Canadian jailed for protesting in Bahrain
Tue Oct 25 2011
Naser al-Raas remembers the cramped office, the beatings, and the small gun pointed at his head. He remembers the cables used to tie his hands behind a chair and the blindfold fastened around his face.
He remembers the ambush at Bahrain International Airport on March 20, just as he was preparing to present his Canadian passport to customs and fly to Kuwait, where he was born.
He remembers three mock executions held under the desert sun. And he remembers the dingy cell in the notorious Al Qala prison, where he said he spent more than a month in solitary confinement, beaten and electrocuted daily, the screams of other tortured prisoners echoing through the halls.
Now on Wednesday, nearly six months after he was inexplicably released from that cell, authorities are set to enter his in-laws’ home in Bahrain — where he is staying with his Bahraini fiancée Zainab — and steer him to prison, for a five-year term for participating in antiregime demonstrations that swept the country beginning in February. At least 30 people have been reported killed in the crackdown.
Al-Raas was sentenced by a civilian court Tuesday for violating Bahrain’s illegal-assembly laws. A defence lawyer in Bahrain said he was one of 13 people sentenced to jail terms for links to anti-government protests and unrest in the Gulf kingdom.
The 28-year-old lived in Ottawa from 1996 to 2000, and his mother and brother are still there. He now works as an IT specialist in Kuwait.
Al-Raas had arrived in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain on March 6 amid a countrywide crackdown on Shiites protesting against the Sunni monarchy.
“I didn’t chant against the government; it’s not my business,” he told the Star. “The country was in chaos.”
But when he tried to return to Kuwait two weeks later, he said, he was whisked away by men from Bahrain’s National Security Agency, an intelligence wing of the Ministry of the Interior.
Over the course of his imprisonment, al-Raas said he was beaten daily with a rubber hose. He also suffered excruciating chest pain. Al-Raas has pulmonary hypertension, a heart and lung condition.
His torture in Bahrain is recorded in a medical report filed by Doctors Without Borders obtained by the Star.
When he was released on April 28, al-Raas stripped off his prisoners’ garb and put on the Ottawa Senators T-shirt he’d worn to the airport. He said he made a forced on-camera confession to spying for the Iranian government. Then he was dumped in the street outside the prison, given back his glasses and wallet and told to take a taxi home.
“It was like science fiction,” he said.
Over the next month he petitioned Bahraini officials for his passport, which had been taken during his arrest. When, finally, officials told him to retrieve his passport on June 7, he said he was arrested and beaten again, and this time warned not to contact Canadian authorities.
He was charged that day in the kidnapping of a Bahraini police officer, an accusation he denies, and taken to a military court. He was eventually acquitted on Oct. 4.
But before then, he was also hit with civil charges for “gathering” and “spreading false news.” The guilty verdict and five-year sentence were handed down Tuesday.
Whether or not al-Raas joined protesters, his sentence violates his “fundamental rights to human expression,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
During his military trials, al-Raas said he received regular visits from Canada’s consul in Saudi Arabia, Michael Erdman, but couldn’t get a new passport to leave the country. Canada does not have diplomatic representation in Bahrain.
Neve said he raised al-Raas’ case with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s office earlier this month.
“While it’s clear the Canadian government has been giving the case some attention, there’s no indication it’s been given high-level attention,” Neve said. “That’s what we’re looking for now with a verdict in.”
The foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Unsure of his fate, al-Raas hopes his case will bring to light human rights abuses in Bahrain.
“I know how people suffer,” he said. “I know what dictatorship means now. When you hear a man being tortured till he dies, it’s worse than being tortured.”
A Canadian who says he was tortured while detained in a Bahrain prison fears he will die in custody when he returns to jail this week to begin serving a five-year sentence: here.
BAHRAIN: Female teacher re-arrest exposes human rights abuse as others recount torture: here.
Bahrain: 17 malicious cases and jail terms for 96-years for prisoner of conscience, Sheikh Mohammed Habib Almiqdad: here.