It was 1.30 am on March 29. A group of armed men broke into a family home in the Bahraini capital Manama. Some were wearing balaclavas and carrying machine guns. Others had batons. There were at least 50 of them, ransacking the house, shouting at three terrified children whom they found in the bedrooms upstairs.
They barged into another bedroom where a woman was sleeping. “Don't be afraid, we are the police!” - one of the men shouted as he held her by the neck, pressing a gun to her head. You would be forgiven to think that they were raiding a house of an international terrorist. Actually, it was only a teacher they were after.
“I was just in my nightdress. I had nothing to cover myself. I was on my bed and I thought I was dreaming. I could not believe what was going on. My bedroom is the master bedroom of the house, quite large. There were so many men inside that you could not catch a glimpse of the carpet on the floor. I heard a helicopter above my house.”
“They took me outside where there were over 15 cars parked. They wouldn't let me say goodbye to my children. I was put on a minibus. As we were driving away, they told me to look outside the window as I would never see the outside world again. They hit me and called me horrible names. Names I can't bring myself to repeat. They were on a mission to arrest other teachers that night, we were stopping in front of their houses”
Jalila al-Salman is clearly still struggling to comprehend what has been happening to her in the past six months. Up until very recently she was just a teacher, a vice-president of the Teachers' Association and a mother of three children under 12.
But now, Jalila become one of the symbols of repression of the Bahraini regime. Her sin – taking part in the non-violent protests at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. She says that her and her colleagues only went there on the sixth day, Sunday 20, after the King himself appeared on TV saying that everyone had the right to express themselves peacefully. Then and only then we appear at the roundabout. Some of the protestors had already been injured and killed. Among them were teachers. As Bahraini citizens, they “refused to accept that kind of treatment.”
“We told our union members to stand outside schools as a sign of support to our brothers. That was our message. The Ministry of Education refused to talk to us and we only communicated through statements.”
On September 25 Jalila was sentenced to three years in prison by the military court. At the moment she is still at home. Having spent five months behind bars earlier this year, she is terrified that her horrific ordeal will start again.
“Initially I was taken to the CID (Criminal Investigation Directorate). I was kept there for 10 days in solitary confinement, which was very, very dirty. The walls were covered in dried blood. There was a hook hanging of the ceiling. There were no windows. I was forced to stand for almost all of the time. Every five minutes someone would come inside my cell. I was not allowed to lie down or even to go to the toilet or to have water which result in kidney problem that I was treated for. The food they gave me was full of hairs, sand and dirt. I am on medication for high blood pressure and they only allowed me to take it on the fifth day. By that time I was in a really bad state and I was fainting during questioning. Still, I was never allowed to sit down”
Jalila was questioned twice during her time at the CID and made to sign statements which not only she didn't write, but wasn't even allowed to read. She was beaten. Her requests to see a lawyer were met with laughter. However, a threat of rape was the most terrifying.
“During a questioning, one of the men who was wearing a mask, held a gun against my head and tried to take off his trousers. He threatened to rape me and said that they were given a permission to do whatever was necessary to get the statement they wanted.”
Although she had been transferred to the women's prison, she was taken back to the CID on few occasions to have her “testimony” recorded.
“I told them I didn't do anything and could not confess to anything. But they said I would 'see something I hadn't seen before,' If I didn’t do what they want ,they threatened to rape me. I just couldn't let anyone touch me, so I had to say what they wanted. They were stopping and starting the recording all the time, telling me exactly what to say next. I only saw my lawyer for five minutes during my first hearing.”
During the recording, a man called Faisal Fulad was present. Jalila instantly recognised the face which often appeared in the media, as he is a member of the Parliament and, ironically, a founder of the local group, the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, which claims to fight for women's rights.
The Bahraini Human Rights Watch Society is not be confused with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which just a few days ago called for the “United States to delay a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful critics of the ruling family and takes meaningful steps toward accountability for serious human rights violations.”
The US Defense Department notified the Congress on September 14, of a proposed sale of armoured vehicles and missiles to Bahrain worth US$53 million. The sale would appear to be the first since the start of Bahrain’s crackdown on protests earlier this year.
The Bahraini government has prevented Human Rights Watch from visiting the country since mid-April, and tightly restricts access for journalists and other rights groups. According to a 2011 report by the US organisation, between 2007 and 2009, the Bahraini government regularly practiced torture and ill-treatment in interrogating security suspects. Although government spokesmen have issued denials, there is no evidence of criminal investigations and the government has not imposed disciplinary measures on the alleged perpetrators.
Humanitarian organisations' strong condemnation has not prevented the UK government to follow its American ally and invite Bahrain to the Britain's largest arms fair - despite clear evidence that the kingdom has used imported weaponry to violently suppress pro-democracy protests.
This apparent Western tolerance, and even encouragement of the government-sponsored brutality, has left many surprised and disillusioned. The president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab has accused the UK and US of “double standards” when it comes to foreign policy.
“When people started the revolution on February 14, myself included, they thought that the UK government, as a long lasting ally of Bahrain, would take the same position they had with Libya or Iran when it comes to human rights. But we are shocked to see them ignore our revolution. Even worse, supporting our government by selling them arms. They obviously have their strategic interests which rest with oppressive ruling families in the region, rather than with any democratic movement. That has made us pay a high price.”
The Centre, which has officially been banned by the regime since 2004, has been campaigning for the release of thousands of political prisoners.
“Political prisoners and systematically tortured, including women. We are talking about electric shocks, sexual harassment, beating, isolation for weeks. It is very clear that silencing people doesn't work. More angry people are coming out on the streets. Especially as they see other revolutions in the region are successful and people there are achieving their goals. People of Bahrain couldn't even achieve an even cosmetic reform,”says Nabeel.
Both Nabeel and Jalila seem pessimistic about the future of their country. Jalila has been told months ago not to return to work. She says that the Ministry of Education has started replacing Shia teachers with 2,500 brought from Egypt and another 6,000 “volunteers”, many of whom haven't even completed secondary education. Even those Shias who have not been protesting are not safe. Many Shia doctors had been imprisoned and, according to Jalila, only released after an oversees intervention. The president of the Teachers' Association, Mahdi Abu Deeb, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, many activists got life sentences.
In June this year king Hamad established the The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) after a broad consultation with, among others, the UN Commission on Human Rights. They are looking into the incidents that occurred in February and March 2011 and the consequences of these events. It is expected to report on its findings by 30 October 2011.
Following their visit to the women's prison, Jalila and a fellow prisoner were released pending sentencing.
Nabeel is sceptical about its purpose.
“Maybe the government is trying to find the way out by appointing this commission. King is doing it to isolate himself from responsibility because many Bahrainis see him as responsible for crimes against humanity here. The commission might come with recommendation to release the prisoners because, as we know, they were all tried unfairly and illegally. That is a way out for the government. This commission is not going to solve the political crisis, we need a proper solution, a dialogue which will bring people together from all sides. At the moment there is a lack of trust.”
The protesters have had enough of the country which is being run like a private company. Bahrain has had the same prime minister for 42 years and the large majority of the government and the judiciary belong to the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family. They are calling for an end of discrimination against the Shias and a fairly elected government with genuine power. Although the parliamentary elections were held on Saturday, only 13 people from the opposition participated.
“People don't believe that the parliament is a source of solving their political crisis,”says Nabeel.
“I think we need a third party mediation, other than just from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. More pressure needs to be put on other oppressive regimes in the region as they are supporting the dictators in Bahrain.”
I ask Jalila whether she would leave Bahrain with her family, if she could. She is adamant that her place is in her country. All she wants is to be allowed to travel to Turkey for a few days with her daughter, who is needs to have an operation to remove her hemangioma there.They refuse to give me that permission.
“I just want everyone to be equal. In my heart I believe that we are all one family.”