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Colm O'Gorman: Why we can't afford to forget about Bahrain

It is the second anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain but prisoners of conscience are still behind bars, writes the head of Amnesty International Ireland.

Colm O'Gorman

MAHDI ABU DHEEB has been in prison in Bahrain for almost two years. He is locked up in Jaw Prison, in the country’s capital of Manama, for 18 hours a day. He shares his cell with criminals, but he has committed no crime.

He is a teacher, and until his arrest was the president of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association.

Inspired by what they had seen happen in Egypt and Tunisia, the people of Bahrain took to the streets to demand change, two years ago today.

They wanted democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights and justice.

They got plastic bullets, tear gas, torture and imprisonment.

The attacks by Bahrain’s security forces on the first peaceful demonstrations in mid-February killed seven people and injured hundreds more.

Mahdi Abu Dheeb and the Bahrain Teachers’ Association felt they could not ignore what was happening in the towns and cities of their country. Five thousand Bahraini teachers went on strike.

“Harassment and intimidation”

They demanded political reforms and an investigation into the deaths of peaceful protests but agreed to end the strike when the government pulled the army off the streets.

But harassment and intimidation of teachers, including violent assaults by pro-government supporters, in their schools, continued. A second strike was called in March 2011, but this time the government would not compromise.

The leadership of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association was arrested. Other teachers were suspended from their jobs or saw their salaries cut. Mahdi went into hiding, but was discovered and arrested on 6 April. He was tried before a military court and is now serving a five-year prison sentence.

His daughter Maryam recently sent this video message calling on people to support her father:

via AmnestyInternational

But Mahdi is just one of dozens of prisoners of conscience in Bahrain.

They include three men serving prison sentences for criticising the King of Bahrain on their Twitter accounts.

They include Dr Ali Al’Ekri, a Bahraini doctor who trained here in Ireland with the Royal College of Surgeons. His crime was to treat protestors who were brought to his hospital after being injured by the security forces.

After the uprising in 2011 the authorities in Bahrain set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate human rights abuses committed during the crackdown on protests. At least 35 protestors were killed and many more, including Mahdi and Dr Al ‘Ekri were tortured.

Since the commission reported in 2011, the government has introduced some limited reforms. There is now a code of conduct for police officers. CCTV cameras have been installed in police stations to protect detainees.

“Continuing targeting of activists using social media”

But trade unionists, doctors and opposition activists remain behind bars and the authorities still reserve the right to impose total bans on protests at any time.

The continuing targeting of activists using social media to discuss what is happening in Bahrain shows the authorities still refuse to countenance any criticism of their actions and are particularly sensitive about Bahrain’s profile in online media.

In many ways, Bahrain is the forgotten country of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. The world’s attention has been on the conflict in Syria, the instability in Egypt and the struggle to build a functioning democracy in Libya.

Those men and women who demanded change in Bahrain have been largely forgotten by the international community. This sends a signal, intentionally or not, to Bahrain’s government that their repression of human rights can continue, that they are free to imprison anyone they choose on trumped up charges.

Ireland can help change this. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, we should be using that position to put pressure on Bahrain to stop human rights abuses and to free prisoners of conscience, uniting Mahdi Abu Dheeb with his daughter after almost two years of imprisonment.

Find out more at amnesty.ie.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

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Colm O'Gorman

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