We were blindfolded, handcuffed and tortured: Bahraini medics

Two Bahraini women medics, who were sentenced to 15 years each in jail for their alleged role in the anti-government protests in Manama early this year, have revealed that they were severely tortured during their detention. In exclusive interviews to Muscat Daily, Dr Nada Dhaif, a dentist, said that she was threatened with rape, and Rula al Saffar, president of Bahrain Nursing Society, accused the principal investigator of blindfolding and handcuffing her, and forcing her to sign false statements.

The women are among the 20 medics sentenced to jail by Bahrain’s special security court on September 29. The court was set up under the emergency rule that was lifted in June. The medics, who worked at the Salmaniya Hospital Complex in Manama, were convicted on charges that include attempting to topple the regime and spreading ‘fabricated’ stories.


Psychological scar

Dr Nada was arrested in the early hours of March 19, making her the first woman detainee during the three month emergency that was imposed in Bahrain on March 15.

Recounting the terrifying ordeal that followed after plainclothesmen picked her up from her residence, she said, “I thought I was being  kidnapped. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my children. The police’s timing was meant to inflict maximum damage and leave a psychological scar,” she said.

Dr Nada (39) was held for 22 days in solitary confinement, during which she claims she was given electric shocks, spat at, beaten and threatened with rape. “Sometimes they would take me to the interrogation of my colleagues. They would blindfold us and make us listen to each other’s confessions,” she said.

“For example, once I was taken to where they were interrogating Dr Ghassan Dhaif (another medic who was sentenced on Thursday). They were beating him and asking him to confess to the charges. Under such severe torture, he relented,” Dr Nada said.

Rula, the nursing society chief who was arrested on April 4, recounted an equally horrifying experience. “The principal investigator, Maj Mubarak bin Huwail, tortured us,” she alleged. “He blindfolded and handcuffed us during the interrogation. He wrote whatever he wanted to write and then took our signatures on the false statements by beating us,” she claimed. “We were humiliated, intimidated and degraded.”

Rula (48), who is currently the head of the emergency nursing programme at the College of Health Science, was the last medic to be released on bail on September 7. The medics have not been paid their salaries since they were first arrested.


On borrowed time 

Although they are on bail, Dr Nada and Rula know their freedom is on borrowed time. “We could be arrested, handcuffed and taken to prison any moment. But I am not scared,” said Rula. “I believe in God and I know I haven’t done anything wrong, that’s why I’ll never run away.”

Dr Nada, however, is concerned about her two daughters. “I have two daughters, Lulu (8) and Alia (6). I am ready to fight but my two girls are my weakness. I still don’t know how to tell them that I might be gone any second.”

Lulu and Alia were so disturbed by their mother’s absence when she was first arrested that their father had to tell them she had gone to Europe for studies. Dr Nada said the girls cannot sleep properly even today. “Lulu says she hears some bad music in her head. It is so heartbreaking that they have to undergo such a traumatic experience,” she said.

Rula’s family and relatives are equally affected. “My husband and brother are devastated. My nephews and nieces, whom I call my kids, call me every morning. The children send me messages, asking whether I am still around. That’s how scared the kids are.”

The September 29 sentence, meanwhile, has brought the convicted medics and their families together. “We used to know each other on a professional level. But now we are a huge family. We have dinners and lunches together. We always say: ‘We are going to have fun with our children, families and friends before we are arrested again’,” said Rula, who completed her studies in the US and became the first Bahraini family nurse practitioner in the kingdom.


Unfair trial 

The group has also rejected the trial by Bahrain’s special security court, and appealed to the UN to investigate their claims of abuse and judicial violations.

“We are civilians but the trial was held in a military court,” said Dr Nada. “The trial is handled by a military prosecutor inside military premises and even the judge is from the military. Our submission is that the trial is illegal and unconstitutional,” her husband, who did not wish to be named, said.

According to media reports, the judicial panel at this special court comprises military and civilian judges. But in August, the reports added, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa promised that the verdicts for all Bahrainis in trials related to the protests would be delivered by a civil court. And on Monday, Bahrain’s prosecutor general announced that the medics will appeal their sentences in a civil court on October 23.

Yet, Rula is far from convinced about the legal process. “The entire trial was preordained and politically motivated,” she said. “We are innocent. We were only following the medical code of ethics in providing service to all.”

“Who would imagine that after serving for 16 years as a dedicated medical professional, your own country could declare you as a criminal?” Dr Nada asked.

Dr Nada, who is a trained oral and dental surgeon from Cairo University’s Medical College, is currently pursuing her post-graduate programme in Orthodontics. “I have been accused of being a killer, a traitor and a murderer in my own country, the country I love so much,” she said.


Global support 

Yet, Nada and Rula are overwhelmed by the sympathy and attention they are receiving globally. “There is a lot of international focus on our case because this is perhaps the first time in history that medical professionals have been targeted and their rights violated on such a scale,” said Nada.

“We are reaching out to as many international agencies as possible, including NGOs, human rights bodies, activists and politicians - anyone who can help our cause,” said Rula. The support from within Bahrain is also spreading. Rula, who is an avid tweeter, is inundated by messages of support. “If you go to my tweet (alsaffarrula), you can read the beautiful words that Bahraini people have written in our support,” she said.

Although the massive global outrage over the sentences have raised the medics’ hopes, they are still keeping their fingers crossed. “There’s always some hope. But unless the political situation changes in Bahrain, I don’t think we can get any relief,” Dr Nada said.


Nurse seeks Omani support


Rula al Saffar, president of Bahrain Nursing Society, has appealed for Omani support to overturn the September 29 sentencing of 20 Bahraini medics to various terms in jail. “I have visited Muscat on a few occasions to support events organised by the National Association for Cancer Awareness. I’ve also held workshops for cancer support groups in Oman.


I love Oman and Omani people and hope they will support our cause,” she told Muscat Daily.

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