30 Sep 2011

Doctor jailed in Bahrain claims he was tortured

A Bahraini doctor sentenced to 15 years in prison after treating an injured demonstrator tells Channel 4 News he was tortured after witnessing “the most atrocious attacks on innocent protesters”.

Dr Bassem Dhaif is one of 20 medics given prison sentences by a military court on Thursday following the violent crackdown by the Bahraini regime on the Shia-led protests in Manama in March.

Speaking via webcam, he said he made a confession after “very violent torture”, adding: “I was subjected to various kinds of torture during those days, physical torture, verbal torture, pshychological torture, massive attacks on my (Shia Muslim) religious beliefs.

“I was kept standing continuously for 12 days and following those 12 days I developed massive swelling of my legs and because of that I lost sensation in both of my feet. Probably, I have developed a clot in the veins of my legs.

I was subjected to various kinds of torture. Dr Bassem Dhaif

“I was charged with occupying a hospital, using weapons. All of this is untrue. It’s just because I have treated a protester who has been attacked by the use of live ammunition. I reported that to the media and because of this I was arrested and I was charged and now I am sentenced to 15 years. Is that justice? Is that what the world wants to see?”

The medical staff were convicted of inciting hatred of Bahrain’s rulers and calling for their overthrow during the protests. They are not in prison at the moment because they are mounting an appeal, which will begin on Sunday.

‘Witnessed atrocious attacks’

Dr Dhaif said he and the other medics were arrested because they were “credible witnesses” who had “witnessed the most atrocious attacks on innocent protesters”.

Channel 4 News also talked to doctors Nada Dhaif, a cousin of Bassem Dhaif who also received a 15-year sentence, and Fatima Haji, sentenced to five years.

Dr Dhaif said she was treated harshly after being arrested for helping to set up a medical tent to treat the injured. “It was a process of torture and all the means of violation. I was sexually harassed, beaten, cursed, all of that, just to obtain the confessions.”

I have to tell the world what happened. Dr Nada Dhaif

She claimed she was forced to sign a confession while blindfolded and make a statement to a television crew. Asked if she was worried that being interviewed could antagonise the Bahraini authorities, Dr Dhaif said: “It’s a risk, but I have to take that risk. Maybe I will be gone for 15 years. I have to tell the world what happened. I have to clear my name. My kids will grow up and they want to know what their mother did, why their mother is gone.”

Dr Haji said: “We are innocent people. We are people without any political background. All our acts were out of humanitarian motivation. We saw people who needed help and we helped.”

Royal pardon

A senior human rights activist in Bahrain told Channel 4 News he was hopeful the doctors and nurses would receive a royal pardon. Abdullah Al-Derazi, secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, said he believed they would have their sentences reduced on appeal before being pardoned.

Mr Al-Derazi said: “I expected a military court to impose harsh sentences. I think at the appeal court the sentences will be reduced, and a royal pardon will probably happen later on.”

After the March protests, a commission was appointed to study what happened. Its report is due by the end of October, and Mr Al-Derazi said a royal pardon was likely in November, “so we can start afresh”.

He added: “At an economic level we are suffering, the social fabric is suffering and on the political level there’s reason for optimism that change has to come.”

The Bahrain grand prix was cancelled in March because of the political unrest in the country, but motor racing is scheduled to return to the Gulf kingdom in April 2012.

Formula 1

Mr Al-Derazi said: “Losing Formula 1 was not good for the country because it lost out economically. Nobody wants to lose it again. That’s a reason the government needs to solve its problems, so it can convince the world it is stable enough to host Formula 1. There has to be a solution otherwise it will lose it again.”

A Foreign Office statement released a statement, saying: “The minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, today spoke to the Bahraini Ambassador and reiterated the British Government’s deep concern about the nature of recent hearings and disproportionate sentences.”

The medics, who have denied the charges, were among dozens of hospital staff arrested during demonstrations led by the Shia majority against the Sunni government.

Military help

The protests were crushed after Bahrain received military help from fellow Sunni countries Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained in the crackdown.

The medical staff were also charged with stealing medicine, stockpiling weapons, occupying a hospital and withholding treatment from the security forces. Ten of them were given 15-year terms, two were sentenced to 10 years in prison and the rest to five.