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.

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