One woman’s story of the terror stalking Bahrain
It was 1.30 am on March 29 this year when a group of armed men broke into the family home of Jalila al-Salman in the Bahraini capital of Manama.
Some were wearing balaclavas and carrying machine guns. Others had batons.
There were at least 15 of them, ransacking the house, shouting at three terrified children whom they found in the bedrooms upstairs.
They barged into another bedroom where a woman was sleeping. “Don’t be afraid, we are the police!” – one of the men shouted as he held her by the neck, pressing a gun to her head.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was a raid on the house of an international terrorist when, in fact, they were after a female teacher.
“I was just in my nightdress. I had nothing to cover myself. I was on my bed and I thought I was dreaming. I could not believe what was going on.
“There were so many men inside that you could not catch a glimpse of the carpet on the floor. I heard a helicopter above my house.”
Al-Salman is still struggling to comprehend what has happened to her in the last six months – until then she was just the vice-president of the Teachers’ Association and a mother of three children under 12.
“They took me outside where there were over 15 cars parked. They wouldn’t let me say goodbye to my children. I was put on a minibus.
“As we were driving away, they told me to look outside the window as I would never see the outside world again. They hit me and called me horrible names. Names I can’t bring myself to repeat.”
Al-Salman is one of the symbols of repression of the Bahraini regime. Her crime – taking part in the recent non-violent protests at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama.
The protesters had had enough of a country run like a private company. Bahrain has had the same prime minister for 42 years and a large majority of the government and the judiciary belong to the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family.
They are calling for an end to discrimination against Shias and a fairly elected government with genuine power.
Although parliamentary elections were held on September 24, only 13 nominally independent candidates participated. The opposition boycotted it.
On the night of her arrest the army men and the police were doing the rounds, collecting her colleagues from their beds, dragging them apart from their screaming families.
Al-Salman says that the teachers only went to the Roundabout on the sixth day, Sunday 20 March, after some of the protestors had already been injured and killed. As Bahraini citizens, they refused to accept that kind of treatment.
She is keen to stress that it was only after the King himself had appeared on TV saying that everyone had the right to express themselves peacefully that they decided to go.
“We told our union members to stand outside schools as a sign of support to our brothers. That was our message. The Ministry of Education refused to talk to us and we only communicated through statements.”
Initially she was taken to the CID (Criminal Investigation Directorate) and kept there for 10 days. She was questioned twice during that time and made to sign statements which not only did she not write, she was not even allowed to read.
“I was in solitary confinement, it was very, very dirty. The walls were covered in dried blood. There was a hook hanging off the ceiling. There were no windows. I was forced to stand for almost all of the time.
“Every five minutes someone would come inside my cell. I was not allowed to lie down or even to go to the toilet or to have water. Because of that I had to be treated for kidney problems.
“The food they gave me was full of hairs, sand and dirt. I am on medication for high blood pressure and they only allowed me to take it on the fifth day.
“By that time I was in a really bad state and I was fainting during questioning. Still, I was never allowed to sit down.”
She was also beaten, threatened with rape and denied access to a lawyer.
“During a questioning, one of the men who was wearing a mask, held a gun against my head and tried to take off his trousers.
“He threatened to rape me and said that they were given a permission to do whatever was necessary to get the statement they wanted.”
“I told them I didn’t do anything and could not confess to anything. But they said I would ‘see something I hadn’t seen before’ they threatened to rape me.
“I just couldn’t let anyone touch me, so I had to say what they wanted. They were stopping and starting the recording all the time, telling me exactly what to say next. I only saw my lawyer for five minutes during my first hearing.”
In an attempt to appear cooperative with international demands for much greater respect for human rights, King Hamad established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) earlier this year. Its role is to investigate the events in Bahrain and present its findings in October.
Following a visit by the Commission to the women’s prison, Al-Salman and a fellow prisoner were released on bail.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, is very sceptical about the trustworthiness of the Commission. He sees it mostly as an attempt of the ruling elite to wash their hands of their dirty work.
“Maybe the government is trying to find the way out by appointing this commission. King is doing it to isolate himself from responsibility. Because many Bahrainis see him as responsible for crimes against humanity here.
“The commission might come with recommendation to release the prisoners because, as we know, they were all tried unfairly and illegally.
“This commission is not going to solve the political crisis, we need a proper solution, a dialogue which will bring people together from all sides. At the moment there is a lack of trust.”
Bahrainis have also lost their belief in the support of Western democracies for their revolution.
With the US announcing a plan to sell $53 million worth of arms to Bahrain and the UK inviting their representatives to the London arms fair, it is not surprising that these governments are perceived as having double-standards when it comes to foreign policy.
“When people started the revolution on February 14, myself included,” says Rajab, “they thought that the UK government, as a long lasting ally of Bahrain, would take the same position they had with Libya or Iran when it comes to human rights.
“But we are shocked to see them ignore our revolution. Even worse, supporting our government by selling them arms.
“They obviously have their strategic interests which rest with the oppressive ruling families in the region, rather than with any democratic movement.”
While government-sponsored violence is still raging, ordinary people like Al-Salman are paying a huge price for their bravery.
On September 25 she was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court. At the moment she is still at home. Having spent five months behind bars earlier this year, she is terrified that her horrific ordeal will soon start again.
I ask her whether she would leave Bahrain with her family, if she could. She is adamant that her place is in her country.
All she wants, she says is for “everyone to be equal. In my heart I believe that we are all one family.”