Bahrain Notebook, #1 by Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee
Bahrain Notebook, #1 November 21: in the hours before the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report into human rights abuses in Bahrain last spring, it’s very hard to be definitive. There are strong opinions and even stronger feelings about the report; it seems that everyone agrees at least that this report from five prestigious nonBahraini experts will affect directly and immediately what happens next in Bahrain, both the day after the report, and in the months and years ahead.
It also seems that, amazingly, no one has seen this report. No one, not even the King, to whom it will formally be presented today, in a ceremony at the palace. So the weight of anticipation and trepidation is enormous. So much so that two days in advance of the report, the Bahrain Cabinet issued a preemptive mea culpa, in itself a remarkable step. They admitted that there had been abuses of power, and even acknowledged torture. They stated that freedom of speech should not be criminalized. They said there would be people charged. They stated that they would set up an independent human rights commission that would adhere to international standards.
The human rights community here is not optimistic; some in the diplomatic community are, and expect the report to clearly condemn the government, to name names of both those who should be exonerated and those who were guilty of crimes such as torture. The human rights community has done its own data collection, and report, and in the room where that report was released yesterday, there was a great deal of emotion about everything from technical abuses of legal process, such as the fact that few if any of those arrested were presented with a warrant, to the raw evidence of people being routinely, systematically beaten, tortured, held for long periods without being charged, shot in the face during the protests, denied medical treatment, and even tortured further while in hospitals. There is a concern that justice will not be done, which is not surprising considering that even as they await the report, many individuals are attending trials and visiting imprisoned family members, and still worrying about appeals and outstanding charges, and fears, still, of being arrested, beaten, tortured. The wounds are raw.
One such individual is not even a citizen or resident of Bahrain. He is the young Canadian Naser al-Raas, an IT specialist from Ottawa, whose family came to Canada from Kuwait many years ago. Naser al-Raas has only Canadian citizenship. He was in Bahrain last spring visiting his sisters, and he attended the protests in March. He did things like take an injured protester for medical assistance, and capture on camera what he saw around him, just as thousands of young people did all over the Arab world last spring. For such acts, he was abducted from the airport as he was leaving Bahrain to return to his job in Kuwait. He was held for 31 days in solitary, beaten and tortured every day. He made the mistake of telling his torturers that he had had heart surgery; they beat his chest. He was finally released and denied his passport, and subsequently summoned to pick it up, only to be seized, blindfolded, thrown into a car and beaten, made to stand 3 hours in the sun, and then taken into a courtroom to face fabricated charges (kidnapping a policeman) substantiated by his forced confession. Although the judge in that military court threw out those charges, he was immediately facing different charges in a civil court, which resulted in a five-year sentence for “illegal gathering” and “incitement to hatred.” That sentence is now being appealed. Naser is more or less in hiding, awaiting the next day of appeal, December 7.
Naser is one of many whose case will be directly affected by what the BICI report reveals and recommends. He is an idealistic, warm-hearted young man whose life has been irrevocably changed because he walked into a public square one morning during the Arab Spring.