To know the Arab blogosphere, you need to know Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who spent more time in jail than in blogging in the past year. He is one of the fathers of Arab blogging and Bahrain's most famous blogger as he was the founder of Bahrain Online, a forum that the regime blocked in 2002. When Ali’s name comes up, we think of a man who had the courage to challenge the criminal authorities and thus became not only an opposition figure but also an icon for his people and a voice to their struggle. His cell, where he was kept since September 2010 until February 2011, symbolized the oppression that a new generation is facing in Bahrain.
As we are witnessing the case of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdelfatah challenging the military junta in post-revolution Egypt by refusing to accredit their military trials of civilians and answering their questions, we need to remember that 6 years ago, Ali Abdulemam went through the same challenge when he and his fellow Bahraini blogger Hussain Yousef refused to be bailed out because they did not want to admit to the system and its false accusations. Ali, after his release last February, has disappeared and was sentenced to 15 years in jail for ‘spreading false information and trying to subvert the regime’. Surely, just the way he was denied a lawyer when he was imprisoned last year, Ali like all other Bahrainis after the uprising, was denied a fair trial and was sentenced in absentia.
When speaking to Hussain Yousef about how he and Ali refused to be bailed out back in 2005, he narrated the story in details:
“It was March 2005, we heard of a solidarity protest that took place in front of the police station where we were jailed (Al-Qathibiya police station). We were worried about the safety of the protesters. The long interrogation sessions ended with us and Wael Bualai. They faced us with seven charges. Our lawyers said these charges will lead to the sum up of 107 years in jail! We were laughing at those charges that regimes usually use to kill freedom of speech, such as insulting the king or the royal family, spreading false information, threatening national security, attempting to subvert the regime etc. We rejected the charges, decided to go on a hunger strike, and leaked our news out somehow. We heard that the king was out of the country and that he was faced with our case by journalists wherever he went. Free people stood in solidarity with us from all over the world and Bahrain human rights center did a great job campaigning for us. Statements came out from different organizations and we continued with our hunger strike.
Then, the Interior minister sent someone to ask us to sign an apology to let us out. I asked: for whom? For the king? Or for the people? If it is for the king then let his palace ask us so, and if it is for people, let the parliament come and talk to us. I asked him in return for an apology and told him that we are on a hunger strike and that if we die it will be his responsibility and the responsibility of those who asked to jail us. He offered to bail us out for 1000 Bahraini dinars (around 3000$), and again I rejected. I was taken back to the cell, I explained the situation to my friends, and we agreed. That night we were taken to somewhere unknown and dark. Our eyes were open when we got into the bus and we had intensive security around us and a wave of cars followed us to the new place where we met a person in civilian clothes. The guy started to threaten to put each of us in a separate cell, I asked him who he was and we figured out that he was someone brought back from his vacation just to deal with us. We asked to call our lawyer to inform him of our place and he said no one would know of our place. I said it will be his responsibility if we die and the whole world will know about it. Ali called one of our lawyers. Suddenly, they treated us differently, asked us which cells we like, and we were released the following day. It was the statement of the American Association of Journalists that scared them and we knew more about the calls of the American embassy by reading the cable documents that came out last month through wiki leaks.”
This is an interesting phenomenon that we are witnessing; bloggers are going head-to-head against dictatorships and wrestling their ways out even if they were left alone. It is truly disappointing to see bloggers still getting jailed, tortured, and/or brutalized in the Middle East after the uprisings. Iran, Egypt, and Syria are only behind China when it comes to the number of bloggers and cyber activists harassed or arrested. Saudi Arabia has recently arrested, later released, three vloggers for making an episode on poverty, Kuwait interrogated and arrested five twitter users this year, while a ‘retweet’ in Bahrain might get you interrogated or even jailed.
When speaking with Nasser Weddady, the Mauritanian blogger and activist talked to us about the campaign he launched: “When Ali was arrested in September 2010, Arab bloggers and others from around the globe created one of the nosiest campaigns to demand his release by putting together a showcase for advocates rising through different platforms and multiple mediums.” In comment on what both Ali and Alaa are doing, Weddady added: “This is for liberty; it is a moral stand. These two bloggers chose their principles over their freedoms. It is not about politics, it is about principles.”
Weddady exclaimed: “Ali is a delicate case; he is not a member of a political party because he is above the frame. He was targeted by the regime because when he speaks, there’s a huge blogging community that listens to what he has to say; he has international respect. The stand of world’s democracies towards Ali’s case is shameful. His fate hinges on the world’s complacency towards Bahrain’s dictatorship. We need to realize that this is not only an Arab cause, it is a global one.”
Ali Abdulemam is not a case of his own; he is the face of his people, his generation, and a true example of how online free speech is getting raped by regimes in the Middle East. Founding the Bahrain Online forum in 1998 was a tunnel that Ali digged for Bahrainis to walk out to the world. Revealing his identity in 2002 was seen as a mix of insane courage and suicidal wrestling against a brutal regime. Refusing to be bailed out in 2005, losing his job, and living the nightmare of Bahraini prison in 2010 are all factors that make the world owe this man more than silence. It is a shame how the Arab world and the globe in general are watching the crimes done against Ali and his people, adding water on their revolution to die off. With memory we try to fight for Ali Abdulemam and with spoken words the world should get the Bahraini regime to stop its crimes and to respect the sacred human right of free speech.