11-4-2011By Brian Dooley
Director, Human Rights Defenders Program
Remember that photo from Tiananmen Square in 1989 where the guy with the shopping bags stands in front of the column of tanks? It’s an inspirational image – the unarmed man defying four tanks.
There are really two heroes in that picture. The man with the shopping bags and the man in the tank who refuses to shoot him or run him over. Protestors were being killed in and around Tiananmen Square that week and it wouldn’t have been unusual if the tank had opened fire on the unarmed man.
But the guy in the tank held his fire, possibly defying orders from his superiors. The tank commander’s career, and possibly his life, were on the line. And he did the right thing. When police officers or soldiers refuse to commit human rights abuses it’s particularly impressive – these people have everything to lose by disobeying orders in the name of conscience.
During the Arab Spring, we’ve seen it in Syria. One Syrian soldier explained how he was sent to an area of unrest. “We received the order from our officers to shoot at anything that moved, even unarmed children and the elderly in Harasta. We got close to them, we threw our weapons on the ground and the people protected us. When our officers saw that, they opened fire on us. One of my colleagues was hit in the shoulder but we succeeded in taking him into hiding.” Some Libyan soldiers were reportedly executed for refusing to fire on protestors in February.
In Bahrain, too, an unknown number of the security forces have been detained for joining the calls for democracy and refusing to join the regime’s violent crackdown. Bahrain is ruled by a monarchy, and in February hundreds of thousands of protestors congregated to demand political reform.
Bahrain is an increasingly volatile state, and its violent crackdown continues. Foreign Policy Magazine last week named it as one of the U.S.’s ‘Unsavory Allies,’ right up there with Equatorial Guinea and Uzbekistan as embarrassing friends.
Ali Jasim Al Ghanmi is a 25 year-old policeman, married with a daughter. On February 17 he heard that protestors in Bahrain were being shot by the security forces – he went to the hospital and helped the medics treating the wounded.
Dressed in his uniform, he went to the crowd of protestors and publicly announced he would no longer work for the repressive dictatorship. He was carried on the crowd’s shoulders and became a mini-celebrity among the protestors, impressed that a policeman would take such a stand.
He went into hiding after the security forces attacked and removed the protestors from the central protest area of the Pearl Roundabout in mid-March. His family said they received threats that he had to turn himself in. He was eventually discovered on May 4 and arrested. His family says their house was raided twice after that date anyway, and his brothers and mother assaulted.
Ali claims he was tortured in detention and, since September 24, has been put in solitary confinement as punishment for shouting ‘Down, down, Hamad’ in the prison yard – the chant of protestors against the country’s king. He is waiting to be tried on charges including Inciting hatred against the regime, Inciting military personnel against the regime and Absence from duty.
People like Ali Jasim Al Ghanmi, who put conscience above all else, are heroes of the Arab Spring, and they should not be forgotten.