who accused her of faking the scene filmed on Al Jazeera. She said the woman also accused her of stealing blood from the blood bank and pouring it over the injured to dramatise the injured or for the cameras.

She noticed that many of the male guards referred to the female interrogator as “sheikha”, a title usually reserved for members of the royal family.

She later heard about Noura al-Khalifa, a distant relative of the King’s wife, and after seeing her photograph Dr Haji recognised the woman she had seen leading the team that raided her home and who interrogated her in prison.

At one point during the interrogation, Dr Haji says she was brought her Blackberry. “Call 4 Help”, read the subject of an email she had sent to Human Rights Watch from her phone.

In the email, Dr Haji wrote she was waiting at home to be arrested at any moment, and said “by the name of humanity we are just doctors who treated wounded people. We are calling for help. Bahrain is sinking, we are living [in a humanitarian] crises.”

Her interrogator was furious. “She started screaming, calling me [prostitute], cursing me, my religion, all of my relatives. She told me, ‘how dare you go to complain to Human Rights Watch about your government …'”

The woman then left and she heard her come back with some kind of device that she placed on the table. Dr Haji was unable to put into words the feeling of the pain from the electrical shocks caused by the metallic object held against the sides of her face. After a few minutes, she was thrown on her stomach and whipped on her legs with some kind of rubber hose, she said.

They threatened they would rape me if I didn’t confess, they said they would leave my body in the dumpster like the other martyrs.

– Dr Haji

She said the interrogator grew even angrier when she found a Blackberry message received by Dr Haji that had called for a solidarity action with a young boy killed during the protests. The interrogator lifted her blindfold and told her to read it out loud, but Dr Haji said all she could see was white.

She had lost her vision, and was taken to a clinic and examined by a doctor who she says did not even remove her blindfold to examine her eyes. She was brought back to the interrogation center.

“One after the other they threatened they would rape me if I didn’t confess, they said they would leave my body in the dumpster like the other martyrs.” (She also described other forms of verbal sexual abuse too graphic to mention here.)

Just before that, the body of a detainee who reportedly died while in police custody turned up in the garbage near a predominantly Shia village.

Within a couple days Dr Haji’s vision returned, yet she said that she was kept blindfolded and forced to sign a confession that she wasn’t allowed to read. After a few weeks in prison she was eventually released.

But on September 29 she was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting hatred against the regime, spreading false news about the injured and other charges.

Normal operations

Both Dr Haji (R) and Dr Dhaif (L) claim to have been tortured by a member of the Bahraini royal family [GALLO/GETTY]

In addition to the group of 20 medical workers sentenced on Thursday there are an additional 28 medical workers awaiting trial on October 24. Theirs is considered a misdemeanor case, but most still face anywhere from one to five years in prison if convicted.

On February 18, Abdulredha Buhamaid was filmed walking towards the Pearl roundabout and chanting the slogan “peacefully” alongside dozens of protesters when all of a sudden shots rang out from the army tanks up ahead and the person filming fell to the ground. When the camera went back to Buhamaid, he was lying in a pool of blood on the ground. The video was widely circulated and seen as representative of the treatment of the unarmed protest movement by a violently repressive state.

Dr Nabeel Hameed, one of Salmaniyah hospital’s three neurosurgeons, was called to the emergency room to treat Buhamaid.

“His skull bones were completely shattered into pieces. His brain was mashed and he was bleeding from a major blood vessel going to the brain, the bullet [shattered] that. His condition was severe and [prospects for] survival was were bleak.”

Dr Hameed performed a CT scan, and saw fragments of metal from what he could only assume was a live round throughout the left side of Buhamid’s brain. Unsure if the patient was brain dead or not, Dr Hameed decided to go forward with surgery, even though he wasn’t optimistic that Buhamaid could be saved.

After surgery, Buhamaid was transferred to the ICU where he suffered brain death the following day.

On April 11, Dr Hameed was called to the administration office. Before he went he finished his rounds. “People were disappearing,” Dr Hameed said. “I knew I would too.”

Sure enough, there were five or six plainclothes police officers waiting for him, Dr Hameed said. They took him away along with other doctors.

Dr Hameed was accused of killing Buhamaid. Because video of his death had gone had gone viral online, they wanted to shift the blame away from themselves, Dr Hameed said.

They tried to pressure Buhamaid’s family to come out against him. However, Dr Hameed said the family stood by him, and the father of Buhamaid said, “[they] want me to complain against the doctor who tried to save him and leave the person who shot him free.”

“They don’t interrogate you as much as they [bully] you into saying what they want.” What they wanted, Dr Hameed said, was for him to admit to killing the protester.

To his surprise the charges disappeared in June and he was released after almost three months in detention. However, Dr Hameed, still faces misdemeanor charges and is due back in court later this month.

Dr Hameed was suspended from Salmaniyah in April along with one of the hospital’s two other neurosurgeons. Dr Hameed said that even before February the hospital was already overwhelmed, and now the capacity of the neurosurgery department had been cut by two-thirds.

How can you operate a hospital when close to 20 per cent of its staff is gone?

– Dr Hameed

The cuts affected other specialised departments as well. Some even lost all of their specialists. In total Dr Hameed estimates 500 doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff were suspended or fired from Salmaniyah, Bahrain’s main and only public hospital.

“How can you operate a hospital when close to 20 per cent of its staff is gone?” he asked in response to claims by the hospital administration and the government that the hospital is running smoothly.

He said some patients needing neurosurgeons are leaving Bahrain to seek treatment. And this, of course, is something not all are able to afford.

Because a heavy military presence remains around Salmaniyah, many people needing medical care are too scared to go to the hospital. (During protests last week, this writer witnessed makeshift clinics inside homes so proteters wouldn’t have to go to Salmaniyah and other medical facilities where they’d likely face arrest.)

“They’re completely fooling people when they say they have normal operations at Salmaniyah.”

Last week, Dr Hameed’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first child in Paris. Because Dr Hameed is banned from traveling, he could not attend the birth and has not yet seen his son.

Fractured, not broken

At the doctor’s home where the “criminal” medics gathered, sat Ibrahim al-Demastani. Puffing on a hookah he seemed absent, focused on something outside the room.

At one point I turned to him for his story. I started by asking, “You received 15 years, right?”

“No,” he responded. “I sold 10 of them to Fatima [Dr Haji].” The group all laughed.

Al-Demastani, head of the Bahrain Nurse’s Society, had in fact received 15 years on September 29. After his arrest, al-Demastani was fired from his position as a nurse at a private company. His family could no longer afford to rent their flat, and they moved in with his in-laws.

During the protests in February, al-Demastani volunteered to provide medical care at Salmaniyah hospital and Pearl roundabout and also trained protesters in first aid.

Al-Demastani explained one of the roles of the nursing society is to provide support to disaster teams when needed, and also encourage others to participate.

One of the people trained by al-Demastani was his 18-year-old son, Ali. Al-Demastani described his son as extremely active at Pearl roundabout. “He was always there, passing out drinks, cleaning up, just helping out.”

On March 13, when protesters blocked roads and were violently dispersed by police, Ali was struck by a car and badly injured. Al-Demastani said that because he was taken in a civilian car to a nearby medical facility, and not Salmaniyah, he did not receive proper care and died as a result.

They started kicking and kneeing me in my back so many times I collapsed many times. They caused a fracture.

– Al-Demastani, nurse

A few weeks later, on April 4, al-Demastani was arrested from his work place.

For five days, al-Demastani claims he was tortured, beaten, forced to stand almost 24 hours a day, only allowed to sit for a few minutes. There were no showers, nothing.

Al-Demastani says he was suffering from a prolapsed disc before he was arrested, and when he told the guards, “they started kicking and kneeing me in my back so many times I collapsed many times. They caused a fracture in my coccyx bone.”

Al-Demastani says he was taken to a military clinic, where he was quickly examined and sent on his way with some pain killers. For the next four months, al-Demastani stayed in prison in excruciating pain. He couldn’t sit properly, and couldn’t lie on his back.

Not until, ironically, al-Demastani met an officer who he had once trained in first aid, was he taken to receive a proper examination from an orthopedic doctor who found a fracture in his coccyx bone.

All 48 medics finally appeared together in a military court on June 6. When the charges were read against them, some defendants tried to tell the judge of their confessions being given only after they were extracted under torture.

“He didn’t want to hear it,” al-Demastani said. “‘Did you do it, yes or no?'” was all the judge asked. When a few medics persisted in mentioning the torture they were dragged from the courtroom, al-Demastani said.

When al-Demastani and the doctors who were still imprisoned were finally released on September 7, Dr Dhaif described meeting him, “He complained about being released because he had only lost 17 kilos during his time in jail, and he still had eight left to go.”

Above the law

“After my arrest and detention, I realised that I was taking life for granted,” Dr Haji told Al Jazeera.

She said there is an Arabic proverb that goes something like, “Health is like a crown on the head of healthy people and nobody can see it but the sick.”

“It’s a wise guy who said this, but I wanted to meet this guy and tell him it’s not only true for health, but also [for] the feeling of safety,” said al-Haji.

Back at the doctor’s home, the medics are going on the offensive, taking calls via phone and over Skype from publications around the world. Dr Dhaif has even opened a Twitter account.

Her first tweet in English read: “Gov spokesperson said that nobody is above the law including members of the royal family. A royal family member was involved in my torture.”

Dr Dhaif also confirmed to Al Jazeera that she was interrogated, beaten and electrocuted by Noura al-Khalifa during her prison. She too heard her referred to as “sheikha”, and at one point a guard asked Dr Dhaif why her face was bleeding. When she described the woman interrogator, he replied, “You mean Noura al-Khalifa?”

(The claim that Noura al-Khalifa was involved in torture inside the prison has been made to Al Jazeera by other detainees and their families.)

For Dr Dhaif, by going after the doctors the regime is trying to send a message to everyone, “be careful, this might happen to you regardless of your background or wealth.”

She said that recent events prove that in Bahrain “you’re nothing if you’re not loyal to [the regime].”

Those medical workers already sentenced have filed an appeal that’s been set for October 23, one day before the other misdemeanor trial is due to take place.

Until then, the doctors and nurses are trying to fight for their cause by letting the world outside know what’s happened, uncertain which moment of freedom will be their last.

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage

Source: Al Jazeera