I was tortured in Bahrain police cell, says one of the doctors jailed for 15 years

Roula al-Saffar tells Patrick Cockburn of electric shocks and threats

Saturday 22 October 2011 08:30

As one of 20 Bahraini doctors and nurses given up to 15 years in prison, Dr Roula al-Saffar recalls with outrage the tortures inflicted as police tried to force her and other medical specialists to confess to "a doctors' plot" to overthrow the Bahraini government.

"It was a nightmare," Dr Saffar, the 49-year-old president of the Bahraini Nursing Society, told The Independent in a phone interview from Bahrain, on the day that she had originally been told she would go to prison – a fate that now appears to have been briefly postponed. "They gave me electric shocks and beat me with a cable. They did not let me sleep for three or four days."

She was given only a single bottle of water to drink in the course of a week-long interrogation. Even being given permission to go to the toilet depended on the mood of the police who were abusing her.

She was horrified to see school girls in shock who had been threatened with rape by interrogators, and she still fears that some of them may have been sexually abused but are too frightened to admit it. She said: "They had bruises all over their bodies." In the course of her five months' imprisonment, she believes she saw as many as 250 detainees, some of them aged between 13 and 16 years old, who were thrown into cells with their injuries untreated.

She herself was dragged one night from the cell where she was sleeping on the floor "to a room full of men who were all smoking". She said: "I had heard the call to prayer so it must have been about 3.30am. They told me they were going to rape me there and then if I did not confess."

Never were there more unlikely revolutionaries than the doctors and nurses, all specialists in their fields, whom the Bahraini government claims had turned the Salmaniya Hospital Complex in Manama, the capital, into a base for rebellion. "We are completely innocent," Dr Saffar said. "All we did was to treat our patients."

Dr Saffar, educated in the US and with a long list of degrees and medical qualifications, is now waiting to see if she will be re-arrested to start her sentence before her appeal is heard on 23 October. She is not hopeful about the outcome, after spending 156 days in prison. "Knowing what has happened in Bahrain, they can do anything," she says.

Her imprisonment started on 4 April when she was summoned to a police station. She was immediately handcuffed and blindfolded. "There were beatings and electric shocks and a piece of paper was put on my back saying that anybody could do anything to me," she remembers. This went on for a week. She was made to listen to the screams of colleagues being tortured.

She says she was especially targeted by a woman police officer, a member of the al-Khalifa royal family, who beat her and used electric shocks on her. "When I first arrived [the woman] said, 'Welcome. I have been waiting for you since 2005 and you have been under the microscope'." This turned out to be a reference to a campaign led by Dr Saffar to increase nurses' pay and improve their working conditions.

The account by Dr Saffar of her interrogation and mistreatment tallies so closely with that of other detainees that there seems to have been a common procedure, beginning with seven days of severe torture, including sleep deprivation and confinement in a cell with the air conditioning turned down to freezing. One obsession of her questioners was to force a confession that she and other doctors had taken bags of blood from the hospital blood bank to give to protesters to pour over themselves, to lend credibility to false claims that they had suffered injuries at the hands of the police. These and other charges, Dr Saffar said, were completely ridiculous.

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