On July 23, 2012, Jehad Sadeq Aziz Salman and Ebrahim Ahmed Radi al-Moqdad took to the streets of the Bahraini capital Manama’s suburbs. The potent memories of the Arab Spring still lingered in the air of the suburb Bilad al-Qadeem, and, swept up in this fervor, Jehad and Ebrahim left home to take part in an anti-government protest. Just a few hours after they arrived at the protest, they were taken away by the police and never returned home. At the time, they were just 15 and 16.
Security forces arrested Jehad and Ebrahim along with three older men, taking them to the Criminal Investigations Directorate for interrogation and then to the Public Prosecution Office for further questioning. In that time, the boys appear to have been the victims of unnecessary force: Jehad later told his family that he was beaten over the back of the head with a gun butt en route to the police station. Without a lawyer or family member present, the two were forced to sign confessions. In a statement to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Ebrahim claimed to have been “taken to a burnt armored vehicle where he was given a script to read while being videotaped, confessing to burning it.” They were then formally charged under the Bahrain Penal Code and a 2006 anti-terrorist law — a law heavily criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Office — with charges ranging from “intending to murder” to “illegal gathering and rioting” among others. Months later, on October 16, 2012 and April 4, 2013, the High Criminal Court in Manama issued a guilty verdict for Jehad and Ebrahim, sentencing the two teenagers to a 10-year prison sentence. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests, many Bahraini youths have shared their fate.
Those events took place in the context of the escalation of anti-government sentiment in Bahrain, where Arab Spring protests began in February 2011 and were centered upon calls for an elected Parliament and a new constitution. After the killing of demonstrators at the Pearl Roundabout, protests demand the end of the Al Khalifa family’s rule. One month into the uprising, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorized the interference of some 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Then, just three months before the arrests of Jehad and Ebrahim, as the world’s Formula One Racing community congregated in Manama for the Grand Prix, anti-government activists hurled petrol at security forces and burned pyres near the track. Soon after, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the prominent anti-government activist who was given a life sentence, ended his 110-day hunger strike in prison. Though the Biladal-Qadeem protests occurred in midsummer, to the protesters, it still very much felt like Spring.
The story of Jehad and Ebrahim is representative of the struggle for human rights — and particularly youth rights — in Bahrain. Their struggle for political expression and the right of assembly has transformed into a struggle for a more just legal system that respects child rights. Because so much political opposition continues to originate from Bahraini youth, the struggle of Jehad and Ebrahim reveals that the protection of political expression is synonymous with the protection of Bahraini children.
Despite its supposed adherence to the CRC and numerous calls from international organizations to reestablish 18 as the legal age of adulthood, Bahrain continues to try citizens as young as 15 as adults.
Furthermore, while the Arab Spring’s impact on lives in the Middle Eastern writ large is undeniable, it particularly affected the youth in countries like Bahrain where it was strongly felt. So, in the movement’s wake, children’s rights in the country have taken on an even greater meaning. Disproportionately, Middle Eastern youth have been the victims of low wages, high unemployment, and high food prices. Moreover, thanks to unprecedented global interconnectedness through media and technology, this demographic has been exposed to images that challenge the status quo of its government.
Since the Arab Spring protests, trial and imprisonment have become flawed tools of silencing political dissidents. In 2011, Bahraini King Al Khalifa established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate allegations of human rights abuse. The BICI found that hundreds of people had been convicted of charges related to the rights of free expression and peaceful assembly, and it called for the convictions of all those charged with offences related to political expression and advocacy dropped. However, Bahraini youth continue to pay the price of exercising their freedom to protest: Over 200 minors are currently in Bahraini prisons, and 100 of them are kept in adult facilities. Among them are Jehad and Ebrahim, housed in Bloc 3 of Jaw Prison. Moreover, since Jehad and Ebrahim’s arrests, the trend of youth arrests has not reversed. 2015, regarded as the worst year for the right to freedom of assembly since 2011, saw 1765 arbitrary arrests by Bahraini authorities for political reasons; of these, 120 were children.
Bahraini legal practices are direct contraventions of international human rights laws — laws that Bahrain has ostensibly subscribed to in several multilateral agreements. In 1992, Bahrain, along with 140 other international signatories, ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In signing the CRC, governments pledged to protect children from ill treatment and torture and, when detaining is necessary, to give individuals under 18 years of age special protections, including separation from adults in detention. Indeed, the housing of juveniles in adult facilities has been proven both detrimental and dangerous to the adolescent: Data collected from the United States shows that juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility. Despite its supposed adherence to the CRC and numerous calls from international organizations to reestablish 18 as the legal age of adulthood, Bahrain continues to try citizens as young as 15 as adults.
In Jaw Prison in May 2014, a fight broke out in Jehad and Ebrahim’s cell. Prison guards were caught beating some of the young men in the cell, possibly including Jehad. Fourteen prisoners, among them Jehad, were later placed into solitary confinement; as a result, Jehad missed his first appeal on May 20. Jaw Prison’s affinity for solitary, a practice increasingly accepted as a form of torture, is all the more terrifying when it is used on juveniles. As Laura Dimon of The Atlantic notes, “If solitary confinement is enough to fracture a grown man, it can shatter a juvenile.” Solitary confinement is a huge risk to juveniles: data shows that they are 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in a general population with other inmates. Approximately half of all suicides in the juvenile criminal system take place when a young person is held in solitary. Obviously, Bahrain is not alone in its proclivity for juvenile solitary confinement, but the Bahraini situation is a unique case because so many of the Bahraini youth prison population are imprisoned due to political participation. As the sources of political discontent remain, there is little reason to believe that this will change in the near future.
The case of Jehad and Ebrahim shines an ironic light on the subject of youth political participation. Whereas in much of the West, youth political participation is encouraged, in Bahrain, that participation is seen as toxic. The international media has portrayed the Arab Spring as a victory for Middle Eastern youth while ignoring the unintended and unanticipated side effects of political expression in a country like Bahrain. The government of King Hamad continues to use legal persecution to silence dissent, a practice that disproportionately endangers youth, the driving force behind one of the most influential political movements of our time. As long as the Bahraini criminal justice system continues to be used as a political silencing tool, Bahraini youth will remain victims of the status quo against which they so bravely protest.