Al Jazeera: Two weeks in Bahrain's military courts

The families of six of the hundreds of people given long jail sentences speak out about the “abuse of justice”.

20 Oct 2011
Teachers, professors, politicians, doctors, athletes, students and others have all appeared in Bahrain’s military courts. In just two weeks, 208 people were sentenced or lost appeals, leading to a cumulative total of just less than 2,500 years in prison.
Many of those imprisoned took part in massive pro-democracy protests earlier this year. Others, families say, were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were targeted by virtue of their religious sect.

The families of six of the hundreds of people given long jail sentences speak out about the “abuse of justice”.

20 Oct 2011
Teachers, professors, politicians, doctors, athletes, students and others have all appeared in Bahrain’s military courts. In just two weeks, 208 people were sentenced or lost appeals, leading to a cumulative total of just less than 2,500 years in prison.
Many of those imprisoned took part in massive pro-democracy protests earlier this year. Others, families say, were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were targeted by virtue of their religious sect.
One lawyer, who represents dozens of the convicted and who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera the total number of how many have stood in front of military courts is not clear – but he estimates at least 600. “Well over 1,000 people have been arrested since the crackdown began,” he said.
In an attempt to quell the uprising, the island’s rulers invited Saudi and other Gulf troops to Bahrain in March and called for a three-month state of emergency, or what it called the “National Safety Law”.
With the emergency law, came the military trials of hundreds of people in “National Safety Courts”. According to the lawyer, the courts were basically military courts, since both judge and general prosecutor were drawn from the military judicial system.
Death sentences were given out from trials that lasted less than two weeks. Many hearings lasted only a matter of minutes before verdicts were handed out. According to lawyers and defendants’ families, the main form of evidence in most cases were the confessions of the accused.
“This is not necessarily wrong,” said the lawyer. “But if there were claims of torture then these confessions should be obliterated and should not be accepted in a court of law.”
“They intentionally bring them in front of the court after a period of time once the wounds are healed, so they won’t appear in court,” the lawyer said. “If [the court agrees to a] request [for the defendant] to be examined by a forensic doctor, [the court] delays the test until the scars are healed.” Despite numerous claims of torture, no forensic doctor hired by the government has confirmed a defendant’s claims.
A handful of defendants who are found innocent in the military courts are so just to make it seem somewhat fair, he continued. “It’s pure luck.”
October 6 was the final day of the military court hearings, when cases and appeals were to be transferred to regular civilian courts. However, prisoners’ families and their legal teams are far from optimistic that the change of venue will allow for a fairer trial.
“There is no difference between military and civilian courts, [in both] the verdicts are political,” the lawyer said. “There is someone upstairs who is telling them to do this.”
The lawyer pointed out that, during the protests in February, the king pardoned dozens of people in the middle of their trial. However, the powers granted to the king only allow him to issue pardons once a case is complete.
“These courts are nothing but political tools,” the lawyer said.
Below are brief testimonies made to Al Jazeera by family members (some of whom asked to remain anonymous) of people who have either been sentenced or lost appeals in the final weeks of Bahrain’s military courts. All of the family members who spoke to Al Jazeera claimed their loved ones were tortured soon after their arrest and were held incommunicado for months.
The methods described by families (and by the imprisoned themselves) are consistent and signify systematic abuse and torture against the prisoners that has also been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups.

Mohamed and Ali Salman: Each sentenced to 15 years in prison

Handball players Mohamed (left) and Ali Salman were jailed for 15 years each [Photo: Salman family] Mohamed Salman, 23, and his brother, 22-year-old Ali, both played handball for Bahrain’s national team before they were sentenced to prison late last month. The brothers had picked up the game at the age of 10 from their father, Mirza, who was an avid handballer his whole life, becoming a referee later in his career.
Mohamed and Ali represented Bahrain in the sport’s 2010 world cup in Sweden, and at the GCC cup in February earlier this year in Doha, Qatar.
According to Mirza, his two sons cared more about handball than politics or anything else, and were not involved in the protest movement. Ali, he said, was in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, playing for an Iraqi club team – only returning to Bahrain on March 14.
Two days later, a farm almost 10 km away from the family’s home came under arson attack, according to the government and state media. Twelve days after that, the Salman family was awoken by a loud noise at their home at 3 am.
“They didn’t ring the doorbell, they didn’t knock,” Mirza said. They broke in through the home’s back door. “The first bedroom is Mohamed’s, they entered and asked, ‘are you Ali?’ Mohamed replied, ‘no, he’s in the next room.'”
Police handcuffed and blindfolded Ali and were leading him out of the house. One of the uniformed officers told Mohamed to go back to his room, when a plainclothes officer told him: “Take him as well,” said Mirza.
“They took Mohamed even though they weren’t looking for him, they were looking for Ali.”
Two weeks later, with no word from either Ali or Mohamed, their grandmother heard a bang on the front door of the family’s home at 9 am. When she opened the door, dozens of officers again stormed the home. They rushed into the room where the men’s mother was sleeping – not allowing her time to dress – and shouted: “Where’s Ali?”
Mirza, who was at work at the time, explained that his wife told the officers that they had taken her son two weeks earlier. The police, he said, still continued to search the home for Ali.
Other than a phone call asking them to bring clothes one month after their arrest, the Salman family heard nothing from either Ali or Mohamed until May 29. On that day, they received a call from the courtroom telling them that their sons were to appear in court at 8 am on May 30 – and that the family should find a lawyer.
When the family finally got to meet the two brothers, they described the torture and abuse they faced in prison. They were forced to stand with their hands chained for all but a few hours each day. Sometimes, during the interrogation, they were forced to spit on each other, and they were always forced to listen to the other being beaten.
“Each son wished it were them being tortured when they heard the screams of the other,” Mirza said. Eventually, the two signed confessions while blindfolded.
Other than the confessions, the father said “there’s nothing [to prove their guilt], no evidence”. As for the other 30 “arsonists” in the same case, Mirza said the men didn’t even know each other when they appeared in court together. According to Mirza, the prosecution’s witnesses said the men were masked and therefore could not identify any of the 32 men. No other evidence was presented.
In total, 32 men were tried on September 26 and sentenced to 15 years each. The men’s charges included, forming an armed group, arson and the vandalism of a farm, possession of weapons and illegal gathering.
“[This sentence] will end their future, and they didn’t even commit the crime they’re accused of,” Mirza said. “It’s completely unfair, 15 years on a case that has no answers – why?”

Mahdi Abu Deeb: Sentenced to 15 years in prison

Teachers’ union leader Mahdi Abu Deeb was sentenced to 15 years in jail after the crackdown [Photo: Abu Deeb family] Maryam Abu Deeb remembers one of her father’s favourite sayings from Prophet Mohamed: “If I wasn’t a prophet, I’d rather be a teacher.” Maryam’s father, Mahdi Abu Deeb, used to repeat the quote to her mother, also a teacher, whenever she would have a difficult day in the classroom.
Mahdi, a 49-year-old artist who studied at the University of Baghdad, had a passion for teaching.
In 2001, he was promoted to design the arts curriculum in the ministry of education. He designed the curriculum for government schools. That same year, he founded the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA) because he believed teachers were unfairly treated and someone needed to call for their rights. He was soon elected as union president.
Also in 2001, Mahdi was promoted by the ministry of education to design the arts curriculum for all Bahraini public schools.
In 2009, he took a break from his work to pursue a PhD in education from the Arab Gulf University in Bahrain. He split his time between his studies and the BTA.
On February 20, the BTA called for a strike in coordination with the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. The strike was to call for reforms in Bahrain’s education system and to protest the killing and repression of activists, many of whom were students.
“He was at Pearl [roundabout] almost every day, at the Bahrain Teachers’ Association tent,” Maryam said. “He would leave home in the morning and come back late at night. If he wasn’t at Pearl, he was meeting people about schools.”
Days into martial law, the BTA again called for a four-day strike. Maryam estimates that 30 officers forced their way into the family home looking for Mahdi. She described how they made her mother come out from her bedroom without allowing her time to cover herself properly. She had to stand in the hallway wrapped in a blanket. Her father, knowing that activists were being targeted, had been staying outside the home in hiding and was not arrested that day.
On April 6, Maryam said she was in bed when she saw Faisal al-Sheikh, a pro-regime journalist, tweet that her father had been arrested. Later, she found out that he was caught at his brother’s home, where, she said, he was thrown by police to the ground from the first storey of the building.
On September 25, Mahdi Abu Deeb and Jalila al-Salman, vice-president of the BTA, were sentenced to 10 and three years respectively. Maryam said her mother had been hoping that Mahdi would be released that day: “It was hard to get her out of the court room after the verdict.”
The charges against the BTA heads included halting the education process, promoting hatred of the regime and disseminating fabricated information.
Amnesty International has called for the pair’s immediate release and for authorities to look into their claims of torture while in detention.
Maryam said her father never called: Yasqut Hamad [“down with King Hamad”], only for the ousting of the minister of education. She’s since become active on Twitter, campaigning for her father’s release.
“[It] makes it easier to know everyone going through this,” Maryam said – adding that her younger sisters were having a difficult time accepting their father’s absence.
When asked what she wanted to happen next, Maryam responded: “I pray for a better Bahrain.”

Dr Abdul Jalil Singace: Sentenced to life imprisonment of 25 years

Academic Dr Abdul Jalil Singace, handed 25 years in jail, was told his daughters were raped [Photo: Singace family] According to the Singace family, the country’s prime minister made the head of the University of Bahrain remove Abdul Jalil from his position as head of the mechanical engineering department – after he had spoken about Bahrain’s human rights situation at a conference in Geneva.
Five years later, he was arrested in August 2010 at Bahrain’s airport when returning from addressing Britain’s House of Lords about human rights. After months in jail, when 46-year-old Abdul Jalil told his family that he faced abuse, he was released at 2.30 am on February 23. Later that afternoon, Abdul Jalil addressed the crowds at Pearl roundabout.
In the middle of the night on March 17, his family said that 40-50 plainclothes and uniformed police officers broke into the family’s home. Some of the agents, according to the family, were Saudi – identified by their distinct accent. The Bahrainis among them all had their faces covered.
They went into each bedroom and forced Abdul Jalil’s family downstairs.
“While I was going downstairs, I saw them throw [one of Abdul Jalil’s daughters] against the door. I saw them drag [Abdul Jalil] in his underwear and without his glasses, with a gun pointed at his head,” said a relative who asked not to be named.
Abdul Jalil was handicapped at a young age and needs crutches to walk. Despite this, the relative said, the police “dragged him over broken glass” from when they broke into the house. “I was downstairs with a gun pointed to my head … whenever I tried to talk, they [readied] their weapons.”
The family member said they beat Abdul Jalil at the home and on the street before they took him away.
One month later, the family received a call from Abdul Jalil. They said he asked if they were all OK, because in prison, guards had told him that they had raped his daughters. After 90 seconds, the phone went dead and they waited another month before they had any word from him.
On June 22, Abdul Jalil was sentenced to life (25 years) in prison on nine charges, including fabricating information, inciting hatred against the island’s rulers, illegal gathering and organising to overthrow the government. On September 28, Abdul Jalil and the other “political leaders” lost their appeal and their sentences were upheld.
“When I found out, I couldn’t really understand it,” the relative told Al Jazeera. “It doesn’t feel real, but it really hurts.”
“He’s the first to have the biggest smile, you feel he’s in harmony no matter what’s going on,” the relative continued. Since he and many others in prison are experienced professionals and instructors, in prison, “each one is teaching the other,” said the relative. “It’s like a little university.”
After his arrest, Abdul Jalil’s 28-year-old son, Hussein, and his wife moved into the family home. One week after his father’s arrest, police again raided the house in the middle of the night and arrested Hussein. On October 6, the final day of military courts, Hussein was sentenced to seven years in prison.
He was tried for blocking the road at a protest in the financial harbour on March 13, preventing policemen from doing their job, attacking a policeman and illegal gathering.

Yousef Ahmed Khalifa: Sentenced to 15 years in prison

Student Yousef Ahmed Khalifa was sentenced to 15 years in jail after a university protest [Photo: Khalifa family] Students went to university on the morning of March 13 with the news that protesters who tried to block roads in the financial harbour, near to Pearl roundabout, had come under attack. Some of the students organised a march on campus in solidarity with the protesters.
Hundreds of students attended, including 20-year-old banking student Yousef.
That day, police were eerily absent from streets around the country. Instead, what witnesses say, were “plainclothed thugs out to create havoc”.
One of Yousef’s friends said that dozens of “thugs” entered the campus, and they wondered how they had passed security. Immediately, the thugs began attacking cars as well as the students taking part in the march – and others.
Horrific video emerged of students fleeing people attacking the campus, including one of a group of medics attacked by a charging man carrying a club. His friend said that Yousef sought cover in the business college while the attack took place.
In the previous six months, Yousef had been preoccupied with his ill father. His father had a brain tumour diagnosed in late 2010. According to his mother, Rabah Mustafa, Yousef would not hang out with his friends at night so he could spend time with his father. He had accompanied his father to Jordan to receive treatment in April.
Before and after that time, he was summoned for questioning by the administration. His friend said that Yousef was asked to identify specific people who attended the march before the attack.
Weeks after his father’s operation, police came to the family home on April 26 to arrest Yousef. His mother pleaded with the police not to beat her only son. Despite that, she said, they grabbed him by his then-long hair and spat on his face.
According to his mother, Yousef later told her that one of the interrogators had a Saudi accent, and threatened to take him to Saudi where he would be sentenced to death.
“Do you want to know what they did to him?” the mother asked, quivering with anger. She remained silent for a moment before shouting out: “They stuck a piece of wood up his ass.” The rest of the family in the room bowed their head, distressed by the thought.
On October 3, the day of Yousef’s trial, Rabah prepared her son’s bedroom and made a cake, expecting him to be released that day. She couldn’t believe that Yousef and eight other students were sentenced to 15 years each – with one handed 18 years jail time.
Upon hearing the verdict in the courtroom, Rabah stood up and shouted at the judge: “Why 15 years? Why not give them 20 or 25 years? Let them get married in prison, you’ve ruined their life.” She was then thrown out of the court.
The group of students was also collectively fined the equivalent of around one million dollars for the damages to the university, she said.

Ibrahim al-Sharif: Sentenced to five years in prison

Ibrahim Sharif and his wife were both political activists before he was handed five years in jail [Photo: Sharif family] Ibrahim Sharif is a 54-year-old veteran rights activist and politician in Bahrain. In 2007, he took over the leading position at the National Democratic Action Society or Waad, a secular leftist party.
Sharif and Waad played an active role in the February-March uprising, and could often be found at Pearl roundabout.
On March 16, one day into martial law, unknown assailants firebombed the Waad office in the Umm al-Hassam area. One day later, police came to Sharif’s walled family home and rang the bell at the front gate. Sharif came outside and was arrested.
Later that day, the national news agency confirmed the arrest of “several leaders of the sedition ring”.
“The leaders had also incited during the recent incidents for the killing of citizens and the destruction of public and private property, resulting in the undermining of the social peace, the loss of innocent lives and the terrorising of citizens and residents,” continued the release.
Fareeda, Ibrahim’s wife and also a Waad activist, said that, usually after the court, families are allowed to meet with the defendants. However, Fareeda said, “because Sharif and others held up the peace sign with their hands they cancelled that visit”.
Fareeda said that Ibrahim was tortured for two months, during which time he was also kept in solitary confinement. She said this was the hardest period for him, and he tried to stay focused to keep his senses.
“The torture stopped after two months – this was the worst time. Solitary confinement was extreme because he was trying to figure out the time, he was trying to keep focused and keep his senses. They were bringing five or six torturers to beat him at a time for two months. They were talking about his mother and his honour.”
“Because they’re political leaders they’re used to fighting all the time, they know the tactics,” Fareeda said. “They have defended previous prisoners, they had some idea what to expect.”
Fareeda said that she thinks Ibrahim’s case, like many others, is political and will come down to a political settlement. “There is no case, no crime, no toppling of the regime. They have taken Ibrahim because they have a grudge against him,” she said.
Fareeda said that her husband had not been targeted by the regime sooner because they wanted to try to make the opposition seem sectarian. Ibrahim and other Sunni activists challenged the government’s line.
“He’s inside [prison] now, but whenever we talk to him he’s alert and he still has his ideas. Of course he misses his freedom, but he says ‘if it takes me five years to challenge the government and serve the people, then five years is nothing. Look at Nelson Mandela and the price he paid. Five years is nothing if this will contribute to progress of Bahraini people.'”

Abdullah Hassan Ali Hamad: Sentenced to life imprisonment of 25 years

The eldest daughter of Abdullah Hamad, who was given 25 years in jail, was too upset to make a second visit [Photos: Hamad family] Abdullah Hassan Ali’s older brother, Hamad, pointed across the street from his office to a two-storey building, “behind that one was my grandfather’s home”, he said.
Hamad explained that as far as he could remember, his family lived in al-Makharga, one of the old neighbourhoods of the capital, Manama.
During the protests in February, Hamad said that – like everyone in the area, Abdullah carried the spirit of the movement around with him, but he was far from a political activist.
On the evening of March 13, when police became absent from the streets and rumours of attacks by thugs were abundant, Hamad said he, his brother and a friend were at a café smoking water pipes.
Some communities organised themselves similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt and set up councils to protect their neighbourhoods. Stories were circulating that south Asian men, who were likely police officers dressed in plainclothes, were being sent to to terrorise people.
That night while they were at the café, Hamad said that he heard from his sister that there were two Pakistani “thugs” captured and beaten by men in the neighbourhood. Hamad maintains that neither he nor his brother had anything to do with the events.
Two weeks later, at 2 am on March 27, Hamad says that 10 police trucks entered the narrow streets to arrest Abdullah. A number of other men were also arrested from their homes.
After 20 days with no word, his wife received a phone call asking her to bring clothes to the detention centre. She complied, but could not visit or talk to her husband.
Two months later, on his first day of court, his family first saw Abdullah. Hamad then discovered from his brother that he had been tortured for 14 days, left standing with his eyes blindfolded and his arms chained above his head, as they administered electric shocks to him. Hamad said that his brother still has injuries from the abuse.
Hamad said the interrogators wanted Abdullah to sign a confession that he killed a Pakistani man. Despite the abuse, Abdullah never signed a confession. Hamad said that other than “secret sources”, which the prosecutors would not reveal, there was absolutely no evidence showing that Abdullah beat or killed anyone.
On October 3, Abdullah and 13 other men were sentenced to life in prison (25 years) for the murder of one man.
Abdullah is married with two daughters, aged seven and one. Hamad said that the seven-year-old visited him twice in prison, but the family decided not to let her go any more, as the process upset her too much.
Hamad said that the verdict was hard for everyone, especially for Abdullah who swears his innocence. Abdullah told him: “If I did something, then let them judge me, but I didn’t do anything.”
When asked how his wife and two daughters are getting by without Abdullah, Hamad replied: “We’re a strong community.”
This report came from our special correspondent in Bahrain, who we are not naming for their security.