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Exclusive by Petra Kendall-Raynor
The head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, sentenced to 15 years in jail after being convicted of inciting hatred against her country's government, is calling on nurses around the world to rally in support of her and her colleagues.
Rula Al-Saffar learned last week that she and 19 other nurses and doctors will be retried in a civilian court from October 23. The clinicians were found guilty of various charges by a military court last month.
Speaking to Nursing Standard while on bail at her home in Bahrain, MsAl-Saffar said she denies all the charges and insisted that she and colleagues were only helping protesters injured during recent civil unrest in the Gulf state.
The nurse, who was Bahrain's first family nurse practitioner, was detained for more than five months. She claims she was physically and psychologically tortured by the police.
'They cut my hair, used electricity on us and I was sexually harassed and verbally abused. We were starved for days and had no water. I was not allowed to see my family for three months.'
Although on bail, the nurse leader says she still feels worried for her safety.
'I do not change into sleeping clothes until 3am or 4am because I am waiting for a knock on the door and for the police to take me away again. In this place anything can happen at any time.'
Ms Al-Saffar said she was 'shocked and surprised' at the news of the retrial. 'We wanted the charges to be dropped, but does this mean the investigation will be reopened?'
She thanked nurses for their backing to date and said: 'I would like all nurses to stick together in support of us, whether that is wearing a T-shirt with a message of support or writing letters to their government.'
Ms Al-Saffar called on the International Council of Nurses (ICN) to put pressure on her government by garnering support from health ministers across the Arab world.
ICN chief executive officer David Benton said in an Iranian television interview last week that the council had asked member associations to petition governments to put pressure on the Bahrain regime.
RCN general secretary Peter Carter wrote to the King of Bahrain asking for all charges against nursing and healthcare staff to be dropped and calling for a public, independent investigation into torture allegations. He said that the 'eyes of the nursing and medical world' were watching.
Ms Al-Saffar claimed she had been 'under the microscope' of the government since 2005 when she became Bahrain Nursing Society president and launched a high-profile campaign to increase nurses' salaries.
She told Nursing Standard: 'The riot police have taken over our headquarters and are using our equipment. Our accounts have been frozen and I have been putting my own money into the society for the past two or three years.'
Ms Al-Saffar also wants to draw attention to other nurses imprisoned during the uprising.
She said she worked with other healthcare professionals as a volunteer and helped treat protesters at the Salmaniya Medical Complex in the Bahrain capital, Manama.
'At least 30 nurses have been questioned and dismissed who work in the medical complex. We are badly short of nurses as it is and need at least 3,000 more across Bahrain.'
Picture credit: Press Association Images
news: october 12 :: vol 26 no 06 :: 2011
A petition calling on the government of Bahrain to drop its cases against 20 healthcare professionals can be signed at: www.ipetitions.com/petition/freebahrainmedics
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