Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal

Ayat al-Gormezi says she was tortured while in jail for reciting a poem at a pro-democracy protest. Patrick Cockburn reports

A female member of the al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain has been accused of repeatedly beating the 20-year-old student poet Ayat al-Gormezi when she was in prison accused of reciting a poem at a pro-democracy protest rally criticising the monarchy.

In an interview with The Independent, Ms Gormezi, who became a symbol of resistance to oppression in Bahrain, said that although her interrogators had tried to blindfold her, "I 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 prison guards, who, she said, promptly named the woman as being one of the al-Khalifas with a senior position in the Bahraini security service.

"I was taken many times to her office for fresh beatings," Ms Gormezi said. "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 that it wasnot her regular job, but she had volunteered to take part in questioning political detainees.

Ms Gormezi was detained on 30 March at her parents' house after spending two weeks in hiding when the government, backed by a Saudi-led force, started a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in mid-March. She had been 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!"

Subjected to nine days of torture after her detention, Ms Gormezi described how she was beaten across the face with electric cables, kept in a tiny, freezing cell and forced to clean lavatories with her bare hands. 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."

After the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain started in mid-March, the tall monument in Pearl Square was demolished and even the Bahraini coin showing it was withdrawn. 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".

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."

Surprisingly, for the first four or five days, the interrogators did not ask Ms Gormezi about reading out her poem in Pearl Square. 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 in the interrogation centre, 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 a more 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, a shorter sentence than her family had feared. Last week she was called to an office in the prison and told she was to be released on the condition that she should not take part in other protests.

Activist accuses police in protester's death

* A Bahraini rights activist says a woman has died during clashes between riot police and anti-government protesters in the Gulf kingdom.

Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said that 47-year-old Zainab Hasan Ahmed al-Jumaa suffocated after inhaling tear gas fired by riot police during a demonstration on Friday near her home in Sitra, the hub of Bahrain's oil industry. Her death brings to 33 the number of those who have died since February when Bahrain's Shia majority started protests for greater freedoms in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

Bahrain's Interior Ministry denied that Ms Jumaa's death was linked to a police operation and said in a statement posted on the ministry's website late on Friday that the woman died of natural causes. The claims came after tens of thousands of Bahrainis shouting "one man, one vote" attended a rally for political reform held by a leading opposition party, days before the group decides whether to pull out of national reform talks.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers have launched a national dialogue to discuss reforms and heal deep rifts in the kingdom after ending a four-month crackdown on weeks of protests led by the Shia majority early this year. Waving Bahraini flags and raising their hands, the demonstrators gathered to hear a speech by Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the largest Shia opposition group, Wefaq.

"The real victory is reaching a national consensus on serious democratic reforms that meet popular demands for justice and produce security, stability and growth," he said to the cheers of crowds who filled alleyways and rooftops.