Bahrain: The high price of telling hard truths
Soon after the popular uprising began in Bahrain in 2011, 13 opposition leaders were arrested. Their ‘crime’ was expressing their opinions peacefully: calling for democracy, an end to corruption, opposing the monarchy.
After an unfair trial the men were sentenced to between five years and life in prison. Some say they were tortured, and all are prisoners of conscience. Farida Ghulam, wife of imprisoned opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif, told Amnesty International their story.
Please tell us a little about yourself, Ebrahim and his connection with the other prisoners.
Ebrahim is a prominent political figure – he’s been the Secretary General of Bahrain’s secular National Democratic Action Society (NDAS) – the Wa’ad party – since 2007. I’ve been married to him for 28 years. I’ve been a women’s rights activist since I was 17 and have been president of Bahrain’s first women’s rights organization. I’m currently the head of the NDAS’ Women’s Bureau and work as an evaluation specialist in Bahrain’s Ministry of Education.
Ebrahim (pictured on the “stamp” image above, right, with ‘Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja) is an outspoken person who became a threat to the government. If you are in the opposition and telling hard truths that people are afraid to speak about – like stolen lands and secret budgets – you become a target.
He and the others come from different schools of thought, but are all part of the opposition. After 14 February 2011 [when Bahrain’s popular uprising began], people gathered at the Pearl Roundabout [in the capital, Manama], where Ebrahim and the others were giving speeches every night. The government wanted to put them all in one basket and accused them of trying to topple the regime.
What happened when they were detained?
Ebrahim was arrested on 17 March 2011 [all 13 men were arrested between that day and 9 April 2011]. Around 30-40 guards came at 2am and kept ringing the bell. One pointed his gun at Ebrahim’s head. Ebrahim was very calm – saying he didn’t have to use the gun, and that he would go with them voluntarily. They took him, and when I asked where I could contact him they laughed at me. It was a very tough moment.
That night, Ebrahim and others were stripped naked and put in solitary confinement. A team of torturers beat them for around an hour, three times a day. They threw cold water on Ebrahim’s mattress and turned the air conditioning up high so he couldn’t sleep. After two months the torture stopped because of international attention. The men now suffer from pain, illnesses and the aftermath of torture, and most have not been given any medical treatment.
What happened during and after their trials?
They went through trials for 21 months with no means of defending themselves. Some were sentenced to life [Hassan Mshaima’, ‘Abdelwahab Hussain, ‘Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Dr ‘Abdel-Jalil al-Singace, Mohammad Habib al-Miqdad, Abdel-Jalil al-Miqdad and Sa’eed Mirza al-Nuri], others to 15 years [Mohammad Hassan Jawwad, Mohammad ‘Ali Ridha Isma’il, Abdullah al-Mahroos and ‘Abdul-Hadi ‘Abdullah Hassan al-Mukhodher]. My husband and another man [Salah ‘Abdullah Hubail Al-Khawaja] got five years.
You can’t lie all the time.
It was astonishing and strange when a civilian appeal court said in April 2012 that what happened in the military court was wrong, that they should be free. But the public prosecutor said nothing would change.
It was devastating, especially for those who were sentenced to life. But because this is a political situation and the government is taking revenge against masses of people, it makes your problem seem a little bit smaller. You have to be strong for your family and other people.
How has their imprisonment affected you and the other families?
I have become more outspoken – all the families take any opportunity to speak on the men’s behalf. I’ve had many hate letters and messages on Twitter – people sending me a picture of a hang rope, saying that I am a traitor. I was dismissed from my job for three months and interrogated. But it’s worth it, because this is a just case.
The regime here is trying to control every outlet for the opposition, including on national TV, and most magazines. But now everyone uses Twitter very successfully to convey their messages. If your account is big, the Ministries of the Interior or Justice sometimes reply, using degrading language, saying that we are lying. But we are simply telling the truth.
What does it mean to the 13 men to be featured in Write for Rights 2013?
I have to thank Amnesty for all its efforts – it really affects the men’s spirit by reminding them that they are not forgotten. All these people writing for their cause – it’s a big thing! International activism has a tremendous effect on Bahraini activists, knowing that somebody is telling their story. In our country there has been a total plan to block the opposition, spread lies and distort the story. It’s very important for us– it gives us more confidence and strength to continue. It makes us happy that there are people who appreciate basic rights, stand by their principles and use their time and effort to help us. It’s a beautiful solidarity feeling.
What are your hopes for Bahrain’s future?
We have a road map for a better future called the Manama Document. We want a society with equality for all, where all Bahrainis can get a job if they are competent, instead of having discrimination against Shi'a and opposition party members.
We continue to hope that international pressure will make the Bahraini government admit that the uprising resulted from long unresolved political issues that continue to be ignored and silenced, instead of trying to control everything. You can’t lie all the time.