Ayat al-Gormezi, the woman who symbolises Bahrain's fight for freedom
Published in The Independent, by Patrick Cockburn, 2nd June 2011
Bahrain's security forces are increasingly targeting women in their campaign against pro-democracy protesters despite yesterday lifting martial law in the island kingdom.
Ayat al-Gormezi, 20, a poet and student arrested two months ago after reading out a poem at a pro-democracy rally, is due to go on trial today before a military tribunal, her mother said. Ayat was forced to turn herself in when masked policemen threatened to kill her brothers unless she did so.
She has not been seen since her arrest, though her mother did talk to her once by phone and Ayat said that she had been forced to sign a false confession. Her mother has since been told that her daughter has been in a military hospital after being tortured.
"We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery," a film captures Ayat telling a cheering crowd of protesters in Pearl Square in February. "We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice." She addresses King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa directly and says to him: "Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams?" As she finishes, the crowd shouts: "Down with Hamad."
Ayat's call for change was no more radical than that heard in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi at about the same time. But her reference to the king might explain the fury shown by the Bahraini security forces who, going by photographs of the scene, smashed up her bedroom when they raided her house and could not find her.
There are signs that Bahraini police, riot police and special security are detaining and mistreating more and more women. Many are held incommunicado, forced to sign confessions or threatened with rape, according to Bahraini human rights groups.
Bahrain is the first country affected by the Arab Spring where women have been singled out as targets for repression. Human rights groups say that hundreds have been arrested. Many women complain of being severely beaten while in custody. One woman journalist was beaten so badly that she could not walk.
A woman doctor, who was later released but may be charged, says she was threatened with rape. She told Reuters news agency that the police said: "We are 14 guys in this room, do you know what we can do to you? It's the emergency law [martial law] and we are free to do what we want."
The ending of martial law and a call for dialogue from King Hamad appear to be part of a campaign to show that normal life is returning to Bahrain. The Bahraini government is eager to host the Formula One motor race, which was postponed from earlier in the year, but may be rescheduled to take place in Bahrain by the sports governing body meeting in Barcelona tomorrow.
Despite the lifting of martial law, imposed on 15 March, there is no sign of repression easing. Some 600 people are still detained, at least 2,000 have been sacked, and some 27 mosques of the Shia, who make up 70 per cent of the population, have been bulldozed.
The protests started on 14 February in emulation of events in Egypt and Tunisia with a campaign for political reform, a central demand being civil and political equality for the majority Shia. The al-Khalifa royal family and the ruling class in Bahrain are Sunni.
The targeting of women by the security forces may, like the destruction of mosques, have the broader aim of demonstrating to the Shia community that the Sunni elite will show no restraint in preventing the Shia winning political power. Shia leaders complain that the state-controlled media is continuing to pump out sectarian anti-Shia propaganda.
The government is eager to show that Bahrain can return to being an untroubled business and tourist hub for the Gulf. Having the Formula One race rescheduled to take place on the island later this year would be an important success in this direction.
The New York based Human Rights Watch has written to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), saying that the race would take place in an environment of unrelenting "punitive retribution" against pro-democracy protesters.
If the race does go ahead it will be without a quarter of the staff of the Bahrain International Circuit, the host organisation, who have been arrested, including two senior staff. Most have been sacked or suspended, accused of approving of the postponement of the Formula One event earlier in the year.
The government has been detaining and beating local reporters. The one international journalist based permanently in Bahrain was ordered out this month. Even foreign correspondents with entry visas have been denied entry when they arrive in Bahrain.