Facing prison for treating Bahrain's wounded

Riot police fire tear gas at anti-government protesters in Sitra, Bahrain, last week. HASAN JAMALI / Associated Press
Riot police fire tear gas at anti-government protesters in Sitra, Bahrain, last week. HASAN JAMALI / Associated Press
Posted: June 13, 2012

This week, I expect to hear if I will be going to prison for 15 years. The verdict on my appeal, as well as those of 19 other medics convicted in a sham Bahraini military trial last year, is due on Thursday. The Bahraini regime targeted us for treating protesters who were injured in democracy protests.

I lived and worked in the United States for many years, some spent studying at Widener University in Chester. It's where I learned to volunteer, and last year, when demonstrations erupted in Bahrain, that's what I did. Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country's main public hospital, was overwhelmed by protesters hurt by regime forces, so I went to the emergency room to help treat them.

Several weeks later, on entering a government office, I was blindfolded and handcuffed. Over five months of detention, I was beaten, electrocuted, and sexually harassed. Then I was convicted. All just for doing my job.

After I left the United States to return to Bahrain, I became an assistant professor at the College of Health Sciences and the head of its emergency nursing program. I'm also president of the Bahraini Nursing Society. It was as a nurse, not an activist, that I was arrested.

My treatment at the hands of my government is not unique. Although Bahrain's uprising has not received as much attention as others in the Middle East, it is proportionally the largest. Tens of thousands have marched to demand democracy and respect for human rights. The regime has shot at, arrested, abused, and wrongly convicted many of them, and killed some.

All along, the response from the U.S. government has been disappointing. The Obama administration has been mostly silent as its ally perpetrates the sort of abuses that draw loud rebukes from Washington when they happen in Syria. Tear-gas canisters that police have fired at protesters, sometimes lethally, say "Made in the USA."

Now the Obama administration plans to resume selling weapons to the Bahraini monarchy, rewarding a regime that has brutally cracked down on a democratic uprising. This will deal a crushing blow to America's reputation in Bahrain.

For me, the United States is a special country, and not just because of the ideals it represents. For 18 years, it was my home, and from 1998 to 2000, I studied at Widener, where I got my master's degree. I also worked as a nurse for many years at Baylor University Medical Center, in Dallas.

I still have many close friends in the United States and love many things about it. I'm especially grateful for the interest Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has taken in my case and for his opposition to previous arms deals with Bahrain.

Even so, it's hard to defend what the Obama administration is doing in Bahrain. The latest weapons deal has Washington definitively taking the wrong side in the struggle between the people of Bahrain and their oppressors. It makes a mockery of claims that the United States supports the Arab Spring protesters.

Some in Bahrain are turning to violence, arguing that peaceful protests are not working and that the world community doesn't care. By selling the dictatorship weapons, the United States is validating that argument. The results could be tragic.

Bahrain needs reform, an end to police violence against its people, and an unconditional release of the hundreds of civilians convicted in military court on politically motivated charges. The message of the arms sale contradicts that.

I understand that America has strategic interests in the region. But Americans should consider the strategic impact of siding with a brutal dictatorship. The United States is losing an entire generation of people not just in Bahrain, but across the Middle East.

Rula Al Saffar is a Widener alumna and the president of the Bahrain Nursing Society.

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