by Romaissaa Benzizoune
It has been exactly nine years since peaceful protestor Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace was arrested for ‘plotting to overthrow the [Bahraini] government.’ He was consequently tortured for over six months and sentenced to life, and has been serving his sentence in the notorious Jau Prison. Since then, Al-Singace has been on and off the international human rights radar. He has been on and off hunger strike, and in and out of hospital rooms.
Al-Singace, who suffers from post-polio syndrome, is disabled and partially paralysed. Instead of giving him adequate medical care, his disability has been used as a torture implement. Al-Singace has reportedly been sexually assaulted, and has faced beatings that have dramatically deteriorated his medical condition. In one instance, Al-Singace was forced to stand on his good leg for two days. According to a family member who was interviewed for this piece, he continues to need urgent treatment: ‘He needs to see a doctor soon.’
It is difficult to find updates on Al-Singace’s case online. PEN issued a call to action in October 2012. Similarly, Amnesty International marked it an ‘urgent action’ case the following year. Since then, there have been many more hospital rooms, periods of solitary confinement and hunger strikes, but the media has been mostly silent. Previously, Al-Singace has participated in hunger strikes that have lasted up to 313 days.[
In addition to being an activist who was involved in Bahrain’s 2011 uprising, Al-Singace is an engineer, a professor, and a writer. He is also a husband and a father. His family describes him in touching terms: ‘He is a strong and inspiring person…even though he’s in prison. When we are down he’s the one to lift us up with his high spirits and big heart. He has great hope and really believes that he will be free again one day.’
He is also quite possibly fearless. There was a period of two years during which Al-Singace was refused family visits, medical care, and hygiene products. This was because he refused to wear uniform of a convicted criminal. According to his family ‘he refuses to be treated as a criminal whilst he is a human rights defender.’
There are many reasons why the UK should be more proactive in Al-Singace’s case. There is the fact that Al-Singace is a human being. There is the UK’s alleged commitment to freedom of expression. Also, right before Al-Singace was arrested nine years ago, he was giving a speech in the House of Lords about human rights abuses in Bahrain. He was arrested on his way back home from London.[
A series of inquiries that have been sent to the government about Al-Singace’s case have been answered in the same deferring, customer-service like tone; two of the responses are nearly identical. (‘The UK has a continuing dialogue with the Government of Bahrain…The UK continues to encourage the Government of Bahrain to deliver on its international and domestic human rights commitment.’) A letter concerning Al-Singace signed by members of the House of Lords and sent to then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in May 2018 has not yet been answered. This is not the first time that Johnson has faltered on the issue. When Bahrain executed three Shia men in January of 2017—the country’s first executions in seven years—his response was found to be ‘woefully inadequate’ by a director of NGO Reprieve. In response to the executions, Johnson vaguely stated that the UK was against the death penalty, and that he had ‘raised the issue with the Bahraini Government.’[
The silence around Al-Singace’s case falls into a larger pattern when it comes to Bahrain. While the UK has given Bahrain over 5 million pounds in recent years to improve their human rights performance, there has only been evidence to the contrary, and one may wonder what the UK is really sponsoring. Additionally, ever the ally, the UK may actually be enabling the abuse by helping to train Bahraini policemen.
It is worth noting that Al-Singace was part of a group of 13 individuals who were arrested during the same free-speech crackdown; there is virtually no attention on the other 12 individuals, apart from leading human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who – like Dr. Al-Singace – has also been tortured and is serving a life sentence. It is also worth noting that just this month, two more young Bahraini men were executed. Both had been convicted in mass terrorism trials. One activist, Moosa Mohammed, protested the executions by climbing atop of the Bahraini embassy in London and unfurling a banner to raise awareness. He too was accused of terrorism.
The lives of Al-Singace and other human rights defenders are at stake in the face of international complicity, and it is imperative to put pressure on the relevant governments. The possibility of Al-Singace’s freedom is not an abstraction, but a possibility that must be fought for. Considering that Bahrain’s execution sprees seem to follow an international pattern—the most recent one came two days after the Trump administration decided to reinstate the death penalty—there is good reason to believe that international pressure can make all the difference.
date, Al-Singace’s human rights blog Al-Faseela—one of the main reasons he was
arrested—remains blocked in Bahrain. And Al-Singace is not allowed access to
books, pen, or paper.
Romaissaa Benzizoune is a junior at NYU, and she is working as an intern with English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme this summer. A freelance writer herself, Romaissaa focuses on Muslim-American issues, and her writing has appeared in outlets including Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue, and The New York Times.
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