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Day and night in a Bahraini jail

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DownDownHamad Razowsky
Posters read “Down with [King] Hamad” in Arabic, “Down Down Hamad” in English
(Photo: Flo Razowsky)

You can read the first part of Sainath’s account from Bahrain here.

In the alleys of Manama, a Bahraini police commander yelled at me that I had been disrespectful, as the other policemen dragged the young man away.  The woman who had tried to protect him with her arms and her body sobbed.  The youth was certain to be beaten, likely tortured.  She thanked me, though I felt I had failed. 

I hurried back through narrow alleys, past sand-colored homes and onto the main road, the sounds of percussion grenades guiding me to the site where the Bahraini democracy activists had since re-gathered.

Everything seemed cast in a soft white light.  Downtown Bahrain could be any city, small stores lined the broad main road, some open, some with ridged metal shutters pulled down over the glass.  Dozens of Indians, presumably workers or small businessmen, stood outside these stores watching the police, and a certain slender wavy-haired Palestinian-American walked away from police officers calling after her.

I kept my head down and my eyes affixed to the iPad, walking down the sidewalk, then turning left between two parked vans.  I avoided eye contact with Huwaida Arraf as she passed me, walking quickly away from the police officers pursuing her.

Radhika Sainath

I walked further down the street, to what I believed was a safe distance away, and tweeted a photo of the police surrounding Huwaida.  I could not see them, there were a dozen of them, maybe more.  A number of Bahraini women had surrounded her and were trying to help.

One policeman looked over and yelled out at me “No photos.” I put the ipad down, tucking it in the back pocket of my messenger bag, then backed up the street a few feet and joined the group of Indian men watching.  The police fired several rounds of percussion grenades in the other direction.  BOOM BOOM BOOM.  The crowd around Huwaida scattered, leaving only her, the police, the Indians and me.  

Perhaps I could just blend in with the Indian shopkeepers and watch, I thought, as they loaded Huwaida into the van.  I tried to take another picture, but I noticed the police were looking at me.  A group of police approached and asked me for my passport. 

“We just need to see the name,” they said.

I held it out for them.  They leaned forward, squinting at my names.  One looked down at his Blackberry, and then looked up at the name.

Haida hiyye,” he said in Arabic. “That’s her.”

I was done.  It was my name that had been on the first Witness Bahrain press release announcing our presence the day before.  Huwaida had posted almost all the video interviews of Bahraini human rights activists to our website.  They were after us.

A dozen policewomen surrounded me, shields out, and one stood directly in front of me.  Did they think I would flee?  I asked why I was being held multiple times, if I was under arrest, what laws I had broken and if I was free to go.  No one would talk to me.   From what I could see from behind the police, the street had cleared.  I looked at my watch. It was 4:15 p.m. 

No one would know I had been arrested.  They would think I had run from the tear gas as the people did in the villages every day and every night, taking refuge in the homes of strangers until the gas and the police cleared.  What would become of me?

They put me in a police van and took me to a jail in downtown Manama. It was filled with policemen in black combat boots—the riot police—staring, but saying nothing.  I passed the room where Huwaida was being held and was stuck into another.

I sat there for the next several hours, interrogated on and off. They wanted to see my photos.  I refused. They wanted me to name names. I refused.  I heard that my Bahraini lawyer had come to the jail, but been turned away. I asked repeatedly what crime I committed.

“We’ll get to that later,” I was told.

And then came the question, said in a slightly menacing tone that made one want to deny everything. 

“You support human rights, don’t you?” The police officer leaned in as if trying to trap me.  I paused.

“Of course I support human rights.”

“So you admit it!” 

They had got me. In Bahrain, supporting human rights was something akin to terrorism, and I had just admitted to it.

It wasn’t till about midnight when Huwaida and I were both taken to meet U.S. vice-consul Jennifer Smith, and her assistant, Ms. Joyce.

It was Ms. Smith who first informed us what the Bahrainis were saying about my arrest: I was at an illegal demonstration.  We asked them if we could speak to Ms. Smith alone, but the police refused.  Eventually, we whispered to Ms. Smith our primary concern, our footage had faces of numerous protesters, people who had given interviews but had asked that their identities be hidden. If we turned over this equipment, they could be tortured.

“You should have thought about that before you took the video,” Ms. Smith said.

Around 1 a.m. we were taken to the Public Prosecutor’s office where we waited in a cold room. Huwaida was not feeling well and lay down across an uncomfortable set of plastic chairs. 

We were brought into a small office, where the Public Prosecutor, a man in his late twenties or early thirties dressed in white flowing robes sat behind a desk.  Finally, someone who would tell us what we had done wrong.

“You are guilty of protestation,” said the translator.


“Prostitution, I mean protestation, I mean, I don’t know how you say it.”

The Prosecutor, not pleased, translated for himself, explaining that we had been at a protest.

“Can you tell me what section of the code you claim I’ve violated?” I asked.

“We’ll get to that later,” he said. Never seeing the witnesses against me, I argued my defense as best I could, against the prosecutor-cum-judge.

A few hours later, after our laptops, video camera, iPad, digital camera, blackberry and cellphone were confiscated, the contents of our wallets and notebooks photographed, Huwaida and I were ordered to be deported. We were not present when the verdict was announced.

They held us in a special room in the airport where I attempted to sleep on a cold floor.  As morning came, I felt myself down with a fever, shivering, my face tight and dry from the residue of teargas. I had difficulty breathing and retched. I asked the tall man in the brown thob watching us for a doctor.

“Later,” was all he said.

They wheeled us right through security and onto the plane as I continued to vomit into a gray plastic bucket meant for watches, wallets and spare change. I repeatedly asked to talk to the American Embassy and for a doctor. They ignored me.  I asked the man in the brown thob his name.

“Nabeel Rajab,” he said, outside the jetway, naming Bahrain’s leading human rights activist.  I asked him again. He named a well-known political prisoner.  Then another.  Finally he came around behind me, leaned down over my left shoulder and whispered into my ear a name.  And then he said “Ministry of Interior.”  The MOI, known for using such tactics as electrocution, beatings, sleep deprivation, threatening rape and other forms of torture on political prisoners. 

IMG 0526
Radhika Sainath handcuffed Bahrain-owned Gulf Flight 003 from Manama to London
(Photo by Annonymous)

They tossed me onto an empty row on what I later discovered was a Bahrain-owned Gulf plane.  I felt my arms suddenly pulled back up towards the ceiling, hands forcing my head back against the seat.  A fist hit me on the head, three times from behind. Plastic handcuffs snapped on, pulled tight behind my back.

I must have lost consciousness, because at some point the blackness cleared and I discovered myself leaning forward in a painful position, staring blankly into space.

Juice and snacks came around. The flight attendants averted their eyes as they served cups of orange juice and cola.  One tossed a snack pack on the table next to mine. I hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours. But I could only watch those crackers, bound were my hands.

A journalist from the UK Telegraph came around to interview me, but a man in a black pinstripe suit and bald head named Salah told him that the pilot forbade it.  Talking to me was a “political activity” and political activities were forbidden in this plane, which was property of Bahrain, and therefore, Bahraini territory.

The journalist went away, and I asked Salah if I could use the bathroom.

“If you want to go the bathroom, you can go on yourself,” he said, leaning down close to my face.

I flew like that for seven hours, the plastic from the handcuffs cutting into my wrists as they tightened, either from movement or swelling, until the pain grew unbearable. I could only sit sideways, at 45 degree angle or with my head resting on the tray next to me.   I could not touch my eyes or my face crusted with spit and dried tears from throwing up.  I asked Salah at least four times to loosen the cuffs, but he only told me they were not that tight and that he handcuffed people all the time in such a manner. 

Finally, the plane touched down in London. The free world! I had never been so happy to be on this gray, small island, colonial master to both my current and ancestral nations.

The passengers disembarked and Salah cut me out and gave me back my US passport.  My wrists were red from the cuffs and cut in three places. My shoulder and neck hurt, but I attributed it to whiplash—later I would find out that at best, the muscle had partially separated from the bone, causing blood to seep.  I’ll be seeing an orthopedic surgeon this week. Our electronics remain in  Bahraini custody.

So here I am back in New York, plucked from Bahrain too early, terribly missing my brave Bahraini friends—not only Zaynab Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab—but the dozens whose names cannot be named, who face teargas and birdshot and beatings and electrocution all in the name of freedom. You guys are my heroes.

Radhika Sainath
About Radhika Sainath

Radhika Sainath is a staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Follow her on Twitter at @radhikasainath.

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4 Responses

  1. mudder
    February 20, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Thanks for the update, Radhika. Glad you and Huwaida are back in North America. On MW we tried to follow these events as they were relayed on twitter, but you have filled in much of the missing information. Kudos to your courage.

  2. Justice Please
    Justice Please
    February 21, 2012, 8:59 am

    Thank you Radhika for fighting for democracy and citizen sovereignty and for standing up to the fascist goons calling themselves “police”. “No photos”, my ass.

    As soon as Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich or someone else with a sensible foreign policy is US president, assistance for your fascist government will end.

  3. chet
    February 21, 2012, 1:16 pm

    I expect we’ll soon be hearing from Clinton blasting the Bahrainis for persecuting the Shia majority for demonstrating for their democratic rights as she blasted Assad for similar behavior in Syria.

    OOPS!! – forgot about the US naval base in Bahrain.

  4. kalithea
    February 22, 2012, 12:33 am

    What a harrowing experience! God bless you for your courage and getting the truth out there. Shame on the hypocritical U.S. government and that idiot Ms. Smith!!

    The double-standard applied by the U.S. disgusts me. Fact is, the U.S. cares squat about Syrians. They couldn’t be more pleased that Syrians are dying on both sides, the Government and Opposition side, as long as Israel gets what it wants and the proxy war on Iran is being waged at the expense of Muslim lives.

    I hope Bahrainis find a way to topple that greedy, fascist monarch. I hope his days are numbered!

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