Opinion

Bahrain doctor: If US loses the faith of people like me, it loses the Mideast

Washington’s tepid response to Bahrain's crackdown on nonviolent protesters has forced me to question what America really stands for. Obama must tell the ruling family to stop attacking protesters and to drop sham charges against medics like me and hundreds of others.

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    A Bahraini man looks at an image of jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja painted on a wall in Barbar, Bahrain. A Bahrain appeals court has ordered the reexamination of his case and 20 others. Op-ed contributor and Bahraini medical doctor Nada Dhaif was arrested and tried for providing medical care to injured protesters last spring. She says: 'The United States government should get on the right side of this struggle.'
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With the news that there will be a “retrial” for Bahraini hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and 20 other protesters arrested for taking part in the uprising in Bahrain last year, I fear that the legal process is still being used to deliberately deny justice. My own trial proves Bahrain continues to violate the rights of its people.

I’m an accidental activist who was back in court just days ago, and am awaiting another appearance next week in the appeal of my military court conviction. The Bahrain authorities are still pressing charges against me and 19 other medics.

They say we were involved in occupying the main hospital in the capital city of Manama, trying to overthrow the regime by force, and smuggling weapons. In fact, what we did was treat injured protesters. Some of us told the international media the truth about what was happening, a truth the government was trying to hide.

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Bahrain is ruled by a monarchy – the king’s uncle has been the unelected prime minister for the last 41 years. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa can change the Constitution when and as he wants to.

In February 2011, I joined the thousands of people at the Pearl Roundabout in the heart of Manama where the protests for democracy began, volunteering at a medical tent to treat people who needed medical attention. The government soon turned on the protesters and on us, the medics who treated them.

A month later, my life changed suddenly, and forever.

On March 19, armed and masked security forces broke into my home in the middle of the night and took me away. I was the first woman arrested in the crackdown. For 22 days, I was held in solitary confinement and subjected to verbal abuse and torture, including electrocution. In all, I was detained for two months.

I was forced to sign a statement confessing to hatred for the regime, criminally supporting protesters, and other trumped up charges.

Along with the 19 other medics who were also tortured into confessing, I was convicted in a sham military trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison. We expect the verdict of our appeal very soon.

We are all out of detention while this appeals process drags on, and I recently went to the United States to ask American lawmakers and administration officials to support the Bahraini people.

Bahrain is a small country. Our democratic uprising has not received as much attention in the West as those in Egypt or Syria. But in terms of the percentage of people participating, our movement is among the largest.

Like people in other Arab Spring countries, we just want our basic rights as human beings. And like the regimes in other Arab Spring countries, the Bahraini monarchy has responded with violence. It has shot indiscriminately at peaceful protesters, detained thousands, and tortured many. Several people have died in custody.

When President Obama spoke about “the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens” in his May 2011 speech about the democratic uprisings in the Middle East, the Bahraini people cheered. But since then, even as the Obama administration loudly denounces the brutality of other regimes in the region, it remains relatively muted about the abuses of the Bahraini monarchy.

And it hasn’t canceled a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain that includes the kind of military vehicles used to quash the uprising. We wonder how the US reconciles this with the claim that it supports “the universal rights of Bahraini citizens.”

For me, this is personal. Because of the abuse in detention, I now suffer from insomnia and, as a doctor who relies on a steady hand, I may never again be able to perform up to my previous abilities.

My absence from my family traumatized my two young daughters. And I am now facing a lengthy prison term. I didn’t intend to be part of a revolution, but I’m part of it now, and the future of Bahrain is at stake.

The United States government should get on the right side of this struggle. Of course, Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. But the standing of that base wouldn’t be threatened by the Obama administration telling its friends in the Bahraini ruling family to stop its police attacking protesters and to drop the charges against us medics and hundreds of others convicted in sham military trials.

I know that US democracy isn’t perfect, but I’ve admired America for its diversity and vibrancy, and for how it respects the freedom of speech. But Washington’s response to the Bahraini regime’s crackdown on nonviolent protesters has forced me to question what America really stands for.

A new Middle East is emerging: If you lose the faith of people like me, America, you will lose the entire region.

Nada Dhaif, the mother of two young daughters, is one of the 20 medical professionals who were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to long prison terms for treating pro-democracy protesters injured in protests in Bahrain in 2011. She works with Human Rights First to document human rights violations by the Bahrain regime.

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