Bahrainis suffer from government-created sectarian splits

The peoples call for a change of the system in Bahrain is not a new phenomenon. Every ten years since the 1920′s there has been an uprising. Every uprising had its own form and goals but every time it dealt with the issue of corruption in the country and the lack of influence on the ruling Khalifa family monarchy in power.

This decade’s uprising sparked talk of conspiracies in the media and among every-day Bahrainies. The government claims it is a matter of sectarian issues and the opposition is being paid by the Iranian theocratic Shia regime. The opposition responds that the government is trying to encourage sectarian violence in order to keep people busy fighting each other. The government also wants to make international society believe this conflict is an internal affair, which the Khalifa family is perfectly capable of solving.

No international press or NGO’s are currently allowed in the country unless they can be carefully watched by the government. I have to be discreet about my presence here. It’s impossible for me to meet pro-government supporters to hear their point of view. The best way for me to gain an understanding of the broad public scene is to cover stories of people who have not actively taken part in the revolution, people who watched the drastic changes in the society around them.

You hear stories about how the difference between Shia or Sunni backgrounds matter. You hear about the days when they didn’t even think about what background they came from. Sunni and Shia communities were good friends and neighbors. They sometimes married each other regardless of their religious differences. Government propaganda is being spread that targets the Shia minority, blaming them for destroying the country on religious grounds with help from the Iranian regime. Many Shia Bahrainis have lost their jobs in the public sector only to be replaced by Sunni Bahrainis or people from outside the country. This is helping create tension between the two groups – and it’s increasing. The opposition is clear that the uprising has nothing to do with sectarian conflicts or Iran in any way; this is pure conspiracy theory created to silence the Bahrain’s majority calling for democracy.

Julian Assange interviewed one of the leading figures in the Bahraini human rights activism, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab. Rajab stated: “[That Iran is fueling the revolution] is what our government is saying. The Americans are maybe trying to buy that as well. … [The revolution has remained absent in big parts of the media] because Al-Jazeera [Arabic] for instance is ruled by a similar ruling family in the same region. A democracy in Bahrain is going to have an impact in Qatar and in Saudi Arabia. … A revolution in Bahrain is the last thing the Saudis want to see a few miles away from their boarder.”

In Jabalat Habshi, a village with a Shia majority, I met some people in a flat to let them share their stories with me. Five people from different families gathered. They had never really been interested in politics and had not participated in any of the demonstrations. However, they strongly felt the tensions in society. It has completely changed their lives and views on their future.

“S” is a dental assistant student. Before the 16th of March 2011 she was living a peaceful life minding her own business and focusing on her studies and social life. On that day her younger brother was randomly captured by military officers in his village and imprisoned. No one heard from him for two weeks. The family had no clue where he was or what happened to him. They received a call stating that their son was having a trial that same day. The officer would not give any information about what the 18-year-old boy was accused of, where he was or about his condition. When the family got to the court room and saw their son his four-year-old brother couldn’t recognize him because he had been badly tortured. He explained that he had been captured on the street on his way home. They military officers had a Saudi logo on their uniforms and they didn’t speak with a Bahraini accent. They took him to a police station where he was beaten and tortured. His body was swollen and the wounds changed his appearance so much that his younger brother didn’t recognize him. At that time even the boy himself did not know what he was accused of and was not given the opportunity to call anyone or to find himself a lawyer.

The first time his case was explained to him was that day in the court room, after two weeks of captivity and beating. There were nine detainees in the courtroom, all accused in the same case. One of the mothers fainted when she saw her son who was also tortured. “S”’s brother knew one of the other detainees, who was someone from the neighborhood. “S” didn’t believe that her brother was being accused of committing organized crime with people he had never met before. The trial was postponed again and again for the first six months. The close family visited him every three weeks. “It has been so hard to say goodbye each time,” “S” said. It was obvious that it was also difficult for her to talk about it. “They don’t allow you to hug him. He is in another room and you have to talk to him through a hole in the wall. He is strong, but it’s hard for us at home.”

There is no evidence against any of the detainees in the case, which appears to be the reason why the case keeps getting postponed. At the first trial, which happened in military court, they were sentenced to twenty years but on the 20th of June 2011 they made an appeal to a higher civil court and the sentence was reduced to fifteen. All nine confessed to the accusations under torture. Two months ago the details of the torture was mentioned in the court which made “S”‘s mother stop coming to see her son at his trials, because she can’t handle the emotions listening to what they are doing to her son. The case was mentioned in the Bassiouni report but still nothing has been done to get the detainees out of prison until they can get a fair trial.

“S” explained that her brother’s absence is especially hard for her mother and the oldest one of her younger brothers, who is now seventeen. The seventeen-year-old brother, who is now the oldest boy in the house, feels a lot of pressure on him and developed a mental paranoia condition towards strangers, especially the police. “S” says that no one in the family ever cared about politics before but that every one of them now supports the opposition. Her thirteen-year-old brother once saw the case mentioned on state television and started crying. Now he doesn’t believe anything he sees or hears from the government. She believes that her brother was captured as a strategy of accusing random Shia Muslims of crimes to have material for anti-revolution propaganda.

The strategy of targeting random Shia Muslims is not always related to a crime. “LB”, another woman in the room, started her story by telling me how her seven-year-old daughter recently asked her when she could have the old Bahrain back. “I almost couldn’t make myself tell her that the old Bahrain might never come back,” she said. By the old Bahrain she is referring to the time when Shia and Sunni Muslims lived in peace and trusted each other. “LB” moved her eleven-year-old son to a different school because many of his Sunni class mates don’t want his friendship since the government propaganda started. “One kid took a knife to school one day and he told people that it was to stab some Shias because they were traitors. They are just kids. Why do they have to worry about if their friends are Sunni or Shia,” she said, clearly frustrated. The kid was suspended from school for a certain period but “LB” still didn’t feel that her son was safe enough in that school anymore.

In April 2011, during the Roundabout days, there was a protest in front of “LB”’s office building, the Ministry of Health. She passed the protest and went to her office as usual but on this day police surrounded the building and took her and most of her Shia-colleagues through a long event of personal insults, humiliation and beatings. The police had a list of names, and her’s was on the list. All the people from the list were later taken to the police station and accused of protesting even though all of them were at work and couldn’t have attended the protest.

In her own office she was first personally insulted with racist remarks and beaten up by the police. “LB” still doesn’t know what the specific meaning of having ones name on that list meant, but the person who reported her was a Sunni-colleague. She found out because that person was in her office laughing at the event of “LB” being beaten, insulted with especially racist remarks and humiliated by the police officers. The employees from her section who had their name on the list were then told to sit on the floor in the hall in front of the chairs because “they did not deserve” to sit on government chairs and then they were asked to sing the national song while the officers were insulting them. A lot of very humiliating events then took place, events that are hard to imagine how anyone would come up with. At one point the officers even had “funny” masks and costumes that they put on to play with her. They also let dogs sniff their bodies as they were handcuffed and unable to protect themselves while laying or still sitting on the floor. In the end they were all suspended from work for 9 months without any letter or anything to clarify any reason for this treatment. Later some of them got a new position in the health sector, but a lower one. “LB” knows about some of the replacements of her and her colleagues in the Ministry of Health. “Young people from outside of the country with much less experience than us who used to work there” she said shaking her head as if she almost just felt sorry for the being Ministry.

“This strategy the government is using about making us hate each other. No matter how stupid it is, it seems to be working.”

“LB” used to have a close friend who was Sunni. They never gave their religious differences a thought, but after the accusations on her about protesting, her friend called only to tell her that she was a traitor and that she didn’t want any contact with her anymore.

“I could just tell my daughter that she can have the old Bahrain back again soon. But I’m afraid I would be lying to her then. … I’m so proud of those Bahraini people who are risking their lives to make a change in this country. I can tell my daughter that they are our hope. I can tell her that she can have a new and better Bahrain instead.”

Note: The author is a human rights volunteer and requested their identity remain anonymous for security purposes.

Interview with Maryam Abu Deeb

Interview with Maryam Abu Deeb, whose father Mahdi Abu Deeb is in prison in Bahrain. He is president of the Bahrain Teachers Association and was punished for organizing teachers to join in the peaceful protests at Pearl Square in Bahrain in February and March 2011.

“Sushi life” in Bahrain

Nawal is a young female activist and very talented photographer. We met in a cafe in the middle of Manama. Her mother is what, in Bahraini slang, is called “Sushi” (a child from mixed Shia and Sunni Muslim parents). Nawal is not the first person I’ve met here from a mixed Shia and Sunni family, but until now I haven’t really had time to do a proper interview with anyone about the issue before. The reason I even consider this an issue important enough to write about is that the government claims that the pro-democracy uprising is “Shia-founded terrorism,” and in general has been presenting it as a problem of sectarianism. During my time here I have been trying to meet with Bahrainis from as many different parts of society as possible. Of course, since I face the risk of arrest and deportation as an international observer, researching and writing about what I see here (as happened to Witness Bahrain volunteers before me), it has so far been impossible to meet with committed pro-government people. Despite this I already have a very wide spectrum of contacts. Until now no one has expressed any sort of hatred or even dislike for someone based on religion or race. Not a single person, which I think is worth contemplating.

Images from Bahrain’s revolution
Images from Bahrain’s revolution

Nawal has been active since the beginning of the revolution, taking photos and documenting the situation for the international community. Her family is not only a mixture of Sunni and Shia but also of politically aware and active people and those who really don’t seem to care. The whole family meets every week at her Sunni maternal grandmother’s house for lunch or dinner. Before February 24th 2011 she really enjoyed sharing thoughts about politics with her family at these gatherings, but since the revolution things have changed.

‏Nawal’s uncle (her aunt’s husband) holds a very high position in the Bahrain military. Soon after protests at the Pearl Roundabout began last year, pictures of King Hamed suddenly began adorning the walls in her aunt’s house and the family spoke a lot about how Shia Muslims did things wrong and how bad for the country the protesters were. This was the first time in Nawal’s life she ever felt any difference between the Shia and the Sunni part of her family. She and the rest of the Shia part of the family slowly began to feel less welcome in her aunt’s house, she told me with a bit of frustration in her big brown eyes. The family gatherings still continued but things became even more complicated.

Images from Bahrain’s revolution
Images from Bahrain’s revolution

One of Nawal’s cousins started spreading rumors about her and threatening her on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The more “rational people” of the family, as she called them, tried to calm things down but he was so hostile towards her because of her enthusiasm regarding the revolution that he would not let it go at first. He published her full name and a lot of personal information about her such as her address and photos to identify her. He also threatened her by reminding her how much he knew about her. “I even know the size of your clothes – don’t forget,” was one of the things he wrote to her. She had to close the accounts in her original name to end the harassment from him and open new accounts using an alias.

‏The weekly family gatherings have changed a lot now. They’re not something she looks forward to at all as before. The cousin who was harassing her has stopped his direct offensive behavior but he ignores her. No one talks about politics anymore and the atmosphere is very tense. Nawal considers politics a very important topic for discussion especially

Images from Bahrain’s revolution
Images from Bahrain’s revolution

because of what is currently going on in Bahrain, and it is very unnatural to her that they can’t talk about these things at family gatherings anymore. “I don’t think things will ever be the same again in my family” she said sadly taking a deep breath. “It’s so obvious to me. Anyone should be able to understand that what the government is doing to people is wrong”. She completely disagrees with the government’s official analysis stating that the uprising has to do with religious indifferences between Sunni and Shia. “The first one who was arrested in relation to this revolution was a Sunni Member of the Parliament. His name is Mohamed Albuflasa (click for more information). He was pro-democracy and put to prison. Claiming that this has anything to do with Sunni and Shia conflicts is just ridiculous,” she said breathing heavily as if just the thought of that argument exhausted her.

‏Nawal tells me that the government has such an intense control on people that one can be fired for disseminating news unfavorable to the government’s views on social media. In her own case there is a little less to worry about in terms of

Images from Bahrain’s revolution
Images from Bahrain’s revolution

losing her job because she works at an international bank, which would not accept having to fire people for their political opinion. In fact, one of her colleagues had made a list of people in the company who he thought supported the revolution, calling them traitors, in order to spread it and cause them negative repercussions; when the head of the company found out, it was the guy that was immediately fired. For this reason Nawal feels safe in her current job, but unfortunately she has to look for another one due to the international economic crisis. She was offered another place in the same company but that involved some changes to her position in addition to having to move out of the country. Nawal turned it down and will now be unemployed when her contract expires.

‏”Getting a job, especially as a Shia Muslim, is not easy these days” she said. “The current government won’t permit Shia Muslims to have a good career and most companies prefer hiring someone from outside than a Shia Muslim so as to not have problems with the system here.”

Images from Bahrain’s revolution
Images from Bahrain’s revolution

‏Despite the fact that her economic security is uncertain and that the political situation is not in her favor, Nawal looked positively towards the future. “We will keep fighting for our rights until we get them. And one day those who have mistreated us will claim that they agreed with us all along, only not with our methods,” she said referring to the pro-government camp who she was convinced would eventually turn around and support a government chosen by the people. “As long as the government is chosen by the people they can be Sunni or Shia, black or white we don’t care.”

Accompanying a volunteer medic to Boori Village

4 May 2012

The day we had chosen to go with a medic to Boori village was a special religious day for Shia Muslims; 13th Jamada Thani 1428 A.H. – the anniversary of the death of Hazrat Fatima bint-e-Hazm bin Khalid (also known as Umm-ul-Baneen) – the wife of Imam Ali (a.s.) and mother of Hazrat Abbas (a.s.) which meant than the streets were fairly quiet in comparison to a regular night in a Manama village since 14th of February 2011. The streets were still blocked around the village to slow down possible riot police troops entering the village, but there was no night protest as usual, only an earlier one that took place at 4 pm. People in the streets were singing a traditional song for funerals while synchronically clapping their chest with one hand.

We drove to one of the homes in the village were the medic would later show up. At first there were three injured people and a group of very young guys waiting with their injured friend. As the rumor spread that there was an international in the house documenting cases of injury from protests, more people came; but there was no way I could cover all of the stories and cases of those who came in one night.

As we waited for the medic, I began speaking to 15-year-old Ali. He had been shot all over his body with birdshot pellets while attending a peaceful protest the day before (see photo). When the medic later showed up he told me that when demonstrators had brought the boy to the house the day before, he had been completely covered in blood and almost unconscious.

I used to be a substitute school teacher in primary and secondary schools and young Ali really reminded me of the boys I used to teach, who having done something really cool or special, are excited to tell the rest of the class about it. He was a bit shy at first, being the only one speaking in a room full of his friends and other much older protesters, as well as the family of the house. He didn’t give out any details except for the ones I specifically asked for. But then he opened up more.

The protest involved a little over 100 people, both woman and men, old and young. After the march around the village ended, about 60 people remained outside; that’s when the riot police attacked. They began shooting teargas, aiming directly at the villagers. Some protesters grabbed the teargas canisters with their hands just after they hit the ground and threw them back in the direction of the riot police. The whole center of the village became covered in teargas the boy told me, lifting his eyebrows and his brown eyes wide open, indicating that he was overwhelmed by the details of his own story.

Ali was one of the people picking up teargas canisters to throw them back at the police who were dressed in full riot gear, with helmets, masks and padding protecting their entire bodies.

Then the riot police began shooting birdshot at the crowd of people. They seemed to be randomly firing at the whole crowd, but of course Ali couldn’t tell what their exact strategy was. At least five police officers dressed as civilians also entered the crowd with shotguns and started chasing and shooting at people. He was one of the worst injured people in Boori that night. His body was completely covered in wounds from shots when I spoke to him. In total there were 38 people reportedly injured from birdshot pellets that night throughout Bahrain. Ali was shot around 12:15 at night and taken to a private home in the village were a medic could treat him shortly afterwards.

As I have asked injured protesters before, I asked Ali what the goal from protesting was and if he had changed his views or if his enthusiasm had waned after being injured? He replied (translated from Arabic): “I want a complete change of the regime; I’m not afraid of anything; I’m just proud to serve my country.”

When the medic had arrived Ali got up and sat down in a chair next to him ready to start the process of extracting more bullets from his body. It looked extremely painful and a lot of blood came out while the medic was digging for the bullets. Sometimes small peeps of pain escaped the young boy’s mouth, but in general he bravely endured the process remaining calm and quiet.

Next I spoke to 27-year-old Ammar. He had been shot with birdshot pellets all over his back and his scalp. Some of the bullets were lodged in very dangerous places in his head, the medic told me, and he could not tell if it was possible to remove them due to the swelling.

Ammar was injured on the 1st of May, also in Boori Village. Around 300 people had attended the protest on that evening. At first the riot police fired tear gas all over the center of Boori, just like the night Ali was injured. Then, when the demonstrators dispersed, the police chased people into the village, hiding in different places in an attempt to catch protesters, either to arrest them or hurt them. Ammar and another young man were both being chased when the other guy tried to jump a wall. As he was doing so, he was directly hit with a teargas canister and fell to the ground. After he was down, the police turned their attention on Ammar, shooting him in his back and head, then leaving him wounded on the ground. Covered in blood, Ammar managed to get up and walk to a random private home from where the family helped him get to the house that was serving as a makeshift clinic. A total of 16 bullets were found in his body and at the time of this interview, nine bullets still remained.

Salman, another wounded protester, has been injured several times within the past month. He came to the house only able to walk on one foot, and with scars from tear gas canisters and a sound bomb on one hand and one ear. Another was 21-year-old Abdallah, who was now completely blind in his left eye from a birdshot pellet fired directly into a protesting crowd.

As I didn’t have time to go through all the injured people who had gathered at the house, I only did a couple more short interviews, but made sure to thank everyone for coming to share their experiences. The last person I spoke to was another young man named Ali, 17-years-old. The other guys pushed him towards the chair next to me where the other interviewed people had been sitting and I realized there was something about this case that everyone in the room thought was extremely funny. My translator had to try hard to pull himself together so as to not burst out laughing. Even Ali himself had a big smile on his face and his voice was almost cracking while he explained what happened. When my translator relayed the story I found out that what everyone thought was so funny was that Ali was shot in his butt cheeks. Normally I wouldn’t consider someone getting shot anywhere as a funny story, but the light atmosphere and positive vibrations that filled the room while he was telling his story put me in a good mood, even under these rather sad circumstances. Ali allowed me to photograph part of his back but obviously not the more private parts of his injured body.

After I completed the interviews, the host family brought in a very nice meal with soft drinks for everyone and the whole evening strangely turned into a very nice local gathering with a lot of chatter & laughter. All the while the medic kept removing the bullets from the injured protesters’ bodies. What a night.

Prize-winning Bahraini photographer, Mohammed Al-Shaikh, recalls his arrest and torture

Mohammed Al-Sheikh won his first prize for his photography in Austria back in 2008 for a photo of a small Bahraini child holding a rock in the middle of a chaotic scene on a street in Manama. The boy of no more than 7 years had his entire face, except for his eyes, covered. It was only years later that Mohammed learned who this child of the Bahraini resistance with, a mysteriously strong, determined look in his eyes, was.

Mohammed was more eager to show me his work than to talk about himself. Very modest, every time my friend or I would compliment one of his photos or something he had done, he would find a way to pass on the credit to the fortunate light conditions, the strength of the subject in the photo, or to the Bahraini people in general.

Mohammed began photographing Bahrain in 2008. He photographs the revolution but is careful not to call it “documenting.” To him there is clearly a message to be sent and a need to let the outside world know what is happening in Bahrain. To him his work is an art form, and he considers it highly important that the photos he takes are artistically interesting.

Mohammed Al-Shaikh is one of the many Bahrainis working in media who have been arrested for documenting protests.

His problems started on the 1st of May 2011 when a friend called and told him about an article in a public forum authorized by the Bahraini Ministry of Information stating that Mohammed was a “dirty photographer” and that he was “giving Bahrain a bad reputation.” The article included a picture of him as well as his full name. From that day he knew that he would eventually be captured; he just didn’t know when. The forum, Mohammed explained, is a place where people can give out information about others who they claim are doing something bad for the country.

Mohammed began preparing himself for the arrest. He hid some of his photographic equipment but not everything because it would have been too obvious for the police to go search elsewhere if there was nothing to be found in his house. At the time, Mohammed was employed as an engineer for the company ALBA (Aluminum Bahrain). On the 5th of May his business access card stopped working. He called human resources and they told him that there was an order out on him. They did not give him any further explanation. 640 people were sacked from ALBA during the crackdown; 400 of them were not given any explanation or derive any legal rights from their contracts.

The police came to his house that same day. “I knew they could do anything they wanted so I just sat there to let them take everything,” he said.

The officers were from many different countries. They kept shouting insults at him in English and Arabic but sometimes they had to ask him how to use his electronic equipment in order to search it for information.

He was then taken to a police station where a colonel, Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, was the first one to interview him. At first Khalifa was somewhat friendly to him. Mohammed was asked if he preferred tea or coffee and he was calmly asked what agencies he knew and what agencies he worked for. He felt that the colonel was interested in photos of people in protests in order to identify and arrest them. They also wanted to target people working for specific agencies. Simply being at the Pearl Roundabout gatherings was considered illegal. As the talk with the colonel quickly became unfriendly, they accused Mohammed of fabricating his photos to create a false image of a large number of protesters at the Pearl Roundabout and other protests. He tried to explain to the colonel that a photographer who did that would lose all his professional credibility and never be able to get any of his work published again, but to no avail.

As Mohammed recalled his experiences he would throw in a philosophical or humorous comment from time to time, maybe to keep the trauma from destroying his morale or maybe it was for my benefit – to protect me from the depressing aspect of what I was witnessing. “They told me that I was spoiling the name of Bahrain through my work. They torture and kill peaceful people and yet they tell me that I belong to the ones who are destroying the image of Bahrain. If destroying the image of my country was my goal I would have thanked THEM,” he said shaking his head and laughing at the comic tragedy.

Mohammed was handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken to another room where he was beaten with plastic sticks for about 2 hours. He explained that the officers systematically intensified the torment starting with lighter weight sticks then using heavier ones as the torture went on.

He was hanged from the ceiling from his knees unable to resist or shield his body from the beatings. The officers pretended to be asking for names and other information but the beatings never paused to wait for a possible answer. After two hours Mohammed was taken to another room; he was still blindfolded. In that room there were about 3-5 other prisoners, but since he couldn’t see anything at the time it was difficult to be sure. There was no water or toilet, but the beating had made his entire body so swollen that he probably wouldn’t have been able to use a toilet anyway, he said. Then eight or nine officers came in with heavy plastic sticks and began beating everyone. He could hear the voice of Colonel Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa. This went on from about 12pm to 7am the next morning. Every 45 minutes the officers made a switch and new officers came to beat them, still without allowing the prisoners to eat, drink or use a toilet. Mohammed was lying on the ground with broken fingers and covered in blood; bleeding from his head not able to do anything but lay there and take more beatings.

When they stopped at 7am it might have been because another detainee arrived, he said. Until 10 am he was still blindfolded. Then someone came and took him and three other detainees to another room where they were fully stripped. Officers came again to continuously beat them with the heavy plastic sticks while they were naked. Afterwards they were allowed to put on their clothes again before they were taken to a prison cell, though Mohammed called it a “room.” “We were not prisoners because we didn’t do anything criminal; and we never had a trial so we didn’t consider ourselves to be living in cells; we called them rooms. It’s a matter of dignity”, he said.

When he came to that “room” in West Rifa’a prison he had some water, which was the first he drank since he was arrested. His skin was blue from the beatings and dried blood. He could hear woman screaming from a floor below him. There were about 75 people in that same room, all of whom had been specifically targeted, all belonging to different groups. Mohammed Al-Shaikh belonged to a “media-group;” then there was the athletics group that included a famous Bahraini athlete by the name of Sayed Hassan, the F1 staff group, and others. Some of the protests were organized so that the people who belong to the same occupation walk together as a group. This had made it easy for informers to identify certain people and give their full names and picture to the regime.

At 6am an officer came to ask for new prisoners to go to another room, which was empty. He and five or six others went. “We were told to stand face the wall; then they came and beat us with heavy plastic sticks for about 15 minutes as a welcoming breakfast” he said with a quiet sarcastic laugh. At 10 o’clock the guards came back and asked them to crawl on their wounded backs back and forth on the floor while the guards watched and insulted them. Then the guards started to walk on them while they still had to try and move on their backs from one end of the room to the other. “There were cameras in the room so everything should be recorded. This means that it has to be systematic. They wouldn’t dare behave like this if they thought there could be any consequences for them if anyone saw the video recordings.” This went on for about one hour. Then they had an actual lunch which was the first meal he had since he was captured three days earlier. “The food was really good. There was daal and hummus and everything was nice and clean. They almost killed me there but when they fed me they fed me well” he said with a smile.

After lunch the new prisoners who looked the worst were asked to go to another room because the military arrived. Their names were called out one by one and they were taken for an interview in another separate room. When it was Mohammed’s turn the officer read through a file about him without informing him much about what it said. There was one quote of a speech Mohammed had given at the Pearl Roundabout that he commented on: “Bahrain TV has one eye. We have a thousand.” Without discussing the meaning of the words the military officer instructed men to beat him up.

The next morning they were transferred to a place with a big wire fence. Until this day Mohammed is not sure where that place was. The colonel came with seven to eight other men. Mohammed’s hair had been cut off and the colonial degradingly said to him: “you look different.” The colonel had some documents with names of people that had to be transferred to a different department; Mohammed was one of them. The officers blindfolded him again and although they didn’t beat him up, they did threaten to rape and kill him.

Mohammed was eventually taken back to West Raffa’a prison. There the abuse continued with both male and female officers beating and cursing him. At one point they took him and other detainees, still handcuffed and blindfolded, to a jeep. Along the way to wherever they were being taken, the jeep stopped at a number of checkpoints. At each checkpoint the police there took off their shoes and put them in the mouths of the detainees. Sand and dirt filled Mohammed’s mouth and face, but he couldn’t get rid of it since he was still handcuffed.

They arrived to a station, which he was told was called the Naa’im police station. His physical condition was visibly poor and the police there asked him who had done this to him? Mohammed did not answer. He spent two days in that station and here he got the first opportunity to call his family. It was only a two-minute call and he didn’t have time to tell them anything except to ask for some clean clothes. He still was not given opportunity to contact a lawyer.

Every 4-6 hours in that Naa’im police station Mohammed was transferred to a different department. He was verbally assaulted but not beaten there. As a result of the beatings Mohammed could not walk properly and he could only sleep in one specific position on the one side of his body.

Then he was taken to a prison called Dry Dock (translated from Arabic). About a hundred and fifty people were there. In each cell there were about fourteen. Mohammed especially remembered one 14 or 15-year-old boy called Hassan. His physical condition was so bad he couldn’t move. They had to transfer him to a hospital in a wheel chair. He couldn’t tell exactly what had happened to the boy but many prisoners were in that cell because they had been injured too badly during a protest or tortured too much for the police stations to have anything to do with them out of fear of being accused to have caused them their physical condition. There were five cases of people who lost an eye completely. Inside the cell arrested medics were treating arrested injured people who were a mix of different groups in society – doctors, students, journalists; there was even someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who had a Bahraini diplomatic passport. He told Mohammed that he had never imagined himself in prison. He had been arrested for posting a message on Twitter stating that Bahrain needed reforms. The manager of the national football team Abd Razzaq Mohammed was also there along with the Bahraini tennis GCC winner, Anwar Maki.

Two days later, with the standard handcuffing, blindfolding, and insults, Mohammed was transferred again. This time he was taken to Qudhaibyia for five nights. Again Mohammad was beaten as police tried to get names and pictures out of him to use to arrest other people. The prisoners were divided in groups at different stations, and Mohammed found himself in a group of arrested photographers. Three of them were taken back to the Central Prison (Dry Dock). Two months later he was seen by a doctor for the first time.

On the 26th of June 2011, without prior notice, or the chance to contact a lawyer, Mohammed was brought before a military court. In the courtroom a judge told Mohammed that there were six charges against him, each one for participating in a protest, and each one carrying a one-year prison sentence. The judge began to name the protests he was accused of attending. After the third one, Mohammed interjected. Laughing, he told the judge that he had been to almost every protest since February 14 until his arrest and if this was his crime, the judge didn’t have to bother mentioning each of them one by one. The judge ignored him and continued naming six protests that he was spotted at and sentencing him to six years accordingly.

He was taken back to the central prison thinking that he was going to spend the next six years there, but then something completely unexpected happened. He was called to a civilian court and given the opportunity to contact a lawyer. His family helped him find a very good one by the name of Sayed Mohsin Alwlawi. On the 21st of October Mohammed was brought before the civilian court and two weeks later he received a call from Adv. Sayed telling him that his case was closed. He didn’t dare to believe what he heard at first and made his lawyer assure him many times that this was really true.

Mohammed Al-Shaikh didn’t complain about the way he was treated when I spoke to him. He simply told his story. He continues to photograph and document the situation in Bahrain, keenly aware of the risk he takes in doing so. Although he didn’t complain about his torture, there was one thing that really bothered him: “They still have my expensive photo equipment. I called many times but no one could tell me where it was. None of the officers even knew how to use it.”

Note: The author is a human rights volunteer and requested their identity remain anonymous for security purposes.

Interview with Wafi Kamel Al-Majed, husband of imprisoned human rights activist, Zainab Al-Khawaja

Interview with Wafi Kamel Al-Majed, husband of imprisoned human rights activist, Zainab al-Khawaja 

Wafi Al-Majed
Wafi Al-Majed

In the hall of Wafi’s father’s house, where Wafi is staying with his 2-year-old daughter Jude, there were two big photos decorating the wall, one of Zainab, and one of Wafi on their graduation day. They both wore huge smiles, looking like any other new, young graduates with bright and promising futures ahead of them…

I asked Wafi about his wife’s current condition and the visit he had to the prison where Zainab is being held. It was just the day before, on Sunday 29 April at 12:30, that he had been allowed his first visit since Zainab’s arrest a week before. He and little Jude, two of Zainab’s sisters, and Zainab’s mother, Khadija, had gone together. A prison guard brought Zainab into the little visiting room and stayed in the room for the duration of the half-hour visit. Zainab told her family how she had been beaten by the police during her arrest. Riot police surrounded her as she kneeled on the ground, and proceeded to kick her with their boots and jab her with their police batons. Although the police filmed her arrest, the camera focused on her face and upper body, while police aimed their attacks at her lower body. Other protesters had also told Wafi that the police filmed the arrest, but not from the ground when Zainab was being abused. Zainab shouted at them, “why are you treating us like dogs” to which a police woman responded by putting her baton to Zainab’s neck and choking her.

“[Zainab] is a very strong woman. I think I was the weakest one at that point,” said Wafi. “I’m not too worried about her when she is in prison because I know how strong she is. I’m more worried about how our daughter will cope with this later in her life, having had both her mother and father in prison at different times during her childhood.” Wafi had been arrested at the same time as his father-in-law, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and spent 10 months in prison.

During the visit they spoke freely, despite the presence of the prison guard. The newly acquired news about Abdulhadi al-Khawaja – that he was still alive and doing okay was, at that moment, almost as good news to the whole family as if he would have been released. For the previous six days, Abdelhadi had been considered missing, the government not allowing anyone, not even the Danish ambassador (since Abdelhadi is also a citizen of Denmark) or his lawyer to have any contact with him. Fears had spread that perhaps Abdelhadi had died. Zainab had been especially worried, locked up not knowing anything; both she and her mother became emotional talking about him, Wafi explained.

Wafi has a very good relationship with his father-in-law. He told me about when they had been prisoners together in Juw prison. They had not been allowed to see each other from April 2011, when they were first arrested, until their first meeting in prison in December 2011. “That moment was a moment of celebration for us. We hadn’t seen each other since the day we both got arrested and we finally got a chance to exchange the stories of what had happened since and what news we knew about the situation in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja is a very impressive man.”

Wafi chose not to go deep into detail about his time in prison, but he did recall the first visit he had been allowed from his wife two months after he had been captured. Wafi finds it easier for to be the one inside prison than to be the one outside worrying about how a loved one is doing locked up inside. “I didn’t cry then. I needed to be strong so as to not get people on the outside too worried about me,” he explained.

I asked him for his thoughts on the future of Bahrain and about his hopes.

“How much does freedom cost?” he asked, and then he replied to his own question: “a lot, but it seems that we have to pay more. Throughout the history of mankind, no ruler has been able to overrule his own people. Eventually the oppressor falls. The story only differs in how long of a time it will take and how high a cost must be paid.”

He told me that the Arab Spring gave the Bahrainis a lot of strength; particularly Egypt since no one had ever thought the fall of Mubarak was near.

“There is nothing they can do to silence us now and make us forget our rights. Everything already happened to us. Worst-case scenario, they will send F16s over us… but we don’t care anymore. We are not afraid. We want our freedom.”

As for Wafi’s hopes for “when the revolution has succeeded,” as he put it. “I don’t care if we become a Constitutional Monarchy or whatever – as long as the people can choose who’s in power. Even if they choose Al-Khalifa,” he smiled, almost laughing, and added, “though I don’t think his chances would be very high now.”

What did he think of the role of the international community in general, and what kind of international reaction would he wish for?

We neither want nor need the international society to interfere with any of this. We just need them to stop supporting the dictatorship that is killing and torturing us and treating us worse than animals. The Americans could stop this whole thing right now if they just made one phone call to tell the Khalifa family that relations would be suspended until a government had been democratically elected. But they don’t do that.

After the interview, Jude, came into the room where we were sitting. She was a bit frightened by us strangers in the house and it didn’t help much that we wanted to get a picture of her. After about five to ten minutes she relaxed in our presence and started to laugh loudly when her father teased her. I hope that one day on a wall here in Bahrain, there will be a photo of sweet little Jude on her graduation day, with a big smile on her face, looking forward to a bright and promising future.