ROME – Bahraini activist Ali Mashaima and his father Hassan, who has been behind bars since 2011, have urged Pope Francis to publicly condemn what they say are human rights violations and poor treatment of prisoners during his upcoming visit to Bahrain.
Speaking to Crux, Mashaima said he does not think the pope should go to Bahrain, but that if he does, “I want him to tell the king very clear, I don’t agree with you arresting scholars and human rights’ defenders and revoking the nationality of Bahraini citizens. You will not make a strong case for dialogue if you attack your own people.”
If the pope visits Bahrain and does not speak out against what Mashaima and many other activists say are negligent treatment of inmates, torture, religious discrimination, and political arrests, “he will indirectly give a blessing to the king to continue human rights violations,” Mashaima said.
Mashaima has become an internationally recognized figure due to his advocacy on behalf of his father, Hassan Mashaima, 73, who is one of the so-called “Bahrain Thirteen,” which refers to 13 Bahraini opposition leaders, activists, bloggers, and Shia clerics who were arrested between March 17 and April 9, 2011, in connection with their role in the national pro-democracy protests that year led by the country’s Shia majority at the height of the region’s “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Despite his advanced age, Hassan Mashaima was given a life sentence for his role in the anti-government protests, which were crushed by the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family, which in the years since has managed to keep a lid on unrest and has closed many Shia-led opposition groups and jailed numerous activists.
In one of their most contested moves, Bahraini rulers have refused to make power-sharing concessions to the Shia majority, and national authorities have convicted hundreds on terrorism charges in mass trials.
While Bahraini leaders have accused the opposition of undermining national security, pro-democracy advocates have referred to the Al Khalifa family rule as a dictatorship where basic rights such as freedom of speech and assembly are nonexistent, and where any form of dissent is met with fierce resistance.
Ali Mashaima lives in London, after Bahrain charged him in absentia to 45 years in prison and revoked his citizenship in November 2012 due to his public opposition to the Bahraini government and leadership.
Mashaima told Crux his first taste of the force used by the Bahrain regime was when he was arrested at 15 for joining a protest, and stayed behind bars for 18 months.
“At that time, I was not that man who understood the situation deeply, the political situation or human rights in general. But because I just joined a protest at that time, me and many young people were arrested,” he said.
In a written testimony after his arrest in 2011, Hassan Mashaima recounted his own arrest in 2011, saying police came to his home at two o’ clock in the morning, blindfolded him, and put him into a van, where, he said, he received “beating, humiliation, insults and verbal abuse.”
Hassan, in his testimony, said that when they reached the prison, “I received another reception party of beating and punching all over my body and especially on my head and ears. They spat on me and pushed me until I fell and was injured.”
That first night, Hassan said he was consistently beaten and insulted, and was made to stand in the cold until he felt sick, while prison guards poured cold water over his body. He said masked men came to his cell at midnight, turned the air conditioning on, and poured cold water over his body.
“I stayed shaking from the cold and unable to sleep although I was very exhausted,” he said, saying the next night guards came at night and hit the metal grid of his cell with hard objects to make loud “disturbing” sounds, and he was later mocked and beaten.
Hassan said that “this degrading treatment continued, and the series of intimidation and torture continued on a daily basis,” making it hard for him to sleep, and he was denied showers for days at a time and forced to stand for hours against a wall without moving, even after water was poured on his body.
According to the testimony, Hassan’s trial took place at dawn over a period of days, while masked men insulted him and threatened his family. After being drug out of his room at three o’ clock in the morning and being asked by a Royal Court official to make a televised apology, Hassan said his refusal was met with more threats, sexual harassment, and beatings.
Mashaima said his father has also been denied medical treatment, such as routine screenings to see if a cancer he was cured from has returned, treatment for high blood pressure, and dental visits for toothaches and lost teeth.
“For me, this is slowly killing, when you stop giving medicine or you stop giving medical treatment at this age, it’s like you are killing me, indirectly,” Mashaima said. “That’s why I am still fighting for my dad and for my country as well.”
In comments to Crux, a spokesperson for the Bahraini government said that its criminal justice system operates “in full compliance with international law and in line with U.N. human rights principles.”
“Inmates have their legal rights guaranteed throughout the trial process and sentence, including full rights of appeal,” the spokesperson said, insisting that the government of Bahrain “has a zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind.”
To this end, they said the government has put into place “internationally recognized human rights safeguards, including the establishment of independent bodies to conduct investigations and undertake periodic inspections of prison conditions and inmates’ welfare.”
Inmates, including Hassan Mashaima, have “full access to healthcare,” including specialist visits when necessary, the spokesperson said, saying any allegations of mistreatment “are fully investigated, and public reports are issued with recommendations based on the findings.”
Yet Mashaima insists otherwise, and to plead his father’s case, he has advocated on social media and has spoken to the international press. In 2018, he conducted a hunger strike for 46 days, sleeping in the street outside the Bahraini Embassy in London for 63 days. He did another, 23-day hunger strike in December 2021.
Thanks in large part to Mashaima’s advocacy, his father’s case has been reported on by international media and has been mentioned by rights organizations such as Amnesty International, as well as the European Parliament and the UK Parliament in discussions on human rights in Bahrain and the treatment of political prisoners.
Mashaima said he has also written a letter to Pope Francis asking him to intervene, and that his father has also sent a message to the pope from prison, asking him to stand with the oppressed in the face of “repressive tyrants.”
“There is no doubt that the ruler in Bahrain benefits from your visit and is proud of his pretense of promoting a culture of dialogue, coexistence, tolerance and support for brotherhood and humanity, which the Bahraini people lack and see only on the pages of newspapers and state media, which are entirely subject to the authority’s agenda and directives,” Hassan said in his appeal.
He said the king’s claims of pluralism, diversity of opinions, tolerance, and love are “disproven by evidence and events which have played out over the years.”
“I am one of the opposition figures who was sentenced in the military court after being subjected to torture even though we are not soldiers, because of our demand for freedom and justice. In short, the system is a totalitarian dictatorship,” Hassan said, asking the pope, “What is your position that history will record?”
While their advocacy is not based on their Shia faith, Mashaima said this is also an element of religious persecution in Bahrain that must be addressed.
Noting that the pope’s Nov. 3-6 visit will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the revoking of his citizenship, Mashaima told Crux that on the same day, the citizenship of two prominent Shia ayatollahs was also revoked.
Some months later, Bahrain’s only remaining Shia ayatollah – the most prestigious title a Shia cleric and scholar can attain – was also exiled, meaning there are no more left in the country.
“When the pope visited Iraq, he visited Ayatollah Sistani, and if he goes anywhere, he will meet with the religious people from that place, but in Bahrain he will not meet with the Bahrain ayatollah because they are not in Bahrain, they cannot go back,” Mashaima said.
He said the Bahraini army, at the order of the ruling Al Khalifa family, also destroyed 36 Shia mosques in 2012, in the wake of the 2011 uprising.
“Now how can they talk about tolerance and dialogue between the east and west, when he cannot do that with his own people?” Mashaima asked, voicing his belief that if the pope visits Bahrain, “he indirectly gives the King legitimacy to continue his human rights violations against his people.”
“Unless he will go demand publicly for the release of all clerics, and to give people their basic rights in the country,” it will send the wrong message, he said.
“So, I want to ask him to visit my dad, I want him to tell the king very clear, I don’t agree with you arresting scholars and human rights defenders and revoking the nationality of Bahraini citizens. You will not make a strong case for dialogue if you attack your own people,” Mashaima said.
He voiced his belief that “this is the least the pope can do, and I think if he mentions these cases clearly to the king, maybe something will change.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen