I was in Bahrain last month as chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, part of an international human-rights mission. I attended the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report on rights abuses committed this spring, when Bahraini citizens took to the streets in protest against King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s regime.
To a degree, the Bahraini protests were fuelled by injustices felt by Bahrain’s Shia majority, which considers itself disadvantaged politically, economically and socially by the ruling Sunni minority. But it is not correct to say the protests were merely sectarian. The BICI report was an extraordinarily strong denouncement of the government for, among other things, at least 559 torture complaints and the deaths of at least 35 people during the unrest.
While in Bahrain, I met with Canadian Naser al-Raas, who is currently appealing two sentences for “illegal gathering” and “incitement to hatred” that would imprison him for five years. I attended Mr. al-Raas’s appeal hearing on Nov. 22; his appeal has since been postponed twice and will likely be put off again on Dec. 14. (I attended as a Canadian citizen active in the Canadian NGO community; Mr. a-Raas is not a PEN case because he’s not a writer, journalist or blogger.)
Mr. al-Raas, 29, is an IT specialist from Ottawa whose family arrived in Canada from Kuwait more than 15 years ago. He has only Canadian citizenship. He was in Bahrain visiting family when he attended the protests in March. He did such things as take an injured protester for medical assistance and use his camera to capture what he saw around him, just as thousands of young people were doing all over the Arab world last spring.
On March 20, he was removed from the airport just before boarding a plane to return to his job in Kuwait. For 31 days, he says, he was held without charge in solitary confinement, beaten and tortured daily. He made the mistake of telling his torturers he’d had multiple heart surgeries; they beat his chest. He was forced to sign a confession without reading it. He was finally released but denied his passport, and when subsequently summoned to pick it up, he was seized, blindfolded, beaten, made to stand three hours in the sun and then taken to a military courtroom to face fabricated charges substantiated by his forced confession.
Although the military judge dismissed those charges, Mr. al-Raas was sent to face separate charges in a civil court, which refused to accept evidence of a forced confession.
Ottawa was slow to take up Mr. al-Raas’s case. The Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia is providing conscientious “consular support,” but until earlier this week, the minister responsible, Diane Ablonczy, had only exercised “quiet diplomacy” on his case. When Mr. al-Raas’s family reported him missing to Canadian officials last spring, the Bahraini government replied that he was merely classified as “missing” – even as he was being held and allegedly tortured in Manama. Mr. al-Raas himself has written two letters to the minister, and received no response.
In response to a query last weekend from a CBC television reporter, the minister’s office made the following response:
“Our government is extremely concerned about reports that Mr. al-Raas was mistreated while in detention in Bahrain. Minister Ablonczy has raised his well-being with the Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs directly. Canadian consular officials are providing ongoing consular support to Mr. al-Raas. Canada urges the government of Bahrain to review the case in light of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and urges that Mr. al-Raas’s conviction be reviewed and his sentence commuted. The government of Canada takes such allegations of mistreatment and torture very seriously, and we are seeking the government of Bahrain’s response concerning the events that transpired during Mr. al-Raas’s detention.”
(The BICI report recommends that “all persons charged with offences involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, have their convictions reviewed and sentences commuted or … outstanding charges against them dropped.”)
By asking that the sentence be “commuted” instead of overturned, with all charges dropped, Ms. Ablonczy gives the appearance that Canada believes Mr. al-Raas is guilty, and that it is comfortable with the idea of him serving some time in a Bahraini prison, despite his demonstrable health issues.
Mr. al-Raas is very proud to be a Canadian citizen. He was profoundly moved by the protests of people of Bahrain. He is guilty of nothing more than legitimate protest. His government should move with alacrity to get the charges dropped. Mr. al-Raas has already been subjected to 31 days of torture; if he serves a single additional day in prison, it will be an injustice.
Marian Botsford Fraser is a Canadian writer and broadcaster.
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