Bahrain is a close friend and ally of the United States. It's also a brutal jailer of its activists.
- By Maryam al-KhawajaMaryam al-Khawaja is one of Bahrain's leading activists, the former Acting President of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and the current Director of Advocacy for the Gulf Center for Human Rights.
It’s now almost four months since I’ve been out of prison but I’m still having trouble getting used to being on the outside. I can’t put in words what it’s like to be in jail. To look out the window and know that your every minute is controlled. To remind yourself where you are when you close your eyes at night so that you won’t be startled by your surroundings when you wake up. To feel like your entire life has been transformed into a single, never-ending day broken into periods of light and darkness. I spent three weeks in prison in Bahrain; I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for those who have spent years behind bars. Thousands of political prisoners, most of them torture survivors, are now languishing in the prisons of a country that continues to enjoy support from the very governments that claim to stand for democracy and human rights.
I had always assumed that I’d end up in prison at some point. For years now, I, my family, and my friends have been campaigning for human rights in Bahrain, a country with a record of pitiless crackdowns on those who challenge the reigning monarchy. So it wasn’t the mere fact of being arrested that shocked me. What shocked me was experiencing the reality of what it means to have your freedom taken away merely because you’ve spoken out for human rights and the freedom of your compatriots.
I’ve lived outside of Bahrain for the past four years. For most of that time, my father has been in jail; he was arrested in April 2011, during the first wave of Arab Spring protests against the regime. (The photo above shows an anti-government protest from earlier this month.) On Aug. 25, 2014, already in terrible health, he went on a hunger strike to protest his continued arbitrary detention, and four days later year I learned that he was already at risk of losing his life. “Every day he’s still alive is an extra day we didn’t know we had,” an expert told me. This was not my father’s first hunger strike, and neither the media nor relevant governments were as interested in his case as they had been in 2012. I realized that it was time for me to go home.
I knew the risks. But I also knew that returning to Bahrain to see my father might generate the attention we needed to save his life. That possibility alone made the trip worth it. I might even have a chance to see him one last time if the worst were to happen. I packed my bag and left, not knowing whether I’d be denied boarding (as happened the previous time I tried to fly back with British Airways), not knowing if I would even make it to Bahrain International Airport.
Upon my arrival at the airport, the authorities at first tried to force me to leave, falsely telling me that I was no longer a Bahraini citizen. When I refused to get back on the plane, I was assaulted by four policewomen, held incommunicado for more than 10 hours in a freezing room, and denied access to the bathroom. They even prevented me from praying. I was then charged with assaulting two of the policewomen who attacked me (one of whom, I later discovered, is a distant relative of mine). The incident left me with a torn shoulder muscle.
Before any of this happened, I notified the police that I would not lift a finger to fight back or defend myself should they use force against me, which I was expecting based on my prior knowledge of the Bahraini authorities. Though I believe that I have the right to defend myself when attacked, I also believe that it is better to maintain the principle of non-violence. By refusing to respond to their attack with violence, I am choosing to take control of my own situation and my reactions. The official “reception committee” was clearly carefully planned. The policewomen who assaulted me were not wearing name badges, and the man who had been filming me for every second since I got off the plane switched off his camera seconds before I was assaulted. I spent the next three weeks in Isa Town Women’s Prison.
Being imprisoned was not, in itself, the most difficult part of the experience. All Bahraini human rights defenders know that we are more likely to be in prison than not, and we wear it as a badge of honor, a symbol of the regime’s recognition of our work. The worst part was knowing that, even though my father was so close nearby, I was still unable to see him. I had to embark on a four-day hunger strike before I was allowed to visit to my father in his prison for an hour. The visit left me more worried after seeing him emaciated, unable to stand or speak for long periods. Also difficult about being in prison was knowing that the rest of my family lived just a few blocks away from where I was being held.
The other difficulty was not knowing how long I would remain under arrest. I knew that there were several cases against me, and that on just one of the many charges I was facing up to seven years’ imprisonment. I kept reminding myself of what my father had told us: Hope for the best, but prepare yourself for the worst. He told us that one of the worst things you can do to yourself is to nurture expectations about your release. The disappointment, he said, will rob you of hope, and hopelessness eats you up until you’re more dead than alive.
During my imprisonment I met a range of female prisoners, an experience that really opened my eyes to the Bahraini judicial system. It is already well documented that Bahraini courts are biased and unfair when hearing political cases. But now I had a chance to witness firsthand the everyday injustices experienced by the people whose hard work keeps Bahraini citizens comfortable and quiescent. My fellow prisoners consisted largely of migrant workers from a variety of countries who had been charged with petty offenses. They were almost never provided with translators and had no idea what was going on. Some women were told by prosecutors that they would be kept in prison longer if they filed abuse complaints against their sponsors. Others were charged as “runaways” because they left sponsors who treated them like modern-day slaves. The injustice of the justice system in Bahrain, as I saw, starts at the highest institutional level and reaches down to the lowest level of society.
When it became too costly for the Bahraini regime to keep me in prison due to international pressure, I was released and placed on a travel ban. On Oct. 1 the ban was lifted, and I left the country.
On Dec. 1, 2014, after I had already spent two months back in exile in Denmark, I was sentenced, in absentia, to one year of imprisonment on trumped-up charges of assaulting the same policewomen who assaulted me. Around the same time my older sister Zainab, who lives in Bahrain, received a sentence of four years and four months. She gave birth to my nephew Hadi one week before her sentencing. She is now waiting to be re-arrested and taken to prison, which could happen at any time. On April 9, 2015, my father and uncle will both have been in prison for four years. That will be four years since my father was beaten unconscious in front of my family, after which he was subjected to weeks of severe torture — physically, psychologically, and sexually. The three years and eight months that he has already endured feel like an eternity — but they represent just a fraction of his 25-year sentence.
A few days after my sister and I were sentenced, the United Kingdom announced that it plans to open a military base in Bahrain. The British government has decided that its best response to an oppressive monarchy, a corrupt government, extrajudicial killings, systematic torture, and an unjust judiciary is to reward the regime with a military base. The United States, of course, already uses Bahrain as the home port of its United States Fifth Fleet, a strategic asset that explains why Washington is so willing to turn a blind eye to the regime’s systematic abuse of human rights. Bahrain’s monstrous treatment of its own citizens continues to give the lie to American and British claims that they are the world’s foremost defenders of freedom.
I may end up in prison again, in the near or distant future, and again I will consider it a badge of honor to join the thousands of political prisoners who are fighting for their rights in Bahrain. What I do wonder, though, is how future generations will remember the governments of Barack Obama and David Cameron, leaders who have done so much to enable a regime that is so determined to deny freedom to its own citizens.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images