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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Update On A Bahraini Revolutionary: How Did You Spend Your Day?

A few months back I interviewed Zanaib Al-Khawja, a young mother and nurse from Bahrain. Her husband, father, brother-in-law and uncle were arrested for their roles in the anti-government protests in April and they are still being detained.

This morning she joined two other young women in an attempt to deliver a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon via the local UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Manama, Bahrain. The two other women were Sawsan Jawad, who I have no biographical information on, and Asma Darwish. Asma is a 20-year-old student at the Polytechnic University in Manama. She is also the sister of a 23-year-old professional photographer who was arrested May 22 and who has not been seen since. Police broke into Asma's family's home in the middle of the night, terrorized the family and ransacked their belongings while arresting her brother. Zanaib was on a hunger strike a few months ago until her health deteriorated dangerously. Asma had been on a hunger strike for the twelve days previous to today.

Compiled from Tweets by Zanaib and Asma, the following is a re-cap of how they spent their day today:

They arrived at the UNDP office shortly after it opened this morning and announced their desire to get their letter delivered to the UN Secretary General. You can read the letter at this link: Letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

They were greeted by a UN representative who told them the UN was working on the situation in Bahrain "publicly and privately" and that he would take their letter. Zanaib replied "We will stay to see what the UN can do for the Bahraini people." To which the still unnamed UN rep replied, "You cannot stay. If you do you will make problems for yourselves, for us and maybe even for your families." This was understandably taken as an implied threat. He then told them he would make them leave forcibly if necessary.

After the women sat down the UN rep left. Within a few minutes Mohammed Ahmed from the UNDP came to talk to them. "Your voices have been heard. There is no reason to stay here. You are putting us in a very difficult position. We may have to call the police if you do not leave. You do realize that next people will say you came here with guns and took over the building." Whether he was sincerely concerned they would be falsely accused or he was warning them of a false accusation to come was not clear. Ahmed did come across as concerned for their welfare and he did offer them food and drinks. He left them alone when they indicated they were not intending to leave.

After some time elapsed (as far as I can tell it was less than an hour) Ahmed returned and told them, "You are welcome to stay here and we can escort you for your safety when you leave." Zanaib informed Ahmed that the women were intending on staying past the time the building closed at 3:00 PM. They were then given papers to sign stating that they would be staying past the closing time, ostensibly for their safety, but the women surmised their signatures would give the police justification to arrest them - they refused to sign. Infuriated, Ahmed left them alone.

An hour or so later, three buses carrying riot police, five female police officers and ten other police vehicles arrived at the UNDP. They were then brought to a local police station where they were held and interrogated (individually) for seven hours. During this time the police confirmed to them that personnel from the UNDP had called to have them removed. The police refused to tell them whether they would be set free or detained.

Several hours later, after getting the women to promise they would not leave the country they were told they would be released. At this point the women continued to sit in their chairs, telling the officers to do "what they needed to do," the officers then indicated it was time for them to go, whether of their own accord or not.

They were then physically removed by five officers each and placed on a bus. For approximately one hour there was no word from them. Their destination or whereabouts were unknown. The last messages received were one from Zanaib who said there were photographers and videographers capturing the scene as they were put on the bus. The other was from Asma who announced to Zanaib that she would be ending her hunger strike at that time.

A full fourteen hours after first arriving at UNDP offices in Manama the three women were released unharmed. Their bravery in the face of a ruthless regime should be a model for all of us.

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