Having been born and educated in the UK, I moved to Bahrain in 2009 to marry Ghazi Farhan, a 31-year-old energetic businessman, leaving a respectable job in Cambridge to start a new family life in the land of my ancestors. Little did I imagine that in 2011, when the Arab Spring hit the shores of this island, it would be swiftly nipped in the bud, and would sweep my blossoming family along with it.
On April 12, on his way back from his lunch break, my husband was abducted from his office car park. Blindfolded, handcuffed and taken away by unknown plain-clothed men. Some 48 days later, he was summoned before the Orwellian-named “National Safety Court”, a military tribunal. He was charged with participating in an illegal assembly of more than five persons (having visited the Pearl Roundabout) and spreading false information on the internet (referring to a single Facebook comment). Therein began an extraordinary ordeal of Ghazi’s military trial and his sentencing.
Using Stalin’s textbook
Joseph Stalin introduced “the show trial” – secretive military tribunals that bypass the judiciary – during the Great Purge of the 1930s. It appears that Bahrain has taken a chapter straight out of Stalin’s textbook, in which verdicts are predetermined and then justified through the use of coerced confessions, obtained through torture and threats against defendents’ families. The only new addition to this chapter is that the government of Bahrain has insisted, since the 1980s, on airing these filmed confessions on state TV – often with the defendant apologising to the king. Ayat al Qurmuzi, a poet sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for reading a poem critical of the king, had one such confession aired, possibly to pave the way for some kind of royal pardon.
Credible reports from now-free detainees who were held with Ayat have said how a toilet brush was forced into her mouth. All those on trial are “traitors to the state”, says the relentless propaganda of hate speech, spewed on state media – a chapter in the Arab Tyrant’s manual that could have been written by Goebbels. The media has described protestors as “termites” and Shia as “the evil group”; they have dehumanised “the other”, who deserve treatment worse than animals.
Since March, hundreds have shared a similar experience to mine. There are several stages to the ordeal that are particularly distressing for all involved. The first stage is the sudden arrest, in a dawn raid or at a checkpoint, or in some cases, at work, and then they are taken away to an unknown location by unknown forces and for long periods of time. In Ghazi’s case, 48 days.
The agony of families
I have compared this to the feeling of losing a child in a supermarket – and then discovering they have been taken hostage by the same forces you would usually expect to seek protection from, and with a justified fear of the victim’s abuse, torture and maybe even death. At the peak of the crackdown, four men were killed in police custody within a space of nine days. Often, police deny they have any record or knowledge of the person when their families try to locate them. This may be true, for the National Security Agency is a supra-national organisation, with the power to do what it wants with total impunity. In my husband’s case, I read a confirmation of his arrest on Twitter a few hours later. That is how this wonderful social media is now being used, by the same security agencies that have been driving a brutal crackdown on the very people who had earlier used the technology to mobilise, publicise and criticise openly.
After living on hope that the detained will be released without charge, the second stage of the ordeal that was particularly disturbing for the family is when the victim is suddenly dragged to the military court and charged. Very few get an opportunity to call their families or to request a lawyer beforehand.
The military court buildings in Riffa are relatively new. Built in 2007, one wonders if they were built with its current use in mind. Upon entering, one is only allowed to carry their ID card, no watch, no paper, no pens, no jewellery – not even a wedding ring. I had to remove my headscarf and earrings during the painstaking electronic and hand search. There is an army officer standing every couple of metres in the lobbies and court rooms. This building, with only two courtrooms, was clearly not designed to handle this number of trials in one day. Female detainees are held in the lawyers’ room for lack of space, male detainees are made to stand in the sun because of overcrowding in their holding cells and lawyers have to hang about in the lobby – as their room is now occupied by the female prisoners.
The waiting room is cramped full with mothers, sisters and wives who haven’t seen their loved ones for months, the worry weighing heavy on their brows, the outbursts frequent and quickly suppressed. I get given some friendly advice from a young woman who was in her final sitting: “Firm up your heart, my dear, the first time you see him will be tough. If they hear you even whimper, you will be taken out – as I was.”
God help the guilty
There is a long wait before the sessions usually begin. With no watches or clocks, the wait seems endless. I catch a glimpse inside the holding area as an army officer opens a door, I see the defendants lining the walls of a holding room facing the walls in silence. Their fate is decided here, not by God, but by a remorseless military judge. What you look like, what you say, what you do, what you feel is strictly controlled here. Their heads are shaven, and they know the words they are allowed to say. The judge has a looming pile of cases he needs to get through swiftly and promptly during the next hour.
When Ghazi first appeared in court he was visibly shocked and disorientated. To suddenly be paraded in a courtroom in front of three judges and read a list of serious charges you hear of for the first time, and told to plead guilty or not guilty, while overcoming the emotions of catching a glimpse of his loved ones after such a long time. It was overwhelming. He had lost at least 10kgs of weight, his eyes were bloodshot, and there were red marks around his hands – a result of sitting for several hours blindfolded and handcuffed. If innocent men are treated this way then God help the guilty.
This whole spectacle is designed to degrade, punish and humiliate. Does military justice for civilians ever seek to achieve otherwise? Once you enter the courts, you realise that they themselves a tool of repression. It has become clear to me that the verdicts are preordained, and the trials are merely to offer a very thin veneer of legitimacy. For despite the best efforts of our lawyer in presenting a strong defence, the maximum sentence was passed. On June 21, Ghazi was found guilty of all charges against him and sentenced to three years in prison.
This fateful verdict is the third stage of the ordeal shared by many. I had come to expect the worst at this point. The complete disregard of the strong defence plea made by the lawyer is a testament to the political motivations behind the judge’s verdict. The fact that Ghazi had not once been able to consult with his lawyer before the trial is a violation of due process since the verdict is preordained. The lawyer himself tells me he feels he is being used as a prop in these staged trials. He tells me we must carry out our act to appease our own consciousness. How uncannily Kafkaesque this all is.
A case among cases
In one of the sessions that I attended, alongside Ghazi’s case was an array of seemingly absurd cases. These involved a bodybuilder accused of attacking an Asian expat, three overweight young men accused of stonethrowing, one man who pleaded guilty of driving speedily at a checkpoint, and a photographer sentenced to five years for fabricating a photo.
As in Stalin’s era, a purge such as this needs its special show-piece trials. The first of the key show trials that most recently concluded – with sentences reaching life imprisonment – was of 21 key opposition leaders accused of plotting to overthrow the regime. The second, and in my view much more abominable, is the trial of 47 medical workers – including the best consultants in Bahrain – again on ludicrous charges of trying to overthrow the regime. They are expected also to receive severe sentences. Though my husband’s trial is a relatively minor one, the personal ordeal I have described is shared among all.
Military tribunals are being used as the primary vehicle for political justice in order to confer an element of legitimacy. Due process is compromised for speed and efficiency. The use of torture, even death, in a place beyond the rule of law, suggests that the use of military trials is tactical. This is what makes the use of military justice attractive to authoritarian rulers seeking a forum where outcomes of hearings are, for the most part, preordained.
Today, the best of the best in Bahraini society are being dragged through military courts. Doctors and nurses are being punished for treating protesters, teachers and engineers for participating in a national strike, footballers for protesting – academics, journalists, students, businessmen are all dragged through the ordeal of this military court. As Human Rights Watch testifies, this is a “travesty of justice”.
These military courts must be disbanded and prisoners of conscience must be released immediately. Such show trials undermine the rule of law by forcefully reinforcing the regime’s sense of power and control – and are not sustainable. Justice needs to prevail for any enduring peace and security to exist on this island.
Dr Ala’a Shehabi is an economics lecturer in Bahrain and a former policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.
One woman’s personal ordeal describes how her husband was jailed following a military trial.