London, UK – For the first time since his mysterious disappearance more than two years ago, outspoken Bahraini opposition blogger Ali Abdulemam has reemerged in public.
“I get tired from my phone so I switched it of no need for rumors plz,” was the last message the activist posted to his Twitter account on March 17, 2011.
That was two days after the government declared a state of emergency aimed at quelling an uprising demanding change in the Gulf kingdom. Suspecting he would be rounded up by the authorities, he went underground. There has been no trace of him until now.
The 35-year-old father of three said he spent two years hiding in Bahrain before escaping to London, where he’s seeking asylum. Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify when he left Bahrain.
“The time came for me to… help the uprising and to help people in Bahrain publicly instead of… hiding all this time,” Abdulemam told Al Jazeera. “I will not be able to work and to support the uprising in Bahrain if I’m inside the jail.”
The blogger wouldn’t give details of his time in hiding or when and how he left Bahrain, saying that he wanted to “protect those who helped me during the past two years”.
“Because of the support of the uprising and revolution in Bahrain was so huge, I didn’t find any difficulties for people to hide [and] support me.”
While in hiding, Abdulemam was tried in absentia in a military court with 20 other activists and sentenced to 15 years in prison for charges related to “terrorism” and seeking to topple the government.
Recalling his initial reaction to the sentence, he said: “Fifteen years for what? [An] online website? This is a joke.”
He decided to leave Bahrain on a journey that eventually led him to the UK where he already had a visa and, he said, access to global media.
Abdulemam’s story, like that of Bahrain’s opposition, begins long before the February 2011 uprising.
In 1998 the IT specialist, using a pseudonym, founded one of the Gulf island’s most popular opposition websites, BahrainOnline.org. It served as a meeting place for Bahrainis to discuss and criticise the government, which in turn has made numerous attempts to block access to it.
Shia Muslims, a majority of the island’s citizens, have long accused the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family of discrimination in government institutions. The government has said the opposition is backed by foreign powers, particularly Iran.
“There’s always a question mark over my head about my loyalty to my homeland because I’m Shia,” Abdulemam said.
When Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa came to power following his father’s death in 1999, he introduced a number of reforms, and exiled dissidents began coming back. Abdulemam for the first time began blogging using his real name.
However, tensions between the opposition and government again increased, and in February 2005, Abdulemam and two others from Bahrain Online were arrested on charges that included inciting hatred against the regime and publishing false information.
After 17 days he was released. “[My] arrest made me do more work, I believed my work was having an effect,” he said.
In 2010 the government waged a wide-scale crackdown amid street protests and increasing tensions with opposition activists. It began with the arrest of Abduljalil Alsingace, an opposition blogger and engineer, who was arrested at Bahrain’s airport after returning from addressing the UK’s House of Lords about the human rights situation in his country.
Soon after, another 22 activists were rounded up, including Abdulemam, and accused of belonging to a “terror network” with ties to foreign groups, and seeking plot to “to change the political regime through illegal means.”
“I have no link to all of these charges, I’m a human rights defender,” Abdulemam later said.
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry rejected accusations that Abdulemam had been arrested on political grounds.
“Any assumption that Mr Abdulemam has been arrested purely on the basis of any political views he may hold is entirely inaccurate and is connected solely to evidence of his involvement with senior members of the terrorist network,” the ministry said in a statement following his arrest.
Soon afterwards, Abdulemam told Al Jazeera that he was beaten, insulted and forced to sign confessions by his interrogators.
On February 14, 2011, just three days after President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in Egypt, a fresh protest movement erupted in Bahrain.
As the protests gathered steam, the government released more than 100 prisoners, including Abdulemam and the others facing charges of terrorism.
Abdulemam said that before he went anywhere else, he went to the epicentre of the protests at Pearl (Lulu) Roundabout.
“I was proud of what I saw at Lulu Roundabout, I was proud of Bahrain of its people. At the end they were getting up for their rights, they were standing up for their rights.”
What started off as peaceful marches and sit-ins at Pearl Roundabout has in recent months turned into youth blocking roads with burning tires, and throwing petrol bombs.
“I’m not going to blame the youth,” Abdulemam said about the increase in violent tactics. “I blame the regime because they didn’t provide any proper channel for change.”
Since the 2011 protests, the government has expressed its willingness to offer reforms and sponsored a fact-finding commission to investigate abuses during the 2011 crackdown. The commission found authorities used “excessive force” against protesters, and “torture” that resulted in the death of five detainees.
International rights groups have said many of the government’s promised reforms have been unmet. And last month, Juan Méndez,the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, expressed “deep disappointment” with Bahraini officials for repeatedly putting off his planned visit to Bahrain.
“The royal family wants to stay above the law,” Abdulemam said about the lack of government reforms. “They don’t want to be equal with other people.”
Since the 2011 crackdown, dozens of Bahraini opposition figures have made London their new home. But Abdulemam said life in the British capital could never replace being back in Bahrain.
“I didn’t plan it, but if it’s the price of the freedom for my country and for the people I love to have their rights then I’m willing to pay.”
Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage