Silent Witness - The U.S. Government and the Trial of Bahraini Human Rights Defender Abu Deeb
Saturday April 6 will be exactly two years since Mahdi Abu Deeb, President of the Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA), was arrested for his part in the peaceful uprising. He was tortured, subjected to unfair military and civilian trials and is serving a five-year sentence.
Washington has been relatively muted about the Bahrain crackdown, and we are told the U.S. government has to carefully weigh "other equities," including the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, before it openly criticizes the regime’s human rights violations. Although the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain sent observers to Abu Deeb’s court hearings, it hasn’t spoken out about the fairness of his trial.
Abu Deeb is one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders, jailed for exercising his right to peaceful expression. He spoke at political meetings during the February and March 2011 protests for democratic reform in Bahrain, and when the government responded with a violent crackdown starting mid-March he was targeted. After seven failed attempts to find and arrest him, Deeb was finally taken into custody on 6 April 2011.
Following his arrest he spent 64 days in solitary confinement, was beaten, and electrocuted. Cellmates Abdulhadi al Khawaja and Mohamed al Tajer report hearing him being beaten. He was forced to sign false confessions and tried in a military and then civilian court with the Vice-President of the BTA Jalila al Salman, who had also been tortured in custody.
Abu Deeb remains one of Bahrain’s most prominent dissidents, and his case has been raised by the European Parliament and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, included Abu Deeb’s case in his February 2012 report, noting that in his case the Bahrain government “did not address the allegation of torture or ill-treatment at all".
But while the United States sent observers to the joint trial of Abu Deeb and Jalila al Salman, it has not publicly stated whether it thinks their trial met international standards. Jalila al Salman has now served her jail sentence and is out of prison. She told me "U.S. officials came to observe the civilian court [trial]. They take their notes and leave. I was hoping that because they're watching everything that they will write something to the authorities of Bahrain saying this is not right."
In March 2012 I was visiting Abu Deeb’s family home when he called from prison and we spoke for a while – he seemed in good spirits but it’s a long jail sentence for an innocent man. A few months later an open letter he wrote to the King of Bahrain was smuggled out of jail. It’s an eloquent plea for tolerance and justice. “All I want from this is reform, real reform and not just those promises you [The King of Bahrain] gave the people without actually making them happen. Real reform is what helps our country avoid injustice, tyranny, discrimination and stealing wealth…We, the people, grew tired with the deteriorating living circumstances, [the lack of] constitutional rights and political freedom. That is why we went out to demand real reform and dedicated ourselves to peacefulness and good behavior,” it said. “I have said several times before that we are ‘hostages’....We will stay in prison as long as you need us so you can leverage us while talking to the opposition and the people, you will only release us when you reach a settlement that pleases you.”
This is a case where the U.S. government should speak out clearly and publicly to call for the release of Abu Deeb and to state whether it thought his trial was fair or not. Elsewhere in the middle east the U.S. government’s relationship with civil society is faltering badly. Much of the public in Bahrain, and other countries in the Middle East, such as Egypt, view the United States as siding with their repressive governments while failing to properly engage with human rights activists. My organization, Human Rights First, released a report last week on how the U.S. might repair its damaged relationship with Egyptian civil society. The U.S. government’s failure to speak out on cases like this or visit families like the Abu Deebs badly damages its reputation.
Abu Deeb’s daughter Maryam told me this week that these past two years have been extremely difficult for the family. “It’s been hard but I’m ready to wait longer if waiting will bring justice to the Bahraini people.” She said her family has still not heard from anyone at the U.S. Embassy.