Survivors of torture often reflect on the staggering power of the blindfold. Perhaps unexpectedly, many describe this sensory deprivation as a form of psychological torture as paralyzing and haunting as the violence itself. They cite the helplessness of the unknown, the nagging dread of what’s next, and the unpredictable flicker between foreboding silences and outbursts of violence, as an enduring trauma that remains lodged in a survivor’s memory long after the physical wounds have healed.
The blindfold heightens every whisper, smell, malicious laugh, scream, or conversation in the room. Every muscle tightens, braced in trepidation as each minute spans hours, as each heartbeat distorts time. Victims feel the heat from any presence in their midst but remain powerless to anticipate the direction of the next blow.
As has been widely reported and even cited in the independent investigation commissioned by the Bahraini monarchy, award-winning international correspondent Nazeeha Saeed was tortured in police custody in 2011. While summoned for questioning related to her reporting, Saeed was allegedly blindfolded, punched, kicked, beaten with a hose pipe, and subjected to electric shocks. One police officer shoved her head in a toilet and a shoe in her mouth; another poured urine on her face, while a third officer forced her to bray like a donkey and walk like an animal, she claimed. When she was finally released after 13 hours, after being coerced into a false confession, Saeed could barely walk.
“Mine was the first case of torture [of dozens of claims against the Bahraini government] to have been investigated by the [Bahraini] judiciary. I had thought that I would get justice but it seems that I shouldn’t have been so hopeful,” Saeed reflected on her exhaustive, two-year legal battle that resulted in the acquittal of the police.
“It’s painful to think that the people who tortured you are free to do it again… When I heard this decision, I started to cry.”
Two weeks ago, a 35-year-old Bahraini detainee, Hassan Jassim Hasan Al-Hayki, died in state custody. His family as well as international human rights organizations are demanding the release of his body amid new allegations of Bahraini state torture.
Al-Hayki is just the latest casualty in the Gulf monarchy’s renewed crackdown on its people. Over the past two months, the Bahraini government has banned the country’s main opposition party, revoked the citizenship of a leading Shia cleric, and imprisoned human rights defenders, including the world renowned activist Nabeel Rajab.
In June, Saeed was prevented from leaving the country, discovering that she had been placed under a travel ban along with human rights activists and opposition members. In July, she was notified that she faces new charges for “unlawfully working in international media.”
“I was surprised. I have no clue what’s next,” Saeed told Women in the World from Manama, the island nation’s capitol city.
In July, 43 international freedom of expression NGOs called on the government of Bahrain to respect press freedom and “to end the reprisals against Nazeeha Saeed, lift her travel ban and drop the charges against her.”
“Bahrain is making criminals of anyone who criticizes the government’s increasingly repressive policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch in a recent press release. “Any government that claims to support press freedom needs to speak out loud and clear in support of Nazeeha Saeed.”
The U.S. State Department has previously recognized Saeed and her struggle for press freedom in Bahrain, even sponsoring her participation in a 2015 State Department conference on journalist safety. However, thus far, the State Department has remained silent on the recent developments of her case.
Though a small island nation, Bahrain is home to America’s Fifth Fleet, a critical base for U.S. military operations in the region. The Fifth Fleet is also seen as a guarantor of the world’s oil supply, given its strategic location in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.
Before the Bahraini monarchy’s 2011 crackdown, the U.S. sold over $1.4 billion in military equipment to Bahrain since 2000. American defense manufacturers, like Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter, have largely benefited from weapons sales to Bahrain; however, in 2011, Bahraini activists exposed how these US-made weapons were used against demonstrators by the Bahraini monarchy.
Both the Arms Export Control Act and the Leahy Law prohibit the U.S. government from approving weapons sales by U.S. defense manufacturers to countries that violate human rights.
The U.S. temporarily suspended $53 million in American arms sales to Bahrain, due to the monarchy’s human rights violations in 2011. By 2015, the State Department resumed much of that military aid to Bahrain, citing positive Bahraini government reforms as well as a perceived need for security cooperation with the Bahraini monarchy in the war against ISIL.
However, this year on June 30th, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators issued a letter to the State Department expressing concern regarding the escalating crackdown in Bahrain. The letter requested further information from the State Department regarding the reform and reconciliation process underway between the Bahraini monarchy and the opposition, upon which the resumption of U.S. arms sales had previously been contingent.
On July 6, however, three House Republicans issued a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, calling for the resumption of military sales to Bahrain. The sales would include equipment from Lockheed Martin Corp, a U.S. defense manufacturer from which each of the three signatory Republicans receives campaign contributions.
The human rights concerns of the U.S. Senators’ letter echo the claims of Bahraini human rights organizations. These activists note that, of the 26 recommended reforms outlined in the reconciliation process, only two have been fully implemented while 24 remain only partially implemented or not implemented at all.
As the U.S. government continues to equivocate on weapons sales to Bahrain, the Bahraini monarchy continues its crackdown, with citizens, like Saeed, fearfully awaiting their fate. Yet, despite the dangerous developments, Saeed and her legal team will continue to attempt to cooperate with authorities.
“What they did changed my life forever… In some people’s eyes, my ordeal has made me a member of the opposition. They are wrong,” wrote Saeed. “I remain a professional, objective journalist. The system tried to make me a victim, but it didn’t succeed.”
Following her ordeal — the torture and failed legal recourse, Nazeeha became an outspoken advocate for other journalists who faced similar oppression. Bahrain ranks 162 out of 180 in World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. At least ten journalists and media workers are jailed in Bahrain today, including Sayed Ahmed Almousawi, Ahmed Humaidan, Hussain Hubail, Mahmoud Al Jaziri, Qassim Zainaldeen, Jaffar Marhoon, Ahmed Zainaldeen, Mustaphpa Rabea, and Houssam Soroor.
“But because the international press have taken an interest in my case, I have been able to draw attention to the fate of journalists here,” Saeed wrote in 2013, reflecting on her case. “Now I have a great goal in my life — to campaign for press freedom. I defend journalists’ rights to report fairly and neutrally. So many other journalists have been beaten and tortured.”