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April 07, 2014

Stories from Bahrain's Crackdown: Dr. Rula Al-Saffar

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.

During the pro-democracy uprising in early 2011 Rula Al-Saffar , a prominent medical practitioner in Bahrain, worked in a medical tent treating wounded protesters. Six weeks after the uprising began, Al-Saffar was called in for questioning by Bahrain’s Central Investigation Department. When she arrived on April 4, 2011, she was blindfolded and pushed into a jail cell where she was interrogated and beaten.

Prior to her arrest, Rula Al-Saffar served as President of the Bahrain Nursing Society and as Assistant Professor at the College of Health Science in Manama. As a breast cancer survivor she is also one of the co-founders of a cancer support group. Al-Saffar also lived and worked in the U.S. for 18 years. She studied at Widener University, where she received a master's degree and worked as a nurse for many years at Baylor University Medical Center, in Dallas. Arabian Business Magazine ranked Al-Saffar 11th on its list of the world's 500 most influential Arabs in 2012.

During her five-month detention in 2011, guards shocked her with stun guns, beat her, chopped off her long black hair, and threatened to rape her. She recalls those events as the “horror days.” She was released on August 21, 2011.

Al-Saffar was convicted by the National Safety Court of First Instance, a military court, to 15 years imprisonment on charges including incitement to overthrow the Bahraini government, spreading false information, and participating in an illegal public gathering. A civil court overturned her conviction in June 2012.

Three years later, Al-Saffar continues her activism. Most recently, she began a campaign to track, tally and free the country’s prisoners of conscience called "I AM FREE". She delivers instructions for medical treatment over Skype to the protesters who call her on almost a weekly basis, wondering how to treat their wounds after being attacked by police at protests. Al-Saffar is currently rankedas the most influential Bahraini woman out of 500 personalities in the Arab world. She continues to advocate for international recognition of the concept of medical neutrality.