Stories from Bahrain’s Crackdown: Dr. Fatima Haji, Internal Medicine and Rheumatology Specialist
Widespread public protests calling for democratic reform in Bahrain began in February 2011. By mid-March 2011, the Bahrain government had begun a violent crackdown on the protestors and those it imagined had been its leaders. Journalists, human rights activists and medics were arrested in the following weeks. Many still remain in jail today, convicted on the basis of confessions forced under torture.
Dr. Fatima Haji was among 3,000 people working at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country’s main public hospital, in Manama, Bahrain when the pro-democracy protests began. Dr. Haji treated protesters, including some injured by tear gas.
Following a declared state of emergency on March 15, security forces surrounded and then occupied Salmaniya Medical Center, taking command of operations there. Security forces interfered with medical decisions and the provision of care, while the presence of troops and security forces—many wearing masks and carrying arms—intimidated staff and patients alike. Injured protesters were afraid to seek necessary medical attention due to check points around the hospital.
At the hospital, four men interrogated Dr. Haji about participating in the protests at the Pearl Roundabout. On 17 April, 2011 she was arrested and dragged out of her home at approximately 10:30 in the evening by thirty plain-clothes police officers brandishing guns and wearing ski masks. More than seventy other health professionals, including doctors and nurses, were also arrested for alleged involvement in the protests. The officers searched her home, seizing two laptops, a digital camera, a Blackberry and a Nokia phone, car keys, flash memory sticks, papers, letters from work, and Dr Fatima Haji’s ID card that she used to enter Salmaniya.
During her 21 days in detention following her arrest Dr. Haji was subjected to different types of torture: slapping on the face, severe beatings, beatings with a rubber hose on the feet, electrocution to the head, sleep deprivation, standing for long hours without food or water, prevention from use of toilet, hanging from wrists, threats of execution and rape, and threats to kill her child. She filed a case against Noura Al-Khalifa, a member of the ruling Bahraini monarchy, who allegedly took part in her arrest and torture, but the case was dismissed after the first hearing.
On May 8th, Dr. Haji was released on bail after being told she would have to attend a military court. She had to sign documents stating she would not participate in any gathering of five or more people and would not talk to the media and that she had not been abused or tortured. She was called in to Hoora police station on June 27 without her lawyer present, to deny on film everything that she had said in a video and apologize for it.
In September 2011, Dr. Haji was convicted along with 19 other medics to jail terms of between five and fifteen years for treating injured protestors and telling the international media about the cause of the injuries. Dr. Haji and the other medics were accused of conspiring to overthrow the monarchy by supporting the pro-democracy protests. The medics were also accused of using ambulances to transport protesters and ammunition. Dr. Haji herself was accused of stealing blood bags to give to the protesters who used them to fake injuries. She was given a five-year sentence.
Following an international outcry, nine of those convicted, including Dr. Haji, were acquitted in June 2012 while others had their sentences reduced. Two Bahraini medics, Dr. Ali Al Ekri and Ibrahim Al-Demastani, remain in prison today serving out their five and three-year sentences, respectively.
Today Dr. Haji continues her advocacy both internationally and at the U.N. Human Rights Council in support of the reform movement in Bahrain. However, the Bahrain government has recently taken new action against her. On April 8, 2014 the public prosecutor’s office questioned Dr. Haji and accused her of insulting the Ministry of Interior in an interview she gave last year to France 24 about the effects of tear gas.
The continued targeting of medics for their criticism of the regime shows how little has really changed in Bahrain since 2011. No senior official has yet been held to account for the torture of the medics, or any other prisoner.