Ali Abdulemam is a Bahraini blogger and founder of Bahrain Online, a pro-democracy news website and forum. He is also a member of research and advocacy group Bahrain Watch and a human rights defender with Bahrain Center for Human Rights. In August 2010, Abdulemam was arrested by Bahraini authorities, accused of “spreading false information” and imprisoned. He was released in February 2011 and subsequently went into hiding following anti-government protests and a crackdown by the government on protesters. Convicted in absentia for plotting to overthrow the government, Abdulemam was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2013, Abdulemam was granted political asylum in the UK.
Last week, Bahrain revoked Abdulemam’s citizenship along with another 71 Bahraini citizens, many of whom are journalists or bloggers. This is in contravention of Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”
This is Abdulemam’s reflection on losing his citizenship.
When I first registered on Facebook back in 2005, I wrote in my biography “Lost Identity”. It wasn’t an expectation of what is going to happen to me 10 years on, so much as expressing my thoughts regarding “identity”, and how it works in everything around me, how it affects me, affects my way of thinking, the way I look into other people, the way I define things, this century we can call it the “Identity Era”.
I first heard the news about the stripping of my nationality while I was talking with a friend on the phone. A popup message in Whatsapp appeared, saying: “Urgent. 72 citizenships revoked.” I told him “I think my citizenship has been revoked” and he laughed at me. Hearing him laughing I opened the link to see the names and scrolled down to No. 49 and there was my name “ Ali Hasan Abdulla Abdulemam”. I confirmed it to him. I said: “I think yours is also there” and scrolled down to No. 70. It made him stop laughing when I told him: “Your name is there as well”.
The first thing I did it was to tweet: “When I woke up this morning I was Bahraini, and when I wake up tomorrow I will be Bahraini”. I am sticking with my identity. I don’t want to leave it. Now, I have my own definition of the “identity” that I love and the main part of this identity is not “lost” it is “BAHRAINI”. It is not for the government to give it or take it away, it is not for them to take me from my roots, I will not accept to be unrecognised by the world. I will keep telling myself, my kids, and my friends that I am from the country that created the “Lulu” revolution (the uprising of 2011 named after the Pearl or Lulu Roundabout that was the site of demonstrations against the government).
“What does it mean to be Bahraini?” is a question with different answers depending on the time you want the answer. I got to know the real meaning of this question when I first left jail at the end of February 2011 at three in the morning and went directly to Lulu square where the protesters were freely sleeping in peace. I felt the dignity and smelled my real “identity” which I almost lost inside prison, when they tortured and threatened me. I felt they were targeting my identity not targeting me personally: those officers who imprisoned and tortured me didn’t know me, hadn’t met me before, they had a problem with me being different from them, they wanted me to be like them.
Now I am stateless, I don’t know how I will be able to visit my aged mother, my brothers, sisters and my friends. There are so many places I love in Bahrain that I can’t imagine I will die before I visit them again: that beach I use to play in it when I was kid, that unpainted wall with graffiti that says “the parliament is the solution” from the 1990s. I still want to take a selfie with it. I miss going to Spalion cafe where my friends are still gathering to share stories and chat about culture, politics, religion etc. and again to ask Abbas the waitress for “one bastard tea”. The most important place I want to visit, and spend as much time as I can is the cemetery where my father has rested in peace for the past six years. I haven’t been there for almost five years; my father is the first person who taught me what is meant to be Bahraini.
There is a proverb my father used to tell me when I was a child: “Those who disown their roots, don’t have any”, and that’s what I want to tell my nine year old son. I will point his finger to that beautiful, tiny island in the gulf and tell him “Your father came from here, and here where we belong”. I refuse to recognise this decree by the king, I will keep writing I am Bahraini in any application form. I will not accept to be “Lost Identity” again, I have an identity and I am proud of it.
In the last week, Bahrain’s treatment of its citizens and their right to free expression has been repeatedly in the news. Sara Yasin reports on a spate of developments that raise questions about the Bahraini government’s commitment to free speech.
Blogger and activist Ali Abdulemam has been granted asylum in the United Kingdom. Abdulemam’s two years in hiding began shortly after the start of Bahrain’s political unrest in February 2011. He was sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison on charges of attempting to overthrow the monarchy.
Abdulemam is the prominent founder of Bahrain Online, a site that created an online space to criticise and discuss the country’s regime in 1998. Initially, he wrote anonymously, but he began to write in his own name in 2001. Public dissent in Bahrain comes at a price: the blogger was first arrested in 2005 and then once more in 2010.
News of Abdulemam’s heroic escape did not amuse Bahrain’s government:
Ali Abdulemam was not tried in court for exercising his right to express his opinions. Rather, he was tried for inciting and encouraging continuous violent attacks against police officers. Abdulemam is the founder of Bahrain Online, a website that has repeatedly been used to incite hatred, including through the spreading of false and inflammatory rumors.
The statement goes on to say that the country “respects the right of its citizens to express their opinion”, but makes a distinction between expressing an opinion and “engaging in and encouraging violence.”
Back in 2010, Abdulemam was jailed, tortured, and accused of being a part of a “terrorist network.” The real threat he posed to the state, as fellow activist Ala’a Shehabi put it last year, was that “his forum offered dissidents a voice.”
So what does “incitement” look like in Bahrain? For documenting a protest on Twitter last December, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) member Said Yousif, was jailed and charged with “spreading false news.” According to the country’s laws, “the dissemination of the false news must amount to incitement to violence.” As Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Lea Witson put it:
If Bahraini officials believe that an activist is inciting violence by tweeting a picture of an injured demonstrator, then it’s clear that all the human rights sessions they’ve attended have been wasted.
The jailed head of the organisation, Nabeel Rajab, is currently serving a two year sentence for organising “illegal protests.” BCHR released a statement today expressing concerns that Rajab has been transferred to solitary confinement. He has been unreachable since relaying to his wife an account of young political prisoners being tortured earlier this week. Rajab was requesting a visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross, to document the case.
Still, Bahrain insists that freedom of expression is something that it upholds — in fact, it has gone so far as prosecuting individuals for supposedly abusing it. Just yesterday, year-long sentences were handed to six Twitter users for making posts insulting Bahrain’s King Hamad. For hanging a Bahraini flag from his truck during protests in 2011, a man was handed a three-month jail sentence today.
Looks like it might be time for Bahrain to reevaluate how it understands freedom of expression.
It is very difficult to imagine what life is like for Ali Abdulemam, the blogger turned fugitive. How can anyone hide for a year on an island that is 55 kilometres by 18 kilometres, and that has turned into a police state, where the state conducts nightly raids on homes, and where the secret police are everywhere?
As we mark the one year anniversary of Abdulemam’s forced disappearance, the online community needs to do more to raise the plight of one of the pioneers of blogging in the Arab world. His work over a decade ago in establishing one of the foremost political forums in the country, bahrainonline.org, paved the way for the biggest revolution in the history of the country, and he is the one now paying the price. He is also paying the price for using his real name, but in targeting Abdulemam, the government has now created multiple anonymous Abdulemams.
Abdulemam was sentenced in absentia to 15 years imprisonment on charges of attempting to overthrow the monarchy. A bizarre charge to make against someone who spent hours in coffee shops with a laptop smoking a sheesha, flipping through Ali Wardi’s books, listening to Iraqi music or mingling with the blogger community of Cairo and Belarus. There is a reason why he is considered one of the most dangerous men in the country and one of the biggest threats to the state, and that reason is that his forum offered dissidents a voice. During his second arrest, his torturers, digitally illiterate at the time, forced him to take down the site. Abdulmam’s colleagues, thankfully managed to restore the site.
He would not have known or even expected this at the time from his prison cell, but his forum was pivotal in the call for a Day of Rage on 14 February, and in fact, it was there that the Pearl Roundabout was proposed as gathering point, and was subsequently occupied. It should have been no surprise then, that when the uprisings took place in Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, historically active bloggers such as Ala’a Abd El Fattah, Ali Abdulemam and Razzan Ghazawi, would be top of the list of the most wanted people in their country.
We hope that Ali Abdulemam is still alive. He left his home just hours before it was raided last March, leaving behind his wallet and passport, his friends and family have not heard or seen him since. It is extremely worrying that he has not contacted anyone for so long. Even if he is still alive, family have grave concerns about his mental well-being.
I was one of the last people who spoke to Ali just hours before he disappeared last March when the Saudi troops invaded Bahrain. I needed his advice. Worried about what was going to happen to the country, and to us, we decided to prepare for imminent arrest. Do we sit at home and wait for the masked men, or leave? Abdulemam was not going to take the risk. He had already spent 6 months in jail where he was tortured, humiliated and completely shielded from the outside world. Did Abdulemam have a lucky escape or did he inadvertently enter a dark abyss much worse than we can know or imagine? None of us know. All we can do is pray and ask, where is Ali?
Ala’a Shehabi is a British-born economics lecturer, activist and writer in Bahrain. She has a PhD from Imperial College London, and is a former policy analyst at Rand Europe. She is also a founding member of BahrainWatch.org and the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organisation
Index on Censorship has been alerted to this urgent news from the Bahrain Human Rights Society:
Ali Abdulemam, known by his nickname “the blog-father” for setting up the first free uncensored online forum in Bahrain for political and social debate, is today missing from his home and his family are unable to establish contact with him.
His uncle described the scene last night when 50 heavily armed policemen came to arrest him, just a few weeks after he was released as a part of concessions to placate Bahraini protesters. He had been accused of being part of an “organisational cell” and was known as one of the 25, who were arrested for plotting to overthrow the government.
At around 1.15am on 18 March the housing complex in Aali where Ali rented a flat from one of his cousins awoke to hear the metal gate outside being riddled with bullets.
Around 50 masked and heavily armed security personnel then proceeded to break down the wooden door of the house. Ali’s cousin, his cousin’s wife and daughter were asleep in the ground floor flat. They burst in on them before the wife or the daughter had a chance to cover up and demanded to know where Ali was while pointing a gun at their faces.
They replied that Ali and his wife had not been home for three days and they had no idea where he was. Incensed that their repeated questions were not yielding any results, they trashed the house and then moved up a floor where there were two more flats and kicked the doors in.
One was Ali’s flat that had been vacated a few days ago in response to the growing threats, and the other belonged to another family who had nothing to do with the situation. The other family were also not there and it is believed that Ali may have hinted to them to stay with relatives.
After tearing the flats apart and breaking everything they could, they filled a large suitcase with every kind of camera, hard drive, video recorder or DVD that they could find. They then returned to the terrified occupants of the ground floor and repeated their demands, this time threatening to take the daughter instead.
The father and mother said they would take their daughter only over their dead bodies. After a short stand-off the police backed off, possibly realising that the family really had no idea where Ali or his wife and children were. They had left the house three days previously for a secret location, but had been phoning family members to reassure them of their safety. Now the lines of communication are dead and the family have no idea if he is in Bahrain or if he managed to get out of the country, or if the police have caught up with him.
Other attacks and arrests are also reported in Bahrain. In a release today, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International is “deeply concerned” about the reported re-arrest of academic and human rights activist Dr Abdul-Jalil Alsingace on 16 March 2011 following a violent crackdown on peaceful opposition protestors in the capital, Manama.