What’s more, the government seems unwilling to recognize that its national dialogue will hardly lead to a just result so long as the leaders of the country’s opposition and human rights organizations are not at the negotiating table. Instead, they are languishing in prison following coerced confessions and patently unfair trials. “You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” President Barack Obama said in 2011, addressing the situation.
By allowing us to visit the prison and meet and photograph these detainees, the government amply demonstrated that it appears to be detaining these men in humane conditions. It was both a relief and heartbreaking to see Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Abduljalil Al-Singace, and Nabeel Rajab, three human rights activists who have worked with Human Rights Watch for many years – it was they who urged us to stay steadfast in our commitment to peace and reform in Bahrain. But the fact is that they are in prison solely for calling for political change and demonstrating peacefully.
Several of these detainees, including religious clerics, leftist and religious party leaders, and scholars, had a much worse story to tell. They said they had endured gruesome torture, including electric shocks, beatings so brutal their clothes were soaked with blood, and sexual assault. “They made me repeat the chants I said at the demonstration, ‘Down with [King] Hamad,’ and each time I did they struck me so hard I would fall to the floor,” one said. “Then they would lift me up and do it again.”
It was very difficult to tell the detainees that, in fact, there is virtually no international body that can compel the government to release them. It now depends on the king to realize that their ongoing imprisonment will keep the country imprisoned in conflict as well.