April 26, 2017: The artist Ai Weiwei attracted international headlines in 2015 when he went head-to-head with the Danish plastic brick maker Lego over that company’s refusal to sell him bricks in bulk for an art installation: because he had used the bricks to make portraits of political prisoners around the world, Lego felt the need to declare that it “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works” and it cut Ai off. Art lovers around the world stepped up and collected Legos for Ai and made enough noise that Lego relented and allowed him to purchase the bricks from Lego, as long as any work he produces includes a statement that Lego is not endorsing any political stances.
Ai’s portraits of 176 political prisoners took more than one million Legos to produce. Both numbers, one million and 176, make a similar point: there are many political prisoners around the world and each person’s story is intricate and takes time to tell.
Some of Ai’s faces are famous: Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning. Most of them are not. Mohammed Hassan Jawad of Bahrain (seen in Ai’s portrait at top) is not, but you ought to know about him.
Mohammed Hassan Jawad, also known as Parweez, was arrested on March 22, 2011. He is Bahrain’s eldest prisoner of conscience. Because he has spent years advocating for democratic reforms in Bahrain, when the Arab Spring crackdown took place, he and twelve other leading dissidents and Shi’a community members were arrested. As a group, they are known as the Bahrain 13. Their arrests, their group trial and convictions, and their appeals were all heard remarkably fast: the whole process unfolded in less than ten months.
On appeal, their sentences of fifteen years each (more in some cases) were upheld with no chance of a re-hearing added just for good (bad) measure. The Bahrain 13 are seen as folk heroes in the Shiite community and as dangerous revolutionaries in the Sunni population. Amnesty International noted that the charges they faced were noteworthy for their absence of substance.
Reports by human rights organizations that were able to meet with the prisoners soon after their arrests are unanimous: they were each tortured.
There is no need for an adverb like “brutally” to be added to the word torture. Jawad was electrocuted (burn marks were visible on his body months after his arrest), kept blindfolded, hanged by his arms, had his legs broken and then not set in casts (this has permanently disabled him), was beaten after he successfully fended off a rape with a blunt object, and was treated to psychological torture: he was kept with prisoners who had been beaten so badly he could not tell their faces from the backs of their heads, he was kept awake for days, he was told he was in a Saudi prison. He is 69 years old now, so he was in his 60s while this was done to him. This was done to him because he spoke out against injustice.
Human rights advocates around the world, including former U.N. general secretary Ban Ki-moon, protested the convictions and long prison sentences of the Bahrain 13, but no officials said anything about the pile of evidence of torture, to the frustration of human rights organizations.
Parweez Jawad is a political prisoner, one more face in Ai Weiwei’s admirable pantheon of heroes, one more name, but he is a political prisoner of an American ally, which must make the walls seem thicker for him and his family.
After all, Bahrain is an American ally. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed there; every once in a while some members of Congress with human rights interests will raise the possibility of our moving our Fifth Fleet and its several thousand sailors elsewhere and just as quickly lobbyists will take to the airwaves and visit the halls of Congress in defense of our good ally Bahrain. (For those readers who are viewers of the several Sunday morning programs devoted to politics and policy, please be aware that most if not all of those who are brought on as “experts” about a given story find most of their expertise in their wallets.)
In the last two decades, Bahrain first transformed itself from a nation that employed torture and long prison sentences without trials into one that did not. In 2001, Amnesty International celebrated the change. It did not last long. By 2007, it was known that Bahrain was employing torture once again and subjugating its Shiite majority population, much like its close ally, Saudi Arabia. By 2011, human rights organizations were alarmed and Foreign Policy magazine listed it as third out of eight of “America’s Unsavory Allies.”
The nation has been ruled by one family, the Al Khalifa dynasty, since 1783. That family still occupies about 50% of all government positions. In 1999, the current leader, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, inherited the title of Emir on the death of his father; in 2002, confronted with the re-institution of a parliament and elections, he re-structured the government to make certain that democracy could not touch the Al Khalifas and he declared himself a permanent fixture in any government, the first-ever King of Bahrain.
The Al Khalifa clan and thus the government of Bahrain are Sunni, but the population is majority Shiite. That sort of split between population and non-representative government always leads to a form of apartheid for the disenfranchised population, especially when it has numbers on its side. In 2011, as the Arab Spring protests and government crackdowns spread across the region, Bahrain’s crackdown was notoriously bloody: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to quell the protests. Dozens were killed. That word “torture” appears in report after report, again and again, like similarly colored plastic bricks snapped together to make a portrait of a recognizable human face.
Bahrain’s allies in world business were dismayed and the United States briefly delayed some arms sales to the country, which sparked Bahrain to pursue a course in 2011 and 2012 that looked and sounded so much like reform that its international relationships were saved. Simply repeating the word “reform” many times in a row is not reform. That was Bahrain’s approach, however, and it worked. Human rights organizations have regularly listed Bahrain among terrible violators, and the world is deaf to it. Bahrain’s money, its many arms deals (just one was a $90 million agreement with Lockheed Martin in 2013 on top of a sale of a dozen fighter jets), and its lobbying efforts keep us willfully deaf. Repeating the words “reform reform reform …” is not reform, after all.
In April 2016, Formula One raced there. Lewis Hamilton attracted attention for wearing a white thawb, the traditional Bahraini dress for men, and head scarf. The world of Twitter criticized him for it and that was as far as attention on human rights in Bahrain went.
Since the above was written in 2016, Bahrain’s leadership has doubled down on its autocratic, repressive gamble: on April 26, 2017, Reporters Without Borders dropped Bahrain two places in its annual rankings of press freedom (one key measure of a nation’s freedoms), so Bahrain is now one of the twenty-one worst, most repressive, countries on the planet.
Bahrain’s official and brutal treatment of Parweez Jawad is one sad story from that nation among many, many similar heart-rending stories.
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Mohammed Hassan Jawad’s son, Hussain Jawad, is a friend of The Gad About Town website. Hussain founded the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR). He has been put on trial himself, not yet been convicted, been tortured, and sought asylum in Britain. In 2014, he was denied asylum in the United Kingdom and returned home. In December 2015, he was tried and convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, but it was in absentia: He resides with his family in France. He is brave.
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