Freedom in Bahrain: “It’s like a dream, isn’t it?”
In June Bahrain's king pardoned opposition politician Ebrahim Sharif only to throw him back in jail three weeks later. His wife, Farida Ghulam, writes about the surreal nature of living with a lack of free expression
26 Oct 15

This is the first of two posts by Farida Ghulam, an advocate for freedom of speech, human rights and democracy. Ghulam has campaigned for women’s rights and is currently active in the push for democratic reforms in Bahrain. Her husband, Ebrahim Sharif, who is a former Secretary General of the National Democratic Action Society (WAAD), is currently in detention awaiting trial on charges of charges of inciting hatred and sectarianism and calling for violence against the regime. He faces 10 years for expressing opinions in a speech marking the memory of a 16-year-old killed while protesting against Bahrain’s government.

Among the countless stories of suffering that the Bahraini people have endured is the story of my own family: one of hardship, sacrifice and pure injustice. My husband was arrested, incarcerated for four and a half years, released for three weeks, and promptly re-arrested.

Those three weeks were beautiful and magical. They were surreal. It’s like what Ebrahim said when his daughter landed in Bahrain and woke him up the morning after his release. He asked her: “It’s like a dream, isn’t it?” Those three weeks passed by so quickly that they don’t seem real; we’ve now plunged back into our old routines of monitored visits, monitored and limited phone calls, court hearings, and the anxiety inherent in facing a long dark tunnel with very little light ahead.

My husband and I, along with our political party, the National Democratic Action Society (also known as WAAD), have been advocating for democracy, fighting corruption, and highlighting social injustice in the Kingdom of Bahrain for a long time now. My husband, Ebrahim Sharif, is the former Secretary General of WAAD, and has run twice for a seat in Bahrain’s Parliament. During his campaign he was able to gain traction with the people of Bahrain by raising awareness of social and economic corruption, as well as stressing shortcomings of the current political system and proposing needed reforms to build a true democracy. His campaign focused on the people being the source of any government’s power, a statement which is ironically featured in Bahrain’s constitution. He challenged the government in many economic and political domains, using his skills in finance and economics to easily prove the existence of corruption and discrimination.

The courage Ebrahim showed by exposing the government in such public ways understandably threatened the establishment, especially considering that he is a Sunni man, the same religious sect as Bahrain’s ruling elites, which made him difficult to discredit along sectarian lines. Ebrahim’s point of view, along with the points of view of other prominent opposition figures in Bahrain, were never addressed by the ruling powers, although these views were supported by the majority of Bahrain’s people. The only responses that addressed these views were smear campaigns placed in pro-regime newspapers and TV networks.

After witnessing developments in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011, the Bahraini people took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations against the government. They set up a home base around Pearl Roundabout, in central Manama. It happened quickly and naturally, with no prior planning by opposition groups, which joined the mass movement a few days later by attending and giving speeches focused on peacefulness as a strategy in expressing the political demands addressed to the government. My husband was one of these opposition leaders, where he spoke about what a true constitutional monarchy means and reiterating the views of his parliamentary campaign which promised to put power in the people’s hands by raising awareness and insisting on non-violent measures to obtain the necessary changes for democratic advancement.

The government responded to this movement by cracking down a month later, sending in GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) troops, tanks, tear gas and weapons. Many people were killed in the ensuing chaos and arrests of political leaders occurred over the following days. The roundabout was demolished by the government in an attempt to quickly erase the movement from people’s memories and history and exploit their declaration of martial law as an excuse to regain control and quell the protests entirely.

My husband’s first arrest was an exercise in torment — solitary confinement, torture in the form of mass beatings by masked police, sleep deprivation, forcing him to sleep on cold-water soaked mattresses in incredibly cold air-conditioned rooms, constantly barking dogs, sexual harassment and threats, whipping with plastic pipes, insulting his family’s honor, and standing for long hours with hands held vertically in the air. At one point, he was beaten and threatened that if he issued a complaint to the military prosecution, he would be beaten again. Ebrahim filed the complaint, the man indeed kept his promise and Ebrahim was beaten again. To add to that, on the day that the military judge issued the verdict of guilty, all of the political leaders were taken to a back room in the courthouse and beaten because they had chanted the words “peacefulness, peacefulness” in response to the judge’s verdict and sentences.

We have been telling our story over and over again from 2011. Ebrahim was sentenced to 5 years in prison, while the other political figures, part of the “Bahrain 13”, a group of political leaders which the Bahraini government alleges Ebrahim is a member of, received longer sentences ranging from 10 years to life imprisonments. In June of 2015, Ebrahim was released on a royal pardon, only to be re-arrested a mere three weeks later on 12 July due to a speech he gave commemorating the death of a 16-year-old martyr who was barbarically shot at close range by police in 2012 and who received no justice.

As a family, we’ve decided that it would be important for us to write about the hardships we have personally endured on an individual and family level as a direct consequence of the punishment handed down by the government, which fears the pure and peaceful expression of speech. The right to freedom of speech is recognized worldwide by an endless array of organizations, and while Bahrain claims to respect the International Declaration of Human Rights, it is abundantly clear that it does not. While the Kingdom of Bahrain is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, what has happened to Ebrahim and other Bahrainis opposing the injustice and discrimination in the country proves the kingdom does not hold these covenants in high regard.

This piece is intended as an informative introduction to what Bahrain has gone — and continues to go — through, as well as what we personally have gone through as a family, and to have it as a basic reference before reading the next piece which will highlight the family’s emotional struggle with losing a father and husband to an unjust sentence.

This article was posted on Thursday 26 October 2015 at

By Farida Ghulam

Farida Ghulam is a key member of Waad, a secular left-wing party in Bahrain, and wife of opposition politician Ebrahim Sharif.