One year ago this month, Ali Abdulemam, a champion of free speech in Bahrain, disappeared. In an interview with an Egyptian newspaper shortly before he vanished, he recalled how a police officer had told him, “I’ve been wanting to drink your blood since the 1990s.”
His offense was setting up Bahrain Online, a web forum where, using pseudonyms, ordinary people could post views about the harsh policies of the royal government.
Despite occasional beatings and detainments by state security forces, Abdulemam, a 34-year-old computer engineer, kept the website alive. By the time of his disappearance, it had 50,000 members and was attracting between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors a day.
“For the first time,” says Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrainis “could speak freely about politics without being arrested.”
But government agents hounded Abdulemam, the father of a six-year-old son and one-year-old twin daughters, even as he became known as the “The Blog Father of Bahrain.”
“‘This is for my people,’ Ali told me when we first met,” says Abdulemam’s wife, Jenan Al Oriaibi. “His family used to tease me, saying Ali has another wife called Bahrain Online.”
In August 2010, their home was raided. Abdulemam and his web team were arrested on charges of “inciting hatred of the government.” They were released after 15 days, but the following month Abdulemam was imprisoned again for “spreading false information.” During his detention, he was fired from his job at Gulf Air, denied a lawyer, interrogated and tortured, according to Reporters without Borders.
After national protests and an international campaign by online activists, the Bahraini government released him almost half a year later on February 23, 2011. A little more than a week earlier, thousands had taken to the streets of Manama, the Bahraini capital, to occupy the Pearl Roundabout and call for democracy and a national dialog between the citizens of Bahrain and the ruling Al-Khalifa family.
No media was officially present, just growing throngs of peaceful protestors singing, reading poetry, and vocalizing their discontent. But an undercover Al Jazeera film crew documented how, two days later at 3 a.m., police armed with shotguns and clubs began to evict sleeping protestors, including women and children.
That was the beginning of the Pearl Revolution, marked by injuries to hundreds, shot with rubber bullets, clubbed, and tear-gassed. The Minister of Health ordered hospitals not to send paramedics to tend injured protestors, according to the report by Al Jazeera’s undercover film crew. Some paramedics caught trying to help the injured were beaten, and four protestors were killed in the first few days.
Detention had not crushed Abdulemam’s revolutionary spirit. The Pearl Roundabout, says Al Oraibi, "was the first place Ali visited after his release. The whole family was there at 4 a.m. Ali was holding our son who was wearing the flag of Bahrain.” Abdulemam immediately jumped back into the political arena to discuss, publicly, the widespread Arab uprisings. He accepted a speaking role at the 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum, but had vanished by the time it opened in May.
By mid-March, the government had begun arresting activists again. “Ali knew it was his turn soon,” says Al Oriabi. “The last thing he said was, ‘I will disappear and I prefer that you don’t know where.’”
After his March 18 disappearance, heavily-armed police raided his home and confiscated his computers and records. His wife and children have not lived there since the raid. “Our son, Murtadha, keeps begging to go back to our house. I say to myself I am strong enough to overcome this, but seeing the grief and pain in Murthadha’s eyes weakens me.”
Both the Bahrain Defense Force and the Ministry of Interior deny that Abdulemam is in their custody and insist he is a fugitive. Abdulemam was tried in absentia by a military court in June 2011, along with twenty prominent Bahraini opposition figures. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly plotting an anti-government coup.
The Bahraini uprising has been ignored by Arab leaders and world elites. The Gulf Cooperation Council was quick to denounce Libya’s Gaddafi as “illegitimate,” but when Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim rulers called for a state of emergency, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates led a military force of thousands into Bahrain to help the government restore order.
The people in the Pearl Roundabout were not deterred by lack of international solidarity. Funeral processions turned into protest marches, despite persistent attacks. Government hardliners claimed that the protestors–most of them Shia Muslim, the national majority–had sectarian motives.
“Nobody wants an Islamic state,” says Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “We are a country that has Shia and Sunni. We can’t have one side ruling the other....Currently, 60-70 percent of the Bahraini government’s cabinet is from one family. That has to change.”
Since 2010, the numbers of detainees has tripled to 1,500, according to the Bahrian Center for Human Rights. And following last February’s uprising, the use of torture, including electric shock, suspension in painful positions, and threats of death and rape, has soared, according to Human Rights Watch.
The 2010 Human Rights Report from the U.S. State Department named Ali Abdulemam as an activist detained by the Bahraini government. There has been no further official U.S. government mention of him.
Abdulemam’s absence at his trial suggests two possible explanations: Either he was tortured so badly that the government did not want to present him in his current state, or he had not been arrested at all.
Meanwhile, his last contact with the world came from his Twitter account @Abdulemam on March 17, 2011: I get tired from my phone so I switched it of no need for rumors plz.
As some bloggers have indicated, the geographic coordinates of his last tweet, 26.267457, 50.618742, are nowhere near his home.