Arrests force Bahrain’s writers into exile

Journalists say they have been targets of government repression since pro-democracy protests began earlier this year.

Many in Bahrain have gone to jail or fled the country after writing about anti-government protests [GALLO/GETTY]

Writer Ali al-Jallawi says he was lucky to end up in exile and not in prison after leaving his native Bahrain in April. 

Speaking by  phone to Al Jazeera from a UK border agency detention facility outside London, al-Jallawi, a published novelist and poet, said he would rather leave his country than go to prison again. In 1993, al-Jallawi was arrested and imprisoned for six months at the age of 17 for a poem he wrote criticising the monarchy. In 1995, he was again arrested and served three years for campaigning for civil and political rights in Bahrain, he said.

“To get arrested for a third time is too much,” said al-Jallawi. “I have a ten-year-old son who I want to spend time with. It’s too much to spend more time in jail.”

Bahriaini writers – journalists, academics, novelists, poets, bloggers, and others – have been targets of state repression since pro-democracy protests began in February.

The Sunni monarchy, a close ally of the US and Saudi Arabia, has accused the mostly Shia protesters of being sectarian and trying to spread Iranian influence in the country.

Shias in Bahrain, who make up a majority of the population, are excluded from most high-level political positions and the security forces.

After one month of protests, the government declared martial law on March 15 and invited troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help quell the demonstrations.

Sending a message

On March 30, 20-year-old Ayat al-Qarmezi was arrested weeks after reading a poem at Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of the protest movement. In her poem, al-Qarmezi read the words: “We are the people who kill humiliation and assassinate misery. We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice.”

Al-Qarmezi also criticised the nation’s monarchy and led chants condemning sectarianism calling Sunnis and Shias “brothers”. After her arrest, Amnesty International said that freedom of speech and assembly was “brutally denied to ordinary Bahrainis”.

Follow Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in Bahrain

On April 2, blogger Zakariya Rashid al-Ashiri was arrested for spreading “false news” and “inciting hatred.” After a few days in prison al-Ashiri died, authorities claimed that the cause was complications related to sickle cell anemia.

On April 5, Karim Fakhrawi, a publisher, board member of the independent daily al-Wasat and friend of al-Jallawi, was arrested and died days later under similar circumstances while in detention. Authorities claimed his death was the result of kidney failure.

However, relatives and human rights advocates in Bahrain presented images showing bruises on the bodies of both Fakhrawi and al-Ashiri, and accused authorities of killing the men in detention.

Al-Jallawi said about his friend’s death: “They want to send a message to anyone who tried to be against them: ‘we will kill you. Go f**k off and shut up.'”

The Bahrain government didn’t respond to Al Jazeera’s questions regarding its treatment of journalists.

Chasing the ‘wanted’

Since the protests began, pro-government groups posted the names and pictures of individuals “wanted” by the state on various websites. Many were called “traitors,” and accused of “inciting violence” and “promoting sectarianism”.

Many of those who didn’t turn themselves into authorities went into hiding. “Wanted” men left their wives and children to seek refuge, and others stayed at home waiting for the inevitable middle-of-the-night police raid to take them.

Al-Jallawi, who like al-Qarmezi was guilty of reciting a poem at the Pearl Roundabout, went into hiding with the start of emergency law. After seeing “wanted” images of himself online, followed by a visit by security forces to his parents’ home, he decided it was time to leave Bahrain.

Unable to flee by land – the causeway, the only land exit, had been closed since Saudi troops entered over it – al-Jallawi and others could leave only from the airport. To his surprise, Al-Jallawi and at least seven other writers who he knows were all able to leave.

The writers began their trip into exile by traveling through Arab countries where they didn’t need visas to visit. Eventually, many ended up buying plane tickets to destinations that transferred in London, where they could go to airport authorities and declare themselves political refugees seeking asylum. London has long been home to a community of exiled Bahrainis, all dissidents forced to leave the country over past decades.

The asylum process worked for most. But al-Jallawi, who had a visa to Germany to attend a writers’ conference, was detained by the UK border agency. Speaking to Al Jazeera on Tuesday, al-Jallawi said, “Unlike Bahrain, here it’s by law. They insult you by law, deport you by law, detain you by law. They take all your human rights by law.”

“I didn’t expect any of this. I thought I came to a country where they would respect me as a writer, where the police respect your rights as a human,” al-Jallawi said. “It’s not justice here but it’s the law, even if they kill people or separate them from their families.”

One day later, the British government deported al-Jallawi to Germany, where he now waits in limbo as authorities there decide his fate.

Halting journalism

With many now outside Bahrain, writers and journalists are organising themselves with the hope of one day returning home. On July 9, a group of exiled journalists met in London to form the Bahrain Press Association to counter the government’s attacks on the media.

Co-founder and general secretary Nada al-Wadi told Al Jazeera, “We felt the need [as journalists] to unite ourselves … our main purpose is to speak on behalf of journalists inside and outside Bahrain and spread the word about what’s happening to them.”

 Many Bahraini writers have left the country since the government and foreign forces cracked down on protesters [EPA]

Al-Wadi, a journalist who had reported for the daily USA Today and other publications during the protests, was detained in April and released only after signing a paper saying that she would not write on or engage in any political activities.

Al-Wadi said that, “when detaining journalists the authorities didn’t treat them as journalists, [they were treated] as protesters”. Journalists were detained and tortured, she said, and writers have either had to stop practicing their profession or leave the country. 

On Thursday, rights groups in Bahrain said that around 200 detainees were released from prison, among them the poet Ayat al-Qarmezi who remains under house arrest.

The release comes as the government is trying to engage the dialogue with some of the opposition. Groups and individuals who were part of the protest have criticised dialogue attempts, demanding greater representation and the release of hundreds still in prison.

For al-Wadi, any dialogue between the government and opposition groups “can’t be successful without critical and independent voices” being heard in the nation’s media.

Too soon to return

Some of the journalists who left Bahrain during the crackdown have since received invitations from the government to return, al-Wadi said. However, most feel it’s unsafe to return.

If the exiled writers were to go back then “they’ll tell the true story, and I don’t know if [everyone in] Bahrain is ready to know what happened,” she said.

Al-Jallawi said that something similar happened in the 1990s when exiled dissidents were invited back to the country, many of whom accepted the invitation have now been imprisoned during the recent protests.

Before he would accept an invitation to return home, al-Jallawi wants the government to address the demands of demonstrators and offer equal rights to all Bahrainis.

Until then, al-Jallawi said: “It’s like a house that’s going to fall, and you say to me, ‘come live in the house you will be safe.’ I’m not going to trust you. Fix that house and then ask me to come and I will come with pleasure!” 

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @JustImage

Source: Al Jazeera