A prominent Bahraini rights activist tried to tell a judge today how he was sexually assaulted and threatened with rape while in government custody. But Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was forcefully removed from the courtroom.
Another defendant, the elderly Mohammed Hassan Mohammed Jawad, also tried to show the judge signs of torture on his body, but was also silenced, say witnesses.
Mr. Khawaja and Mr. Jawad are among 21 Bahrainis – mostly Shiite human rights activists, clerics, and political leaders – charged with trying to overthrow the Sunni monarchy that rules this small kingdom and of having links to a “terrorist organization." They were arrested amid the country's pro-democracy uprising that began in February and though many have experienced jail before, family members say they have been treated much more harshly this time.
"It has never been like this," says Khawaja's wife, Khadija Moussawi, who was present at the court hearing today and was reached by phone in Manama. "Before he was in jail, [but] he wasn't tortured like this, he wasn't beaten up like this, he wasn't psychologically tortured.”
Detainees' allegations of sexual assault and physical abuse contradict the monarchy's attempt to show the kingdom is getting back to normal.
Last week, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced that emergency declared in March would be lifted June 1. Supplementary elections will be held in September to replace the parliamentary members who resigned over the government crackdown. Bahrain Grand Prix officials have said they were ready to hold a Formula One race, which had been called off amid the protests.
But activists say the widespread crackdown has simply moved from the streets to courtrooms, workplaces, and schools.
At least 1,000 still detained; 2,000 fired
Along with the abuse alleged by detainees, at least 2,000 people have been arrested since February, and at least half of them are still jailed, says Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
A wave of firings of Shiite employees is continuing “every day,” with at least 2,000 fired so far, according to Shiite political bloc Al Wefaq. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said Monday that students at Bahrain University are being forced to sign a pledge of loyalty to the government. And at the beginning of the month, authorities arrested two members of the biggest opposition bloc, Al Wefaq, a moderate Shiite group.
“The crackdown is not over. This is ongoing,” says Toby Jones, a historian of the modern Gulf at Rutgers University. The government’s actions indicate that, far from preparing for a political solution, it is retrenching to its autocracy of the 1990s and abandoning the attempts at reform it had embarked on in the past decade, he says. “I interpret all of this as a sign that there will be no liberal autocracy anymore, it's simply going to be old-fashioned autocratic politics. Because look at what happens when they open a little bit – people have expectations, and they demand things, and they threaten power.”
The 21 defendants on trial now face life in prison or the death sentence if convicted.
Some of them, like Al Haq leader Hassan Mushaima, are controversial. Mr. Mushaima openly called for the overthrow of the monarchy, which enraged some demonstrators who only wanted reform because they felt he gave the government an excuse for a crackdown. Khawaja also called for regime change, and has made what some consider politically provocative statements.
But the defendants also include Ebrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of a nonsectarian liberal opposition group that was a member of a coalition engaging with the regime on reform.
Moussawi recounts her husband's prison abuse
The defendants are not allowed to see their lawyers except for 10-15 minutes after each hearing, and are not permitted to speak with them alone, say family members. Those brief intervals after the hearings are also the only chance families have to speak with their imprisoned relatives.
Khawaja told his wife about the abuse in a six-minute conversation the two had after he talked with his lawyer, Mrs. Moussawi said. She began to sob as she described what he told her: On Friday, he was taken from his prison cell, blindfolded, and driven to an unknown location. There, with a camera in the room, a man who described himself as a representative of Bahrain’s King Hamad asked Khawaja to apologize to the king on camera.
After Khawaja refused twice to record an apology, saying he hadn’t said anything wrong, says Moussawi, four men took him to another room and threatened to rape him. They took off their pants and their underwear, “jumped on him,” and began to remove his pants. Khawaja was handcuffed.
“He said, ‘I tried to get out of their hands but I couldn't push them away,’ ” says Moussawi, her voice breaking. “So he started hitting his head severely against the floor until he was almost unconscious.”
At that point, she says he told her, the attack stopped. Khawaja had already undergone surgery after suffering multiple fractures in his face from what he told his family was severe beatings while being detained. Moussawi says he will be taken for an X-ray today to determine if he will need new surgery as a result of new damage Friday.
Khawaja also told his wife that the men had also threatened to rape “and do things you can’t imagine” to their daughter. He asked his wife to tell their daughter, who lives abroad, to be careful.
“My husband did what he did just because he wants people to know their rights. He never hurt anybody, he never did anything bad, he doesn't deserve that,” she said through tears.
US 'extremely troubled' about Bahrain abuses, but seen as too soft
Moussawi, like many other Bahrainis in recent weeks, expressed anger at the US for its muted response to human rights violations committed by its tiny ally. Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet, a key part of the US presence in the Middle East and a bulwark against nearby Iran.
“This is all their fault. They have given the green light,” Moussawi said of the US.
A US State Department spokesperson said in an e-mail the US government continued to publicly and privately express concern to Bahraini authorities, and urged the government to abide by due process and transparent legal proceedings in the trials.
“We remain extremely troubled by reports of ongoing human rights abuses, and are concerned about the safety and welfare of detainees in Bahrain. We call on the government of Bahrain to provide an update on the whereabouts and the status of all detainees and to ensure security of person of all those detained,” said the spokesperson in a statement in response to a Monitor query.
Bahraini officials were unable to be reached for comment. The court delayed the continuation of the trial until Sunday, because lawyers for the defendants said they had not had time to speak with their clients. Lawyers also challenged the constitutionality of trying defendants under the emergency law. Bahrain News Agency also reported the detainees would be removed from solitary confinement.