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“My main objective is to tell about the truth and whatever is going on on the ground,” said Ebtisam Al-Saegh, a Bahraini human rights activist, through Jawad Fairooz, a former Bahraini MP and the executive director of the organization SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, who served as her translator. “This objective is what made me targeted.”
Al-Saegh’s story unfolds like a cautionary tale. A networking officer for SALAM and a member of the Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, Al Saegh first came under suspicion in November 2016, for a series of posts she made on Twitter. This was nothing out of the ordinary: Al Saegh said she could “give many examples of activists who use Twitter to express their views and opinions and have been targeted, some of them have been sentenced 1-3 years.” She was questioned by Bahrain’s Public Prosecution Office, accused of inciting hatred against the Bahraini regime and threatening public safety and security. She was questioned again before leaving the country in January 2017, and detained for seven hours at an airport in March 2017.
In May 2017, Al-Saegh was detained by Bahrain’s National Security Agency. While being interrogated, Al-Saegh was beaten, sexually assaulted, and physically and psychologically tortured. She bravely described humiliating and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Bahraini police, who even prevented her husband from bringing her personal clothing and food at night during the fast month of Ramadan, during which she was detained.
In July 2017, Al-Saegh’s family home was ransacked and she was detained yet again. Without a warrant, police confiscated every mobile phone in her home and took valuable items like cash and personal jewelry. She was again interrogated, tortured and sexualy assaulted. She recalls her abusers telling her, “We have enough reasons to keep you under custody, and you will be sentenced with between 10 to 15 years, and no one will defend you. No human rights groups, even the human rights council cannot defend you or you will never be released and there will never be any mercy for you.”
She was brought to Isa Town Women’s Prison, where fellow inmates reported that she looked visibly injured. For two months, she recalls being placed in solitary confinement and forbidden from interacting with fellow inmates. After a month-long hunger strike, she was finally permitted to interact with other inmates — at first, only non-Bahrainis, but she was eventually fully reintegrated into the prison.
She was also allowed to see her family, and document some of the conditions of her imprisonment. She remembers that as a result of horrifying treatment at the hands of the Bahraini authorities, her son had developed psychological problems. She was released pending trial for terrorism-related offenses. She was imprisoned for a total of four months, and suspects that media coverage and advocacy by international human rights organizations sped up her release, which was far sooner than the release of many of her friends and colleagues who remain incarcerated for similar reasons. Upon her release, she attempted to reclaim the property that had been stolen by Bahraini authorities. The authorities denied ever taking certain valuables, including jewelry, but forced her to sign a form declaring that all confiscated property had been returned.
“The detained and interrogated me so many times, and the accusation they’ve given is that I am fabricating stories or that I am threatening the civil peace within society,” Al Saegh said. “My crime was that I wanted to implement the mechanism of international human rights… and the principles of human rights within society.”
Bahrain was once the gold standard for media freedom among Gulf countries, permitting a relatively free press and government criticism from independent media. Yet following Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011, King Haman bin Isa Al Khalifa began cracking down on dissidents, specifically targeting those who spoke out against Islam or the current regime. The conditions for media freedom worsened in July 2016 when, according to Freedom House, “[Bahrain’s] information minister issued new regulations requiring newspapers to obtain annual, renewable licenses to publish online. It also prohibited live streaming video, as well as video clips longer than 120 seconds in length.”
Ever since a series of protests for Shi’a Muslim equality in 2007 became violent — Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni though the country’s religious majority is Shi’a — police violence, poor prison conditions and the torture of detainees have escalated. A report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in 2011 recorded several individuals killed under torture after abuse during detention. According to Al-Saegh, “The king issued a royal decree sentencing any activist that is retweeting or trying to follow any of the bloggers or Twitter activists who are writing anything against the policy of the government. The punishment for such actions can be up to five years.”
Al-Saegh’s experience is devastatingly common. Fairooz also mentioned torture and sexual abuse during his own imprisonment, and both he and Al-Saegh mentioned the case of Nabeel Rajab, another prominent Bahraini human rights activist who was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2018.
Even speaking out about experiences being tortured by Bahraini authorities can make activists like Al-Saegh and Fairooz vulnerable to more abuse. “Part of the reason for recording this story… is to encourage the rest to talk about it,” said Fairooz. “We want the act to be shameful not for the victims, but to be shameful for the torturers. By bringing up these stories, we encourage the victims to be healed.”
Al-Saegh believes that speaking out is worth the risk of losing even more than she already has. “I don’t think about any material things that have been taken away from me, no jewelry, no other items,” she said. “I think about justice and justice for the rest of the victims. Without that, I will not be ready to compromise at all.” [/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1562944045425-143d4185-08a4-1″ taxonomies=”716″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]By Ciaran Willis, Lauren Brown and Samantha Chambers
The daughters of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the co-founder of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, participated in a demonstration on Monday 9 April outside the Bahrain Embassy in London calling for his release on the seventh anniversary of his arrest.
Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja joined NGOs and fellow supporters, as they chanted “free free Abdulhadi” and held placards with a picture of the Bahraini human rights activist.
It marked seven years since Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder of the 2012 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award-winning Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was imprisoned for his involvement in peaceful pro-democracy protests that swept the country during the Arab Spring. On 9 April 2011 twenty masked men broke into his house, dragged him down the stairs and arrested him in front of his family.
Bahrain has a poor track record on human rights, with many reports of torture and human rights defenders in jail. Al- Khawaja was part of the Bahrain 13, a group of journalists and activists who faced unfair trials following the unrest.
During his time in prison, Al-Khawaja has been tortured, sexually abused and admitted to hospital requiring surgery on a broken jaw.
His daughter Maryam al-Khawaja was imprisoned in Bahrain for a year before leaving the country in 2014. She faces prosecution on charges including insulting the king and defamation. She told Index: “For me, this isn’t just about my dad, it’s a reminder that we have thousands of prisoners in Bahrain, and we need to remember all of them, and we need to be fighting on behalf of all of them. These are all prisoners of conscience.”
A number of prominent Bahraini campaigners took part in the demonstration.
Jawad Fairooz, a former Bahrain MP and president of SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, said: “We’re here to support Abdulhadi as a symbol of the demand of the people of Bahrain who want to live in the country with dignity and freedom.”
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and an activist who fled the country following torture, said: “I’m proud to belong to a nation that Abdulhadi is a part of. Abdulhadi to me is one of the most inspirational individuals.”
Cat Lucas, programme manager at English Pen’s Writers at Risk initiative, said that the government could be doing a lot more to challenge what is going on in Bahrain. She hopes the Bahraini Embassy will finally act, not just in the case of al-Khawaja, “but in the case of lots of writers and activists who are imprisoned for their peaceful human rights activities”.
Protesters have gathered outside the Embassy once a month since January 2018 to highlight the dire human rights situation and ask the UK government to take action.
Al- Khawaja’s daughter Zainab called on the UK to hold the Bahraini regime accountable: “Major governments are still supporting the Bahraini regime with weapons and political training. They’re the people behind them. I can feel as angry here as I would protesting in Bahrain, because I know what the government here is responsible for. I know one of the reasons people are being killed and tortured in Bahrain, including my father, is the support from the British and American governments.”
A group of NGOs, including Index on Censorship and Pen International, signed a letter last week calling on Bahrain to cease its abuse of fundamental human rights.They asked the authorities to immediately and unconditionally free Abdulhadi, provide proper access to medical care and allow international NGOs and journalists access to Bahrain.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lkS7Fsyqso”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523361455279-ef10ef07-647f-1″ taxonomies=”716″][/vc_column][/vc_row]