In March 2011, Bahrain faced a humanitarian crisis when the largest public hospital came under military control. Tens of doctors and hospital staff were detained and tortured in the gravest humanitarian crisis of the 2011 uprising. Dr Nader Dawani is a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist who was imprisoned between April and September 2011.
Salmaniyya hospital had been under the control of the army. It was more militarised than the actual military hospital. I knew that several doctors had been arrested before me, though no one knew where they’d been taken. Our bosses couldn’t guarantee us safe passage in and out of the hospital, so I stayed at home.
It was the middle of the night on April 1st. Over 40 people entered my house with machine guns, hand guns, all sorts of weapons. Some wore masks, some didn’t, some in army uniforms, some just in normal clothes. They assaulted my home. And they wanted me.
They took me in my car, sat me in the back with one of them and another one driving. They swore at me and began beating me until we arrived at a place where they blindfolded and cuffed me. It seemed to be a hospital.
More beatings followed inside. There was a nurse who asked me if I have any health issues or not. She took my blood pressure and sugar levels, asking me questions as they continued to hit me against the head. One doctor asked me for the medicines I take and I told him. They brought a bag of medicine for me and gave it to the doctor, but they never administered any of it to me. Ten days I went without medicine in the torture camp. I have diabetes, I need insulin. They gave me nothing.
In the prison there was a daily schedule. From the morning, afternoon, in the evening – constant beating. And all the while, I was standing. They insulted our religion, our families, everything. For the first two days, they didn’t even allow me to pray. They swore at me, “are you not Muslim? Are you an atheist? Are you a Shi’ite infidel?” Those first two days, they didn’t even let me go to the toilets.
Most of the physical torture was done with a plastic water hose. Against my shoulders, my back, the underside of my feet. And the person who beat me the most was a woman. I’d be questioned and when I wasn’t giving the answers they wanted the interrogator would ask her to do her work. She hit me harder than any of the men. She’d be using a wooden plank and she’d smash it against me – and I’d hear it break against my back. God curse her. She hit me a lot.
There were times where I would feel like I was falling. I’d see myself in places I wasn’t, going left and right, then I’d be flying, or I’d see myself in a coffee shop. My mind had left me. It was all from the torture. Then I’d feel the pain of the beatings and be forced up again. They wanted me dead.
There were a lot of ordeals. By the fourth day I was begging them to bring me empty papers, let me sign those and they could fill the space in with whatever they wanted. But they wouldn’t let me. They just beat me. And every minute I’d be praying to God. They wanted to kill us all. I really thought that was it, that I’d be dead. Sometimes I’d be able to hear my friends, other doctors imprisoned. I know their voices, I could hear them in the cells around me. It was all to scare us.
This torture was ceaseless until the eighth day. On that day they let me sit on the ground and bathe. A sympathetic man took me to wash. He was part of a group of Shi’i workers untrusted by the torturers and wasn’t allowed in the building until today. He asked me, do you know why they’re letting you wash today? I said no. He told me that two people had been tortured to death the day before, Ali Saqir and Zakariya al-Ashiri. The government was facing a crisis. There had been a memo forbidding them to torture us physically. From then on, it was better. They continued to swear at us, but the beatings stopped. They let me call my family for the first time too – I was given a few seconds just to say that I was alive and ask how they were doing.
The jailers wanted me to admit to ridiculous things. They were accusing me of being Iranian. I asked them, why? They said, because I had treated the son of the Iranian ambassador. So because of that I’m an Iranian. I said look, I’ve treated the families of most of the diplomats in the country. The Filipino, the English, the Italians, the Germans, the Indians, the Pakistanis – all their families have been treated by me. Am I from those countries?
And I’ve treated the family of the king, I told them, the family of the king! I could name each of them. The palace, the king’s palace is the only place I’ve gone to work outside of the clinic. I told them, I am a citizen of Bahrain! But they didn’t listen. No, they wanted me to admit that I was Iranian.
The tenth day was the longest for interrogation. They questioned me from noon until ten in the evening and made me sign a 150-page document. I was still blindfolded and cuffed and they made me sign it. Every time I asked to see what’s written, they would throw water bottles at me. 150 pages and I have no clue what I signed.
After that they took me to the second prison. A Pakistani officer stripped me naked and took pictures of my body. It was the first time I got to see myself. I was black all over from the beating, across my shoulders and under my feet. I couldn’t see my back, except from the sides. But later they put me in a cell with other prisoners. They groaned when they saw the torture marks.
There were fewer beatings in that place. One time they made me stand from morning until noon, which was easy. Then an officer came in and forced me to stand on one leg, but when he left I just went back to standing on both, until someone returned. The torture was mostly in the form of insults for the first month or two there. But there were some beatings – one of the torturers punched me in my back until I fell on the floor. God curse him.
When Bassiouni’s human rights lawyers were brought in to investigate the conditions, the jailers’ operations changed by 180 degrees. They opened our cells into each other so we could visit one another and they let us exercise for fifteen minutes a day. But I gave the names of all those torturers to the lawyers.
I also spent three days at a third prison, before being returned to the second place again. It was an underground centre and the cell was amazingly bad. It was very small. There was fluorescent lighting over my bed and air conditioning on its side. It was set up in such a way that there’d be heat coming from one side and cold coming from the other, and we weren’t allowed to turn our bodies over. It really was horrible.
When they took me for torture they cuffed and blindfolded me. The torture wasn’t physical there, it was all psychological. They would question my nationality. They’d hook my hands up to a contraption and threaten to pull out my fingernails if I don’t answer as they wanted. They would wire me to a lie detector and they’d question me. They’d torture the other detainees, make them run and howl like animals. And they’d keep the door of the cells cracked open so everyone could hear, to scare us. We were returned to the previous prison after just three days though.
There were many of us thinking we’d leave the country when we get out. We really did want to leave, myself included. What could possibly keep me in this rotten country? But when we got out we said, why should we go? Those torturers should be the ones who leave, not us.
I was imprisoned until September 6th. That was the day we spent in court. They didn’t sentence us and we were released. When I got out, we were visited by people morning, day and night. We couldn’t leave the house from all the visitors we had. Later we started going out, to the mosque, visiting family, bit by bit. But the feeling of being free – that was something else entirely. We were given a second life.
Sometimes when I sit with the guys and remember those days… You know that deep inside you, you wanted to die. You wanted the afterlife. And what could we do? We had nothing, except to wait for death. We would pray, and it was only by the mercy of God that we survived. We were in dark, dark days. And by God’s will, we’ve left them behind us.
Dr Nader resumed working in his private clinic in November 2011. He is one of nine medics who were dismissed by the Ministry of Health in 2012 and barred from working at the public hospital. Today, he continues to see patients at his clinic despite warnings from the ministry.
As told to Ali Al-Jamri.