Finally, after serving his three year sentence in a Bahrain prison, 47-year-old nurse Ebrahim Demastani has been released. Demastani is one of the dozens of Bahraini medics who were arrested and tortured in 2011 after they treated injured protestors during the country's pro-democracy demonstrations in February and March of that year. He was the deputy head of the Bahraini Nurses Association, headed by Rula Al Saffar.
Demastani's September 2011 conviction, when he was tried along with 20 other medics by a military court, triggered international outrage. Although he was temporarily released while his case was appealed, the following year, a civilian court confirmed his guilty verdict and he was rearrested with other medics and put back in jail. He shared a cell in Bahrain's notorious Jaw Prison with pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ali Alekry until March of this year.
"I read a lot in prison, things I was too busy to read outside, and I spent lots of time reflecting on what happened and how we can better organize ourselves in future," he told me.
He described poor conditions in the prison, with tensions building steadily as prisoners were refused proper medical treatment, sanitation, soap and changes of clothes. He estimates the number of prisoners at double the official capacity of less than 1,500. Eventually, on March 10 this year, a full scale riot broke out, sparked by a relatively minor dispute over the ID of a relative trying to visit a prisoner.
Riot police stormed Jaw and Demastani says he was tear gassed and beaten by police although "the other prisoners tried to protect me and the older ones."
"We were kept outdoors from March 10 to March 15 without mattresses or blankets in the prison grounds -- the younger prisoners especially were targeted for beatings. From 6:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on March 12, the beatings were very intense because images of the prison had been leaked to the outside, film taken on a mobile phone by a prisoner. When the police realized there was a phone they tried to hunt for it."
Demastani says the police were astonished to discover 60-70 phones in Jaw's Building 1, where he had been held, and a staggering 600 more phones in Building 4, with about one phone for every two prisoners. He says it would be very difficult for family members to smuggle in phones during visits because of the thorough searches, but that guards are bribed to supply them to inmates at a cost of around $4,000 each, which would be paid to the guards outside by a prisoner's family.
His allegations about corruption among the guards raise further serious questions about the management of Jaw. Last week, five prison officials were sentenced to jail after an inmate was beaten to death last November.
Demastani described similar methods of abuse and torture that were documented in the mistreatment of prisoners in 2011. He says some prisoners were singled out for particular abuse and taken to Building 10, and that he was beaten there on March 12, and forced to crawl on his abdomen.
I was with human rights defender Naji Fateel, and we weren't allowed to sleep for 24 hours. Clerics who are prisoners were forced to say shameful words, and others were humiliated by being forced to speak in animal noises. We had to sing the national anthem. The guards beat prisoners on the soles of their feet with black plastic hoses. My leg was badly injured and I was denied medical treatment for it.
About half of the 245 prisoners from his building were reportedly returned to it after five days sleeping outside, but the others -- including Dr. Alekry -- are still forced to sleep outside to this day, in tents.
The Ombudsman's Office, much vaunted by the Bahraini government as proof of its progress on human rights, interviewed Demastani about what happened. "People from that office took down what we said, but they've been doing that for years and nothing has changed for the prisoners. The Ombudsman's office is useless," he said.
Last week, the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights strongly condemned what was happening in Jaw Prison, saying "We remind the authorities in Bahrain there is an absolute prohibition of torture under international law. There are no exceptions whatsoever to that prohibition in any circumstances."
Demastani was the second to last medic of those tried with him to be released, and he hopes to return to work soon. His cell mate Dr. Ali Alekry still has another two years left on his sentence, and Dr. Saeed Samahiji, originally convicted with Demastani, served his sentence but is now back in Jaw serving another year for insulting Bahrain's king.
When asked if he regrets his part in treating protestors in 2011 and helping to organize other medics during the demonstrations he says, "I am so proud of what I did. I did it based on professional ethics and my oath to the nursing profession. I'm a first aide trainer and had a responsibility to the community."