Bahrain blogger has been in hiding since being sentenced in absentia in 2011 to 15 years in prison for ‘plotting a coup’
On 18 March 2011 – in the middle of the Arab spring – the home of the prominent Bahraini blogger and human rights activist Ali Abdulemam was raided by security forces, along with those of fellow protesters who had taken to the streets to call for reform.
Abdulemam was not at home.
But a few months later, while on the run, he was tried in absentia by a military court and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “plotting a coup”.
In hiding ever since, he arrived in the UK a month ago, after a dramatic escape from Bahrain. In his first engagement since disappearing from public view, Abdulemam will speak next week at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
Now, he has broken his silence for the first time to speak to the Guardian, describing his treatment and his two years in hiding before being smuggled out of Bahrain in a secret compartment in a car. From Saudi Arabia, he went to Kuwait by land, where fishermen smuggled him into Iraq.
Aged 35, the former internet technology engineer with Gulf Air – who was fired for his high-profile activism – has not been able to contact his wife or his twin daughters since leaving Bahrain.
“I have just been waiting for the moment I could be reunited with them,” he said in his first newspaper interview since re-emerging.
It is a story that demonstrates the continuing human rights crisis in Bahrain and the price paid by those who have dared to stand up against the regime. Although victims of violations in a state ruled by a royal family from the Sunni minority have mainly come from the country’s majority Shia Muslim population, groups such as Amnesty have reported that anyone who expresses opposition to the ruling family is at risk of arrest, ill-treatment or other abuses.
Abdulemam launched the Bahrain Online blog in 1998, but began writing under his own name in 2001 amid promises of reform in the Gulf monarchy.
“I started using my own name because I wanted people to know it was a real person, a real activist behind it. I wanted to encourage people to think about reform and human rights,” he said.
Attacked by the local media, who called for his arrest for “encouraging sectarianism” and “insulting the king” – charges he adamantly denies – he was first arrested in 2005. “They accused me of spreading false news.”
However, his real problems began in 2010, in the runup to the Arab spring.
During a government crackdown on activists ahead of parliamentary elections, Abdulemam was summoned to the offices of the National Security Apparatus, which announced the next day he had been arrested while trying to flee to Qatar. His website was shut down on the same day.
According to Human Rights Watch: “The next Mr Abdulemam’s family heard of him was from a government news agency’s story, reporting that prosecutors were questioning Mr Abdulemam in a ‘terrorist network’ investigation. Mr Abdulemam, the account continued, had been ‘diffusing fabricated and malicious news on Bahrain’ and receiving funding from a London-based ‘terror mastermind’.”
None of this was true.
In any case, hHe did not find out the charges against him for weeks, during which time he says he was tortured and abused, and told to sign a false confession. “They said I was part of an organisation planning to bring down the state,” he told the Guardian from an undisclosed location in the UK.
“They didn’t tell me the charge until two days before my court appearance. I was not allowed a lawyer and when I tried to speak the prosecutor would not accept my answers.”
Held for five and a half months with other activists, he was released in February 2011 amid mounting demonstrations in the capital Manama calling for reform and the release of political prisoners that led Bahrain’s royal family to briefly attempt to negotiate an end to the political crisis.
“We had no access to the media but the authorities arranged visits for us and one of the people held with me saw in a newspaper that we were going to be released the day before. They let me go at midnight.” By 3pm the next day he was at Manama’s Pearl roundabout – the focus of the protests – and joined the demonstrations every day until police came for him again three weeks later.
“They raided my house again two days after martial law was announced, after Saudi forces came into Bahrain.”
He was not at home that night. It was the last time he saw his wife and children.
Now he feels that the world is ignoring the situation in Bahrain. “It is not that the world has forgotten Bahrain. The west and the international community has turned its back on us.
“People have died in jail. Our mosques have been damaged. People have been shot in the street. There is no justice. You see their blood in the road. The west’s response is that they see good reforms. But the reality is that people have no human rights. No civil rights.”
Source: The Guardian