Interview by Joanne Michele, Safeworld Correspondent March 2012
Asma was no stranger to human rights issues in Bahrain. Her husband Hussain Jawad was a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Amnesty International and had himself been arrested three times. She herself was well known to the media and became a regular contact for the media through twitter under the name of @eagertobefree .
Her father-in-law, Mohammad Hassan Mohammad Jawad (Parweez), an independent human rights activist was arrested on March 22 and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Parwees was 65 and was the oldest political prisoner in Bahrain. When he was arrested he was tortured and held in solitary confinement for 4 months.
When we first spoke in December, Asma's 16-year old cousin had just been released after two months in prison. He’d been arrested for watching, but not participating in, the protests, and was exposed to torture. Moreover, another cousin and uncle are both political prisoners, having been sentenced to 10 and 5 years, respectively.
“The pain I have in my heart is because none of these people have done anything wrong,” Asma said. “I’ve never seen anyone holding anything that would not be considered peaceful.”
Asma estimates thousands of people have been detained and held as political prisoners since the revolution escalated in March of last year. Midnight raids are typical, as are police storming into homes and arresting everyone indiscriminately.
Men, women and children have been sexually abused inside the regime’s prisons. Asma recounted a story of a 19-year old man who was released from prison in late July. His legs had been beaten with a hammer by Jordanian torturer Isa Almajali, and he witnessed the death of one prisoner, Ali Isa Saqer. Teenagers, some as young as 16, reported torture and sexual assaults.
"This is not acceptable. How do we expect these young people to cope with life after experiencing all these assaults?" Asma demanded. There are at least 6 recorded cases of women being raped in prison since last year.
Opposition figures, especially the most public, are treated the worst because the regime claims they encourage people to protest in the streets. These prisoners, like Asma’s father-in-law, Zainab's father, and 12 other opposition leaders have been subjected to electrical shocks, beatings, sexual abuse and abhorrent humiliation.
Asma’s father-in-law still has scars on his legs, ten months after being tortured with an electric drill. Her brother was taken to the hospital for a week for treatment after his head was bashed into the wall when asked by interrogators if he liked the king or not, he refused to answer.
Prisoners who are known to be Shia are targeted as well. There are accounts of officers burning Qur’ans, and one prisoner was made to kiss an officer’s foot as he kicked his Qur’an across the cell. Some prisoners were spat on intentionally, though the officers claim to be Muslims, taking time out of torturing prisoners such as Asma’s father-in-law to pray,
“I don’t think they believe in God whatsoever. If they believed in God they wouldn’t dismiss Humanity and Him.”
Their torturers are largely foreigners, mostly Sunnis, brought in from Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen against the Shia prisoners. There are also reports of Iraqis brought to torture the political prisoners.
They said "we are the sons of Saddam Hussain".
According to Asma, the regime has given passports to uneducated outsiders who are told that the Bahraini prisoners are terrorists and criminals. And it has adopted political naturalization tactics in order to change the demographics of Bahrain by increasing the Sunni population in contrast to the Shia.
Prison conditions are deplorable. The food is bad, and there isn’t enough of it anyway. There is often no hot water for showers, and the prisoners who are fortunate enough to be granted medical care are punished even for that – some have declined because they would first be forced to strip naked in front of each other and police before being transported to a hospital.
Many are kept from their families, like Asma’s father-in-law, who was held in an isolated prison 45 minutes away by car. Psychological, or ‘white’, torture is common as well. Prisoners are kept in solitary confinement and denied visitors and phone privileges. Despite constant visits to police stations and investigation centers, Asma and her family had no knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts or conditions for a month after his arrest, which is what led to her 12-day hunger strike. A week into it, she received a call that the family would be permitted a 15-minute visit with Mohammad.
The hunger strike is what prompted Asma to finally reveal her name on Twitter. Her family urged her to continue writing under an alias, but she knew that a human name and face behind the account would garner more media attention, which could possibly help her brother.
"Even now,” she said, “trust is essential.” Media and aid organizations want to work with credible people. When I asked her if she felt using her real name actually protected her more, she was adamant.
“Our names are out there so people know us and the regime would think 100 times more before doing anything to us.” So many people have been arrested – women have been pulled from their cars and beaten – and yet no one knows about these unnamed people. When she and Zainab were arrested, the whole world knew.
“If not for Twitter, I would probably be in jail right now, and maybe dead,” Asma said. She believes that the circulation of videos of Zainab’s December 2011 arrest led to her quick release. When they were arrested along with Asma’s sister-in-law Sawsan Jawad at the United Nations building in June 2011, it was Helen Clark’s “passion for Twitter” that led to her intervention and the women’s eventual release. “Twitter is doing a good job for the revolutions all around the world,” Asma said.
She worries that the influx of foreign mercenaries coupled with the ruling government’s policies will cause Bahrain to stagnate. Already there is a significant brain drain, she says.
Doctors, for example, have been targeted, arrested, and tortured. Upon their release, they fled or sought asylum in the United States and the United Kingdom and other countries.
Hospitals are not even safe. Earlier on the day we first spoke, a man was hit by a car while protesting in Sitra. Like most of the protesters who are injured, people from the town took him into their homes because he would be arrested at the hospital. Many of the physicians operate clandestinely to protect both their patients and themselves from arrest or reprisals.
Doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) attended to Asma when she was on hunger strike, but she feared for their safety. For safety, they parked three blocks from her house and would walk to her house, hoping to go unnoticed or at least ignored.
When we first spoke in late December, Asma and Hussain were considering seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Asma had been selected in January to attend a Women’s Leadership Program for 6 weeks in the United States by the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, though she was not granted a visa until two days prior to the travel.
She chose not to go. On the other hand, she had to leave Bahrain for safety and security reasons the same time.
She asserted that there are over 200 protests in Bahrain on any given day. The protesters face a daily barrage of tear gas and brutality from the authorities. When I asked why they continue, she was adamant that they will never give up.
“They want to gain their freedom,” she said. “They don’t want to forsake the dignity of those who were killed and arrested.” The struggle is about getting back what was lost, and “the souls that were taken forcibly from the people.”
The violence against protesters is calculated, as if the government can squash the protests if they are just violent enough. In this, the regime underestimated the Bahraini people. Asma likened the regime’s attitude to punishing a child so they won’t make that mistake again. Except these are not children.
“We are aware, educated, and we know our rights. We can elect a ruler like any other country”
Largely ignored by the international community, the people of Bahrain still have an enthusiasm for victory and are determined to free themselves.
The popular media support for the Arab Spring focused on other countries and the Bahraini activists and protesters were left to face their government brutality and crackdown alone. Asma believes one reason the regime was so successful at avoiding public scrutiny is because it was made to be able to paint the revolution as being largely sectarian.
But just because the majority of protestors are Shia does not mean it is a Shia revolution. There are Sunni opposition leaders and Sunnis heavily involved in the democracy protests. In June 2011, Sunni opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif was sentenced to five years in prison and was severely tortured for conscience. One of her brothers is married to a Sunni who she deeply loves. The tensions are not between the Shia and Sunni Bahrainis, but rather that the foreigners given passports and jobs in the police and military are not Bahraini, do not speak the language or know the customs. Bahrainis, meanwhile, are continually expelled from or denied jobs despite being qualified.
As for the regime’s claim that the protests are backed by Iran or Iranian interests, Asma dismisses it as nonsense. It is a convenient distraction that allows other countries, such as the United States, to apply a double standard to Bahrain, with which it is allied. Although she was born in Tehran, Asma left as an infant.
“I had to be born in exile when the regime kicked us out of Bahrain in the 80s. They kicked us out after arresting my father, torturing him so bad, and sentencing him to prison for two years," she said. Regarding Iran, "I can’t even tell you their politics or how things are run there."
The Bahraini government, Asma asserts, knows that the protests are not linked to Iran, but framing them as such allows the regime to deny people their demands.
She doesn’t see things improving, especially if the United States and other countries don’t use their influence to push for justice. The international human rights organizations and activists, she says, are doing their best. They are compassionate, interested, and assist the families of those whose rights have been violated. World leaders need to initiate contact with the Bahraini government and call on it to fulfill the people’s demands. These world leaders have pushed Egypt, Libya and now Syria to yield to citizens’ demands, but on Bahrain they remain silent.
Most importantly, the protesters want King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to step down.
“They have been ruling us for 230 years,” Asma said. “Now the people want to choose.” And if other countries fear Shia rule in the country, they should know “we just want a person, Shia or Sunni, who would be fair, give us justice and our basic human rights.”
She also wants the political prisoners released, the people responsible for the violations to be questioned and charged, and for the government to provide decent living standards for all Bahrainis.
Thousands of people have been expelled from their jobs due to their involvement in the pro-democracy protests and now cannot afford to send their children to school. Hundreds have been expelled from university as well, including Asma. Her university, Bahrain Polytechnic, is a government institute and students are forbidden from engaging in any anti-government political activity inside the university. Although all of the students' political activities took place outside of the university, Asma and others were expelled in June 2011, after being interrogated inside the campus.
After reaching out to educational organizations around the world, about half of the students were allowed back on campus, but only after signing a code of conduct that they would not engage in any activities with a political nature. Furthermore, she had to repeat the previous semester, repay tuition fees, and any government grants she had previously received were cancelled.
She was also under tremendous pressure. Her family was worried that she’d be recognized and targeted. They had heard stories of female students being kidnapped by government forces from their university campuses and imprisoned. Asma insisted on returning, however. After arriving back on campus, she was continually harassed by pro-government students. She reported the abuse to the head of Student Welfare in November, but never heard back, indicating the polytechnic was unwilling to cooperate with pro-democracy students.
She knew that some of the students had connections to the Ministry of Interior, and Student Welfare even asked if she was sure she wanted to file a report. She did. “I don’t want anyone to think that we are weak and these people are strong.” Asma demanded one of the students sign a pledge that he wouldn’t harass anyone else – just as she and the other expelled students had been forced to sign pledges saying they wouldn’t engage in pro-democracy activities. She wanted accountability.
“I think anyone who suppresses a nation cannot continue, and dictators around the world learn from each other,” she said. “I saw Zainab being dragged to the ground and arrested and a few days later I saw the same thing happen to a woman in Egypt.”
Activists learn from each other as well. Asma sees the international community as essential for pressuring the Bahraini government. She wants people to continue to share videos and news stories about the crimes happening inside the country and to demonstrate to their governments in support for the Bahraini people.
About a month ago, Asma was forced to flee the country she’s fought so hard to change.
About a month ago, Asma was forced to flee the country she’s fought so hard to change.
Her life is very different in the Swiss village she and her husband now call home. It’s cold, one of the coldest winters on record, and quiet. In Bahrain she was kept awake late into the night by children chanting “down, down Hamad, Ten Ten Teten” in the streets.
In Switzerland many of the people are only vaguely familiar with the revolution in Bahrain and some think it must have ended in March last year when the Arab Spring of Bahrain fell out of the media cycle.
When they first arrived in Switzerland as asylum seekers, Asma and Hussein were separated from each other and any means of technological communication for over two weeks. But now, reunited with each other and Twitter, Asma is able to reconnect with her family and friends and continue to push for her country’s freedom.
She and Hussain will be soon enrolled in French classes so she can connect with the Swiss people speaking French and educate her new neighbors about the reality in Bahrain.
“I have to use my voice,” she said.