A female member of the al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain repeatedly beat Ayat al-Gormezi, the 20-year-old student poet, when she was in prison accused of reciting a poem at a pro-democracy protest rally criticizing the monarchy. In an interview Ayat, 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.”
Ayat later described her interrogator to prison guards who promptly named her 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,” says Ayat. “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 her regular job, but she had volunteered to take part in questioning political detainees.
Ayat was detained on March 30 at her parents’ house after spending two weeks in hiding after 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 says of the Bahraini people.” “Don’t you hear their cries? Don’t you hear their screams?” As she finishes speaking the crowd roars: “Down with Hamad!”
Subjected to nine days of torture after her detention, Ayat describes how she was beaten across the face with electric cable, kept in a tiny cell in which the temperature was freezing, 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 says. “One of the interrogators was a Jordanian.” The recruitment of members of the Bahraini security forces from foreign Sunni states is one of the grievances of the Shia majority in Bahrain who say they are excluded from such jobs.
In a phone interview after her release, Ayat says she does not regret reading out her poem in Pearl Square which was the centre of democratic protest in Bahrain 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. Ayat’s family sent her to stay with relatives which “I 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.”
In fact her mistreatment started immediately. “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. Ayat says: “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 go immediately to the interrogation centre but drove around Bahrain. Another woman, whom Ayat says was a member of the teacher’s organisation, was arrested and put in the trunk of the car. Eventually, it reached the interrogation centre, which evidently doubled as a prison. Ayat says the beating 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 says, “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 Ayat 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 Sunni). Ayat says: “When they did ask me about the poem, they kept saying: ‘Who asked you to write it? Who paid you to write it?” They insisted that she must have been ordered to do so by Shia leaders in Bahrain or was a member of a political group, something she denies.
The interrogators also kept saying that Ayat 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. Ayat recalls: “They kept asking me: ‘Why are you loyal to Iran? Why are you not loyal to your own country?’ 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 Ayat 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 says. “It was meant to be for three minutes but they let me talk for ten. Once they took me back to the first interrogation centre to record a video apologizing to the king.”
International protests and ensuing bad publicity for the Bahraini monarchy led to her treatment improving according to Ayat’s family. Bahrain was on its way to becoming a pariah state as news emerged of the torture of doctors accused of helping inured protestors, Shia mosques were demolished and it became evident that torture was official policy. Despite efforts on the part of the government to claim normality was returning to Bahrain, the Formula One Grand Prix was cancelled. Ayat was brought before a court on June 12 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, but a condition was that she should take part in no more protests.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.