The start of July has been a day-by-day microcosm of the struggles of Bahraini activists against one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Only thanks to the reporting of London-based activist and exile, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, is the world able to hear these kind of stories. But Alwadaei’s human rights activism, undertaken through his organisation the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), based here in Britain, is exacting a tough price on his family, stuck in Bahrain.
His mother-in-law, Hajer Mansoor, is presently a political prisoner in Isa Town Prison Centre. Her less-than-charming keeper is a certain Major Maryam Albardoli, who runs the prison. Last Thursday, Major Albardoli told her charge – “I don’t care if people call me a torturer, but you must stop speaking out about what happens inside the prison.”
Major Albardoli threatened to punish Hajer if she continued to speak about the abuses she suffers and the general conditions of the prison.
She stripped Hajer of her weekly visitation rights, and ordered a guard, known in reports only as “Officer Hala”, to turn her husband, brothers and wheelchair-bound 90-year-old mother away at the gates.
The dutiful guard scuttled outside when they arrived and lied – saying Hajer couldn’t attend visitation because she had an appointment at Al-Qalaa Clinic. Then he asked that the family should leave. Then phone calls to the prison started going unanswered when Hajer’s family called.
The minutiae of this intervention were designed to be frustrating, bordering on the cruel but not too outrageous so as to fly under the radar of the media, and to save the skin of Major Albardoli, who clearly has little understanding of basic human decency.
Thousands of miles away, what caused the reprisals was simple civil society activism on the part of BIRD and other human rights groups. Last Monday, an American human rights organisation delivered an oral intervention at the 38th session of the Human Rights Council, specifically to raise concerns about women activists detained in Isa Town Prison. The following day, BIRD published the summary of an event it had just held, with the newly-established All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf. During the event, BIRD explicitly mentioned the treatment of women activists at Isa Town Prison.
Then, on Wednesday, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK Parliament published a submission filed by BIRD exposing the failure of UK-trained bodies, the Ombudsman and Special Investigation Unit, to investigate torture allegations against Sayed Ahmed’s family members, including Hajer. BIRD’s submission clearly named Major Albardoli.
Alongside the evidence came a submission by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, which raised issues of reprisals against Sayed Ahmed’s family members. To round it off, Vice UK published an article citing Ahmed, and mentioning the women detained in Isa Town Prison. Over in Geneva, a United Nations expert cited Ahmed’s work and the trials of his family back home in a damning review of Bahrain’s current approach to human rights.
By Friday, Manama’s notoriously state-controlled press had sprung into action, alongside the bogus human rights organisations who are answerable to the state, not international law. Incidentally, these are the kind of human rights organisations that British dignitaries so often meet on their trips – believing, or not wanting to disbelieve, that they are bona fide protectors of Bahrain’s civil liberties.
Accordingly, Gulf Daily News published an article by Faisal Fulad, the secretary-general of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society. In it he condemned the United Nations Committee’s refusal to rely on his own human rights report, which gave Bahrain a clean bill of health. He said the same of another government-linked “human rights” organisation, the National Institution of Human Rights. Fulad fumed that experts had relied on “shadowy reports by organisations like BIRD … and inputs from Amnesty, which are known for non-neutrality and lack of transparency.”
It was not Fulad’s first attempt to control the media narrative on Bahrain abroad.
In May, we are told that the Guardian received a similar complaint from Fulad. That time it was prompted by the publication of a joint report by BIRD and the UK-based human rights charity Reprieve on the role of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on human rights abuses in the Kingdom.
Inside Isa Town Prison there are seven women sentenced to three to five years in prison after trials that were unfair and based on convictions obtained through torture, including sexual assault. Bahraini officials sentenced not just Hajer Mansoor, but also Medina Ali and Najah Yusuf to three years, and Amira Alqashami, Faten Husain and Mona Habib to five years in prison. Officials have denied those detained access to books, including the Qur’an, and they face “degrading treatment and denial of medical care” under the direction of Major Maryam Bardouli.
So here’s how it works. You speak out against the regime. You leave the country. You set up a human rights organisation in London. Your family are arrested back home. They are subject to the tribulations laid out above, while inside a prison they should never have been put in. Government sponsored journalists and fake NGOs attack your media supporters from afar.
Welcome to twenty-first century Bahrain – and one of Britain’s closest allies in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.