The text below was the testimony delivered by Bahraini woman human rights defender and member of SALAM DHR, Mrs. Asma Darwish, at the event organized by ourselves in cooperation with FIDH, OMCT, CIHRS, Sentinel, RADDHO, CIVICUS and BCHR at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva:
My name is Asma, and I am from Bahrain. I was 20 years old when I have changed. It was on February 2011; I do not forget.
In February 2011, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, to demand political reform and an end to sectarian discrimination. The monarchy responded with force, clearing the protesters’ campsite and declaring martial law. Activists were arrested daily. Reports of torture emerged from the kingdom’s overcrowded detention centers and prisons.
The government’s violent response to largely peaceful demonstrations turned many Bahrainis, including me, into activists overnight. I went on a hunger strike for 12 days after my brother was arrested & tortured for taking part in the Pearl Square gathering. In June 2011 I staged a sit-in inside the United Nations office in Manama and I were promptly arrested.
I met my future husband, Hussain Jawad, during those days. He is a prominent human rights defender known for his impassioned speeches calling for government reform.
After authorities released me, we became friends and colleagues. Soon he confessed that he had more than just a professional interest in me. In late June, he asked me to marry him. I spoke to my father, who knew of Hussain and his family’s history of civil rights activism. When Hussain visited my home to meet my family, my father told him that he was the man he wanted his daughter to marry.
Less than a year after our engagement, we founded together the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights, where I served as the head of information and media relations until 2016 and Hussain still is the chairman. We got married on Sept. 9, 2011. People of Bahrain were grieving at that time for their deaths of their beloved ones and the arrests and torture of their family and friends. One of them was my father-in-law, Parweez Jawad who still lingers behind prison bars since 2011 and is the eldest prisoner of conscience in Bahrain aged 70 years old. That situation made it difficult for both of us to prioritize our wedding.
We built our marriage and our human rights group at the same time. In February 2013, I gave birth to a son, Parweez names after my imprisoned father-in-law. He was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition when he was 4 months old and underwent months of treatment to prepare for surgery.
You might wonder how is the life for a WHRD whose husband happened to be a HRD himself, both being at constant risk of target.
My husband was arrested in November 2013 for a speech he gave to a large crowd in Manama earlier that month, in which he had urged Bahrainis to continue their peaceful protests. He was charged with inciting hatred against the regime and insulting the king.
After 46 days in detention, he was released on bail pending trial. He feared that our home would be raided again. So, in an attempt to protect our family, he fled the country and moved to London for eight months.
He continued to advocate for political reform from abroad. I cared for Parweez during months of hospital visits. Via a spotty Internet connection and a series of pictures sent through WhatsApp, we watched our son’s health deteriorate.
Hussain came to feel that staying away from his country was worse than being in prison. He finally returned in August of 2014, weeks after Parweez’ last open heart surgery. We did not fear his or my arrest in Bahrain but were terrified of the return of night raids that we would have to endure.
We were right to be worried. Our home was raided at about 1:30 a.m. On Feb 2015. He was kidnapped by masked men in civilian clothes. They confiscated his cellphone and passport. Holding Parweez, I watched as Hussain was taken away and put in a van waiting outside. He would later tell me how the officers took turns calling him a donkey, dog and cow, alternating between cursing Geneva and human rights defenders. For more than nine hours, the officers denied his requests for a toilet as they drove him around the island.
Later that day, I was finally able to speak to him briefly by phone. I asked him if he had been harmed, and he said yes. Then the phone line went dead.
Hussain later confirmed that the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) tortured him physically, sexually and psychologically before he was transferred to the public prosecutor. The CID uses torture to elicit false confessions from innocent activists. He initially denied all charges against him, but the abuse continued. They even showed hi, photos of my and our son and threatened him to bring us and rape me.
During the visit to prison, I laid out Parweez’s best clothes in preparation to see Hussain.
We arrived at the prison an hour early for our scheduled visit. We were granted 25 minutes with him, separated by a glass barrier. He appeared exhausted and had visibly lost weight. He complained about pain in his eyes as a result of being blindfolded and in his legs and back due to continuous standing when he was detained at the CID.
Hussain got released 4 months later on bail pending trial after I have launched an international solidarity campaigns with colleagues from all over the world. All of them are dear friends now and are part of my day-to-day work. Tara and Sima are two of them for instance.
This time, we were threatened to leave our country and home. In three months they said, or else we will bring you back here and break your ribs!
So we flee the country with our son, to France, where we reside right now since 2015. We were granted refuge, and I gave birth to my daughter Maryam who is 7 months old.
On 16 November 2016, the Government of Bahrain sent masked civilian police and riot police to surround my house in Bahrain to summon me to for charges of “illegal gathering” I allegedly participated in three months prior. The catch is that I currently live in France, and I have been exiled there with my family for more than two years now. That is when, indeed, authorities begin attempting to target those they seem to have forgotten they already exiled.
Apart from all of that, I was a grade “A” Business student in Bahrain Polytechnic, and I was about to graduate with bachelor certificate when I got dismissed for taking part in the mass protests that stormed this little country of mine.
I lost my graduation certificate here as I lost the great moments of wearing that graduation robe in the ceremony. But that made me learn, things I learnt, that I could not have learnt in normal conditions.
They always said, it is the wide tides that touches the very roots of one’s existence and change it forever.
The human rights situation in Bahrain is regrettably in degradation mode. It has come across lots of challenges. The most important ones are: discrimination, impunity, and a deficit of democracy. This last one is driving the degradation. Not to mention weak institutions and the circumvention of local & international laws. Nonetheless, the democracy deficits, in my opinion, is with no doubt the driver behind the degradation.
We envisage many ways for the international community to help. A key principle of the human rights movement is its appeal to universality: the idea that all human beings should struggle in solidarity for a common set of basic conditions. So, one way of helping us in Bahrain is by imposing pressure on western governments. Being in a close alliance does not allow the country to ignore the human rights. Carrying out campaigns would definitely help. Media coverage is also crucial.
As speaking about injustice matters. It matters to all of us.
We still believe that tomorrow will be better.
So, we must not run away.
We must not be afraid.
It is said that if a shark begins to circle in your position, stay your ground, do not swim away, do not act afraid, and if a shark, hungry for a snack darts towards you, then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away.
There are a lot of sharks in the world, if you hope to complete the swim, you will have to deal with them, so if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
I still remember the night when masked and armed police raided my house. It was a February night, bone-chilling cold, one voice in my head began to echo through the night. The voice said, rise! It is not time to give up!
I gathered ALL my strengths and took my husband to freedom again.
If I have learned anything in my time of life, it is the power of hope, the power of one person, one person can change the world, by giving people hope. So if you want to change the world, speak out loud against the storm, take up the risks, step up when the times are the toughest and never ever give up, stand up and give hope.
For if you do these things, the next generation and the generation that follows will live in a world far better than the one we have today. And what have started here, will indeed, change the world for the better.