Poem which led to a savage beating...

Bahrain’s protesters had a figurehead – Ayat al-Gormezi, but the poet paid a high price for her bravery, as Patrick Cockburn reports
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The Independent Online

Hers was the voice of a revolution. Released from prison last week, the 20-year-old poet Ayat al-Gormezi, a symbol of resistance for pro-democracy protesters, claims she was tortured in prison by a female member of Bahrain’s royal family. In an interview with i, MsGormezi said she was beaten with a baton by a woman whom prison guards identified as a member of the ruling al-Khalifa family.

She said while her interrogators had tried to blindfold her, she was able to see “a woman of about 40 in civilian clothes who was beating me on the head with a baton”. Ms Gormezi later described her interrogator to guards, who, she said, promptly named the woman as being one of the al-Khalifas with a senior position in the Bahraini security service. Ms Gormezi added: “I was taken many times to her office for fresh beatings. She would say: ‘You should be proud of the al-Khalifas. They are not going to leave this country. It is their country’.”

The guards explained it was not the woman’s regular job, but she had volunteered to question political detainees.

Ms Gormezi was arrested on 30 March at her parents’ house, after spending two weeks in hiding when the government, backed by a Saudiled force, started a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests. She was targeted by the authorities after she read out a poem at a rally in February which contained the lines:“We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. We are the people who will destroy injustice.” Addressing King Hamad bin Isa al- Khalifa directly, she said of the Bahraini people: “Don’t you hear their cries? Don’t you hear their screams?” As she finished speaking, the crowd roared: “Down with Hamad!”

Ms Gormezi described how in captivity she was beaten across the face with electric cables, kept in a tiny, freezing cell and forced to clean lavatories with her bare hands. She said she was most terrified by continuing threats from her interrogators that she would be sexually assaulted or raped. All the while, she was beaten on the head and the body until she lost consciousness. “Many of the guards were Yemenis and Jordanians,” she said.

The recruitment of members of the Bahraini security forces from foreign Sunni states is one of the grievances of Bahrain’s Shia majority, which says it is excluded from such jobs. In a phone interview after her release, Ms Gormezi said she does not regret reading her poem in Pearl Square, the centre of Bahrain’s democratic protests in February and March.

“What I said was not a personal attack on the King or the Prime Minister, but I was just expressing what the people want. I have written poetry since I was a child, but not about politics. I did not think it was dangerous at the time. I was just expressing my opinion.”

Anybody supporting the protests was in danger of detention and torture. Ms Gormezi’s family sent her to stay with relatives, which she “did not want to do. But after two weeks the security forces threatened my family and I had to give myself up. As I was taken away in a car, my family were told to pick me up at a police station the following day, so they thought it was not serious”.

But her mistreatment started immediately. She said: “There were four men and one woman in the car, all wearing balaclavas. They beat me and shouted: ‘You are going to be sexually assaulted! This is the last day of your life!’ They also made anti-Shia remarks. I was terrified of being sexually assaulted or raped, but not of being beaten.”

The vehicle she was in, escorted by the army and police, did not immediately go to the interrogation centre but drove around Bahrain. Another woman, whom Ms Gormezi said was a member of the teachers’ organisation, was arrested and put in the boot of the car. Eventually, it reached the interrogation centre, which evidently doubled as a prison. Ms Gormezi said the beatings never stopped: “Once they told me to open my mouth and spat in it.”

The first night she was put in a tiny cell: “It smelled awful and I could not sleep because of the screams of a man being tortured in the next cell.”

The second night she was placed in another cell with the two vents for air conditioning producing freezing air. She was taken out for regular beatings. “I was very frightened,” she said. “But I did not think they would kill me because every time I lost consciousness from the beatings, they called a doctor.”

For the first four or five days, the interrogators did not ask Ms Gormezi about reading out her poem. They abused the Shia in general, saying they were “bastards” and not properly married (the accusation stems from the Shia institution of temporary marriage and is often used as an insult by Sunnis).

“When they did ask me about the poem, they kept saying: ‘Who asked you to write it? Who paid you to write it?’” Ms Gormezi said. They insisted she must have been ordered to do so by Shia leaders in Bahrain or was a member of a political group, which she denies. The interrogators also kept saying she must owe allegiance to Iran. An obsessive belief that Shia demands for equal rights in Bahrain must be orchestrated by Tehran has long been a central feature of Sunni conspiracy theorists.

“They kept asking me: ‘Why are you loyal to Iran? Why are you not loyal to your own country?’” Ms Gormezi said. “I said it was nothing to do with Iran. I am a Bahraini and I was only trying to express what the people want.”

After nine days, Ms Gormezi was taken to a second prison in Isa town in Bahrain. For a week she was in solitary confinement and was given medication so the signs of her beatings were less visible. She was then taken to amore general prison where physical mistreatment stopped and there were four other women. “After 16 days they let me talk to my family,” she said. “It was meant to be for three minutes but they let me talk for 10. Once they took me back to the first interrogation centre to record a video apologising to the King.”

International protests and ensuing bad publicity for the Bahraini monarchy led to her treatment improving, according to her family.

Ms Gormezi was brought before a court on 12 June and sentenced to one year in prison. Last week she was called to an office in the prison and told she was to be released on the condition that she would not take part in any other protests.

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