Interview by Joanne Michele, Safeworld Correspondent
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. (Contd...)