MANAMA — Out of prison but in fear of being rearrested, Bahraini Shiite women doctors have spoken of abuse and torture by police after being accused of backing pro-democracy protests in the Sunni-ruled monarchy.
Although medics usually enjoy protection in conflicts by virtue of their profession, many Shiite doctors and nurses in Bahrain were rounded up in the March crackdown on a month-long pro-democracy protest.
Authorities accused them of abusing their jobs and siding with their co-religionist protesters.
Doctors at Manama’s Salmaniya central hospital, not far from the capital’s Pearl roundabout that became the focal point of protests inspired by the Arab uprisings, were also accused of lying and exaggerating on satellite channels to pile pressure on the government.
Some of the women doctors recently freed told AFP how they were made to confess to such allegations under torture and after being subjected to verbal abuse.
They requested anonymity for fear of further persecution.
“I advise you that we will get you to say whatever we want, either by you saying it willingly, or we will beat you like a donkey and torture you until you say it,” one female doctor said, citing her interrogator.
The doctor said she was asked about her role in the February 14 Revolution, the name given by cyber activists to the demonstrations after two protesters were killed on that date.
She said she was smacked in the face by a female interrogator when she answered that she was just a doctor treating those wounded during the crackdown on the uprising.
“It seems you don’t want to cooperate,” the female officer told her, while accusing medics of “stealing blood units to splash on the wounded” to exaggerate their injuries for television.
Blindfolded and handcuffed, the female doctor who claimed to have always been apolitical, said she was stunned with an electric shock to the head. She was then thrown on the floor, legs up, and beaten severely on the feet with what felt like an electric cable or a hose.
“Even policewomen were shocked when they saw my state as I came out of the interrogation room,” she said.
The following day, male interrogators took over, subjecting her to verbal sexual harassment and threatening to rape her.
“You must have had Mutah with demonstrators at the (Pearl) roundabout,” she cited the interrogator telling her, referring to a form of temporary marriage for Shiites which Sunnis frown upon as adultery.
“I will have Mutah with you,” she quoted him as saying.
“I will hang you from your breasts and rape you,” she quoted another as saying.
The woman eventually agreed to sign every confession paper she was given for fear of being raped.
Afterwards she spent more than 20 days in prison. She was released only after signing many pledges, including not to take part in any protests and not to talk to media.
Other female doctors, each of whom has had at least 20 years of professional experience, too spoke of humiliations and beatings.
“Nobody expected this” said one doctor who said she too was arrested and tortured. “Doctors are supposed to be a red line.”
She also spent over 20 days in detention and was subjected to beating to extract confessions that doctors had tried to “expand wounds in order to make them look bad,” for cameras.
The authorities claim that such actions led to the deaths of two protesters who they said had arrived at the hospital suffering only minor injuries.
“I couldn’t tell on which side of my head the slaps would land” said the veiled doctor describing how she was made to stand blindfolded in the interrogation room, where she claimed she was repeatedly called a “whore.”
At night, the soft-spoken mother was made to sleep on a chair.
Another doctor said she managed to lie down, albeit on a cold floor, blindfolded and handcuffed, only after she faked dizziness.
Apart from wanting her to testify against some male doctors accused of mobilising medics to join the protests, they also ordered her to say that she served medicines “only to one sect of people who wanted to topple the regime” — a reference to the Shiite protesters.
She said she was struck several times in the face by a female interrogator.
Though freed, the doctors are barred from travelling and remain suspended from work with salaries overdue since March. They now fear being put on trial.
AFP approached Bahraini authorities for comment on abuse claims, but there was no response.
The authorities have said that 47 medics — 24 doctors and 23 nurses — have been referred to a special court set up under the state of national safety declared by King Hamad a day before the March 16 crackdown on demonstrators.
Bahrain state television repeatedly aired footage from Salmaniya hospital showing scenes it said proved the facility had been transformed into a protest bastion.
“What happened at Salmaniya will not be permitted again,” Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman said last week.
The freed women doctors say they fear for the fate of the male doctors who remain in custody.
“If the women have been treated in such a (harsh) way, what would the situation be with the men!” exclaimed one doctor.
Some medics also expressed fear over the conditions of the female head of nursing at Salmaniya hospital, Rola al-Safar, who remains in custody.
Safar was forced to confess on camera that she “splashed blood units on the patients” to exaggerate, one medic said.
International rights groups have strongly criticised Bahrain over its heavy-handed crackdown on the Shiite-dominated protests, and abuse of medics, teachers and other employees accused of backing the protest.