The Bahraini human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Saegh was arrested on 3 July 2017. She is at risk of torture. Bahrain has announced that they investigate her for terrorism charges. This is her story.
1. Who is Ebtisam Al-Saegh?
Ebtisam Al-Saegh is a human rights activist who works for SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights. SALAM is an NGO whose aim is the promotion of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. They try to influence British, European and UN representatives to improve the situation in the Middle East.
Ebtisam Al-Saegh lives and works in Bahrain. She participated in several meetings of the UN Human Rights Council. Ebtisam documents human rights violations in Bahrain. She has a Twitter account and uses her account to raise awareness for the human rights situation in Bahrain.
2. Harassment of Ebtisam Al-Saegh in the past
Every human rights defender in Bahrain is familiar with interrogations, travel bans and harassment. This is also true for Ebtisam Al-Saegh.
a) Ebtisam Al-Saegh was among 13 women who were interrogated and detained in November 2014. The women were charged with “establishing and organising a public referendum, inciting hatred against the regime and disrupting elections”. The context was a referendum which was initiated on the topic whether Bahrain should introduce a new political system under the supervision of the United Nations. The women claimed that they were humilated, insulted and deprived of sleep, food and water.
b) In June 2016 Ebtisam Al-Saegh wanted to travel to Geneva from Bahrain International Airport to attend the United Nations Human Rights Council session and participate in side events about the human rights situation in Bahrain. Bahrain security forces prevented her (as well as Hussain Radhi and Ibrahim Al-Demistani) from travelling to this event.
c) On 23 November 2016 Ebtisam Al-Saegh was summoned by the Cyber-Crime Unit. She was questioned about Twitter posts and was accused of “inciting hatred against the Bahrain regime and threating the public safety and security”. She was banned from travelling for two months. Her interrogation has to be seen in the context of a general waive of judicial harassment against human rights defenders. According to Front Line Defenders at least 17 human rights activists were summoned and interrogated in November 2016. The interrogation are often used as a ground for imposing a travel ban to restrict their ability to advocate internationally for human rights in Bahrain.
d) Ebtisam Al-Saegh was questioned again on 22 January 2017 for about four hours. She was in particular asked about her statements against the death penalty and the execution of Abbas al-Samea, Ali Al-Singace and Sami Mushaima. There were threats against her children and she was warned that her citizenship could be revoked, if she continues to publish “fake news”.
e) In March 2017 Ebtisam Al-Saegh was able to participate in the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. While she was in Geneva her sister was summoned and questioned. Upon Ebtisam’s return on 20 March 2017 she was detained for several hours at Bahrain International Airport. She was searched, her passport was confiscated and she was questioned for 5 hours. She was not allowed to contact her lawyer or her family who did not know her whereabouts. An interrogator accused her of delivering false statements about human rights in Bahrain in Geneva. She was warned “not to cross the red line“. She was also asked about her work generally, the attendance of conferences and her meeting with the High Commissioner of Human Rights. She was told that she could be taken away from her children and that also her children could face prosecution, if she continues her work.
f) On 21 April 2017 22 human rights defenders were summoned to appear before the General Prosecutor. They were interrogated on 24 and 25 April 2017. Each of them was only questioned for a few minutes. The allegations were that they had all attended an illegal gathering in Diraz village. All denied the charges. Ebtisam Al-Saegh was among the human rights defenders who were questioned and she and others were informed about a travel ban against them.
g) Ebtisam Al-Saegh was summoned and interrogated by National Security Agency (NSA) at Muharraq police station on 26 May 2017. She went to the police station at 4 pm. She was questioned about her human rights work in and outside of Bahrain and about her participation in the UN Human Rights Council two months earlier. She said that she was forced to stand during most of the interrogation, she was blindfolded, severely beaten and sexually assaulted. Ebtisam also said that she was threatened with rape and that there were threats against her children and her husband if she does not stop her human rights activities. She described what happened in detail to Amnesty International. She was released and immediately taken to hospital, because she was under shock and unable to walk.
3. Current detention of Ebtisam Al-Saegh
a) Ebitsam Al-Saegh was arrested on 3 July 2017 at 11:45pm. About 25 masked officers in civilian clothes raided her house in Jid Ill (south of Manama). It is believed that these officers belonged to Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID). The officers did not present an arrest warrant. When they took Ebtisam Al-Saegh, they did not tell her the reason for her arrest. Amnesty International is convinced that she was arrested for her human rights work. She had retweeted tweets about the NSA’s ill-treatment of women the day before. These tweets claimed that the King is responsible for their treatment.
On the next day (4 July) Ebtisam Al-Saegh had a chance to call her family. She told them that she was held in solitary confinement and that she was under great pressure to confess. According to Amnesty International Ebitsam suffers from irritabel bowel syndrome and other medical conditions. On 6 July the police raided her house again and seized all mobile phones. As explanation for their actions they told her family “your mother didn’t cooperate with us”.
Considering her previous experience, in particular her interrogation on the 25 May 2017, Ebitisam Al-Saegh is at high risk of torture including sexual assault.
b) Ebtisam Al-Saegh has been interrogated for 12 to 13 hours daily since her arrest. She went on hunger strike to protest her arrest, the lack of access to her family and the fact that her lawyer was not allowed to be present during her interrogations.
On 10 July in the evening her health deteriorated and she was taken to the Ministry of Interior hospital in al-Quala for treatment. Nabeel Rajab who was arrested more than a year ago and who is also ill, saw her in hospital. He told his son Adam Rajab about this encounter and his report is quite worrying:
On 11 July Ebtisam Al-Saegh called her family again from Isa Town detention centre where she is held between the interrogations in solitary confinement.
According to reports she was interrogated for 18 hours on 12 July. NSA took her from her cell at 9 am and did not return her to her cell until 3 am the following day. On 13 July she was taken for interrogation at 12 noon and was brought back at 3 am. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) reports that inmates could hear her screaming. crying and banging on her door at solitary confinement.
Her husband was able to visit her on 16 July and said she was in a wheelchair during the visit.
c) On the 14 July the Embassy of Bahrain, London, published the following statement about Ebtisam Al-Saegh:
The embassy basically denies that there was any sexual harassment against her and also denies that charges have “bearing on her views” or “political opinions”, but alleges that she is held on charges relating to terrorism.
Amnesty International and other human rights organisations see this as a smear campaign and Samah Hadid, Director of Campaigns for the Middle East at Amnesty International states the following:
“Ebtisam al-Saegh is a prisoner of conscience who must be immediately and unconditionally released. Her only ‘crime’, is her bravery in challenging the government’s appalling human rights record. By charging her with terrorism for her work on human rights, the Bahraini government is itself attempting to intimidate and silence civil society in Bahrain.”
Ebtisam Al-Saegh was charged on 18 July in the presence of a lawyer by the Terrorism Crimes Prosecution Office with “using human rights work as cover to communicate and cooperate with Al Karma Foundation to provide them with information and fake news about the situation in Bahrain to undermine its status abroad”. She will be detained for six months pending completion of the investigation.
After the recent change of the constitution of Bahrain in April 2017 it is likely that a potential trial against her will be in front of a military court.
d) The Spokesman for the US State Department was asked about Ebtisam Al-Saegh in the Press Briefing on the 13 July. The US State Department stated that they are concerned about her arrest, call for her release and also for independent investigations of the torture and mistreatment allegations.
Also the office of the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner published a statement about Ebtisam Al-Saegh on 18 July: “UN experts urge Bahrain to investigate reports of torture and ill-treatment of rights defender Ebtisam Alsaegh“. They also call for her immediate release and urge the Bahraini government to investigate the torture allegations and to strictly abide by its obligations under international human rights.
4. Please take action for Ebtisam Al-Saegh #FreeEbtisam
Amnesty International has published two urgent action for Ebtisam Al-Saegh. The first one was published on 6 July 2017 (Arrested Defender at Risk of Torture) and the second one on 14 July 2014 (Detained Defender Interrogated Continously).
Please take action for Ebtisam Al-Saegh. Write a letter to the King of Bahrain as well as to the Minister of Interior and send copies of your letters to the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Tweet about her and send your tweets also to the address of the Minister of Interior (@moi_Bahrain) and the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa (@Khaled_Bin_Ali). Use the hashtag #FreeEbtisam.
Please share her story and make sure that also others hear about her.
Amnesty International also launched an online petition for Ebtisam Al-Saegh and Nabeel Rajab. It is called “Stop the torture of human rights defenders in Bahrain“. Please sign and share this petition as well.
Let us stand with Ebtisam Al-Saegh a brave defender of human rights until she is released at last.