Rachael Fulton, Safeworld Senior Correspondent, spoke to two of Bahrain's women medics.
“Either you cooperate and say whatever we want and we’ll treat you like a human, or you get stubborn and we beat you like a donkey.”
These words were spoken to Dr Fatima Haji, a 32-year-old Bahraini doctor who was last year convicted of incitement to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy for helping injured protestors during the uprising of February 2011.
Masked men had forcibly removed her from her home, seized her personal belongings and driven her to an unknown location. There, she was interrogated by strangers - her face pounded by their fists until she tasted blood.
She was beaten with a hose and shocked with electric prods, then forced to behave like an animal while her interrogators humiliated her for their own amusement. Men blew in her mouth, whispered in her ear, and threatened to rape her. She was made to stand on her feet for hours.
Fatima claims she was brutally interrogated by government officials and that false confessions were extracted from her under torture. For doing her duty as a doctor, she has been sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The details of her trial, sentencing and treatment are amongst a catalogue of recent human rights abuses to emerge from the kingdom of Bahrain.
Fatima is among 20 medics facing sentences of between 5 and 15 years in prison for tending to wounded people in February and March 2011, when protests for Shia Muslim rights descended into violent clashes between Sunni-ruled government forces and civilians.
Demonstrations were held at Pearl Roundabout, Manama, during the uprising. When this area was forcibly cleared of protestors by government forces in March 2011, local hospital Salmaniya Medical Complex became overwhelmed with casualties seeking urgent medical attention.
The doctors and nurses who helped keep protestors alive are now being punished for aligning themselves with anti-government forces, and for being directly involved in attempting to overthrown King Hamad’s regime.
Like Fatima, the other medics involved in the case claim that they were forcibly removed from their homes, interrogated, tortured, and forced to sign false statements in the run up to their conviction in September last year.
They also claim that when government officials seized the hospital on 16th March, riot police brutally attacked civilians, tore down a medical tent, and held medical staff at gunpoint while they confiscated crucial medical supplies.
There is also much speculation that the gas used to break up protests was not standard tear-gas, but something far more potent and physically damaging to its victims.
Medics noted that patients were resistant to medicine which normally prevents seizures, and that exposure to the gas led victims to present symptoms – such as severe hallucination and psychosis – which are not commonly associated with tear gas inhalation.
The doctors' suspicions suggest that illegal chemicals may have been used to prevent protests during the uprising.
“During the unrest, so many injured people were brought to the hospital where my husband and I were working,” says Dr Zahra Alsammak, a consultant anesthetist who faces five years in prison for attending to her patients.
“On the 16th of March, military forces took over the hospital. I was inside trying to rescue whoever could reach us. I couldn’t leave the hospital because all the medical staff who left were beaten by security forces at the gates.”
Dr. Zahra spent the evening of 16th March in the operating theatre at Salmaniya Medical Complex, tending to civilians left critically injured by the violence at Pearl Roundabout. When government forces began arresting medical staff, Zahra planned to flee the country with her children and husband.
“We did our duty as doctors. I have nothing to do with politics.”
Dr Zahra Alsammak
Zahra and her husband, also a doctor at the hospital, were arrested at the airport as they attempted to leave – and were separated from their children for interrogation. Zahra was released after questioning and allowed to return home to her children, but her husband was detained.
It would be three months before she saw him again.
“Three weeks after the first interrogation, I was in the operating room attending to a patient, and I was called by hospital administrators to the office,” says Zahra. “Four masked men with guns in their pockets called me and four other doctors, before escorting us to the criminal investigation department.”
It is from this point that Zahra claims she was separated from her colleagues, blindfolded, interrogated, and tortured by government officials.
“I was questioned about the cases I treated,” she says. “They wanted me to confess that such cases didn’t require operations – that surgeons extended the wounds to make them look serious in order to spoil the reputation of Bahrain in front of the international media.”
Zahra claims she was berated for her religious beliefs, continuously threatened, and verbally abused by a group of men throughout the night. She also claims she was violently beaten by a female interrogator, forced to stand for hours, and blindfolded for the duration of the questioning. Her testimony matches that of the other nurses and doctors involved in the case, who, when arrested, were unaware of the charges brought against them.
They were denied access to lawyers until immediately before the trial began.
The military trial that followed saw the medics reunited with their colleagues in court, with those who had been detained held in a caged section of the room.
Here the medics were read their charges for the first time and asked to reply only “guilty” or “not guilty’” without being able to contest the charges brought against them.
“I answered ‘not guilty’ and that my confessions were extracted under torture,” says Zahra. “The judge didn’t allow me to continue and kicked me out of the court room.”
Charges levied against the doctors include stealing hospital supplies, occupying a hospital during the unrest, spreading lies about the Hassad regime, stockpiling weapons, and withholding treatment from injured government officials.
They have also been charged with falsifying patient’s injuries to make wounds seem more severe, which the government sees as an attempt to defame Hassad in front of the international media.
The military court date was the first time Zahra had seen her husband in the three months since his arrest, and she was shocked to see his hair shorn and to hear his stories of torture. He told her his brother, another of the medic detainees, had also been tortured in front of him and that neither had been aware of the charges brought against them for the duration of their detention.
“In September I was sentenced to five years in prison and my husband to 15 years,” says Zahra. “Despite all the evidence and witnesses who proved our innocence.”
“Medics were targeted because we were credible witnesses on the atrocities of security forces. All that we did was treat the injured. We did our duty as doctors. I have nothing to do with politics.”
The case has been a long, confusing and laborious process for the people involved and has become a contentious issue amongst human rights groups across the world.
In order to appeal the military court decision, the medics have been diverted into the “Special Civilian Court” system and have been retried for their various charges throughout 2011 and 2012.
Many have also committed themselves to hunger strike in protest of their treatment at the hands of the Bahraini government. Now, as they await the ultimate verdict on Thursday, June 14th, the medics must prepare themselves for the news that may tear their families apart.
“I don’t know what will happen to my children if both of us are convicted,“ says Zahra, of the future that faces herself and her husband. “They know their parents are doctors and not politicians - all that we’ve done is try to do our duties by treating the injured. Everything is vague now, we don’t know how this will end.”
As campaigners and activists rally across the globe to highlight the abuse of Bahraini medics, more attention is gradually being drawn to the atrocities taking place in Bahrain.
During the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Bahrain in Geneva in May 2012, the international community condemned escalating rights abuses within the country. Since the discussions took place, pro-government media in Bahrain have pounced on the Bahrainis who took part in the conference, naming them traitors and calling for action against them.
Any attempt to speak out against the regime on an international stage is met with persecution.
“All the world should talk about human rights violations in Bahrain,” says Zahra. “Protesters are people and they have the right to life. The Bahraini government should be told that medics shouldn't be touched - they shouldn't be punished for treating protesters.”