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Meeting Human Rights Activists from Bahrain on World Day for the Victims of Torture

By Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui

By Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa

As Khadija al-Mousawi entered the room I was immediately struck by her dignity.

This quiet and unassuming woman is undoubtedly very courageous. Her husband Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is currently serving a life prison sentence for doing nothing more than being a vehement non-violent anti-government critic. She is also the mother of Zainab al-Khawaja who is jailed until February 2014.

I was also pleased to meet again two other women who found themselves at the forefront of the fight against injustice in Bahrain: Farida Ghulam, the wife of Ebrahim Sharif, a prominent secular opposition leader who is serving a five-year prison sentence, and Maryam Abu Dheeb, the daughter of Mahdi Abu Dheeb, the Head of Bahrain Teachers’ Association who was jailed for five years.

Khadija is part of a seven-member strong delegation of Bahraini human rights activists and relatives of detainees visiting Amnesty International to mark World Day for the Victims of Torture. It is 26 years to the day since the UN Convention against Torture came into force. The  treaty sought “to make more effective the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world”. It’s tragic to hear how torture is becoming a day to day reality in Bahraini prisons and police stations.

Khadija al-Mousawi recalls how human rights defenders used to be untouchable in Bahrain. But following the 2011 pro-democracy uprising they have routinely been targeted for arrest and torture. Khadija has personal experience of this: her husband was arrested in April 2011 during the brutal crackdown to crush the uprising in Bahrain. He was subjected to torture for several days. His family did not recognise him because his face was deformed, bloodied and his jaw was broken.

Another delegate, human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer, spoke of the torture he was subjected to when he was detained in 2011. As well as suffering severe beatings, he was then placed in solitary confinement. Hearing the screams of other prisoners being beaten, as he says, is “mental torture” in itself. Al-Tajer tried to present his account as evidence in court, but it was dismissed, adding to the culture of impunity in the Bahraini legal system. Those he heard being tortured received lengthy, sometimes life prison terms, after grossly unfair trials. They are now prisoners of conscience languishing in a Bahraini jails.

There is no medical treatment for the victims of torture. Maryam Abu- Dheeb spoke about her father Mahdi who had two broken ribs as well as severe neck and back pain as a result of the torture he was subjected to following his arrest. She expressed her fears that her father will leave prison in a wheelchair if he does not receive treatment immediately. Recently, the prison authorities appeared to play a cat and mouse game with the prisoners and to withhold adequate medical treatment as a punishment for refusal to wear prison uniforms.

Given these experiences, the Bahraini delegation was astonished at the ‘business-as-usual’ attitude of the UK Government in its relationship with the Bahraini authorities. The British position, they say, doesn’t make political or business sense and is morally repugnant.

Particular criticism was levelled at Foreign Office senior officials who have not only failed to speak out against torture in Bahrain, but have questioned the prisoner of conscience status of the opposition leaders. It appears they have taken at face value the claims by Bahrain that no one is jailed for freedom of expression.

The Bahraini authorities trumpet that the 13 jailed opposition leaders are in prison for criminal offences, not for expressing their own views. And the UK is simply too keen to accept this spurious explanation. This is far from reality: When trying these prominent opposition leaders the court failed to produce any evidence that the 13 had used or advocated violence.

The British support for the Bahraini authorities led Khadija al-Mousawi to start her own social media campaign. Now, every time she sees a video on social media of torture or ill-treatment in Bahrain, she sends Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt a message on Twitter saying ‘thank you for your training’. She is of course referring to the role that the UK had and continues to play in training Bahraini security services.

However, even in these dark circumstances there remains hope. It was poignant that Farida Gulham and Khadija al-Mousawi gave up their weekly phone calls with their detained husbands, to enable them to thank Amnesty International activists in person. Both said they are in good spirit and stressed that the solidarity from Amnesty International activists gives them hope. They will continue fighting for a Bahrain free from torture.

It was Denmark that first proposed a World Day for the Victims of Torture. How ironic that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is also a Danish national. The European Union is holding a meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council states in Bahrain at the end of this week.

Somehow I fear that human rights will be swept under the carpet, sacrificed in the name of business and stability.