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A whole lot of Bahraini Political Prisoners Freed in ‘Bittersweet’ Royal Pardon

When Naji Fateel was arrested within the aftermath of Bahrain’s Arab Spring rebellion, his youngest son, Nidal, was a toddler.

Final month, when Mr. Fateel left jail — driving a bus full of inmates freed by a shock royal pardon — the Nidal who greeted him was a teen. Mr. Fateel, 49, a human rights activist, embraced his son and emerged, dazed, right into a life without end modified.

“It was an indescribable second,” he mentioned, “the primary hug after freedom.”

After greater than a decade in jail, Mr. Fateel was launched in a mass pardon in April that included greater than 1,500 prisoners — the most important pardon for the reason that reign of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain started in 1999.

The federal government’s media workplace wouldn’t disclose how many individuals stay behind bars in Bahrain, an island nation within the Persian Gulf. However the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a human rights group run by Bahraini exiles, estimates that the pardon freed greater than half of the nation’s jail inhabitants, together with greater than 600 political prisoners.

A lot of them, together with Mr. Fateel, have been jailed after becoming a member of pro-democracy protests in 2011 that advanced into an prolonged rebellion and have been crushed by the authoritarian monarchy, a key American ally, with the assistance of neighboring militaries.

The Bahraini authorities described the pardon as a benevolent gesture from the king on the twenty fifth anniversary of his ascension, saying that it was accomplished to “preserve the cohesion and stability of the Bahraini society.” The pardoned people, it mentioned, had been convicted in “riot and felony instances,” and Bahraini officers have denied that any prisoners are held for political causes.

However Bahraini human rights activists mentioned that the pardon, whereas welcome, was incomplete, and known as for the discharge of a number of opposition leaders who’re nonetheless jailed. The pardon got here two weeks after the dying of a Bahraini inmate in his 30s set off protests amongst prisoners and within the streets.

Fury and grief over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza had deepened political tensions in Bahrain and lots of different Arab nations, bringing the hole between leaders and their residents into the sharpest focus in years.

Even earlier than the struggle, analysts and activists have mentioned, Bahrain had been on edge due to friction between the federal government and opposition actions that has persevered for the reason that pro-democracy rebellion was put down. In August, a whole lot of prisoners staged a mass starvation strike that lasted for weeks, prompting road protests.

After the inmate who died, Hussain Khalil Ibrahim, collapsed of a coronary heart assault whereas enjoying soccer, Mr. Fateel led a bunch of prisoners who tried to barter with the jail administration over their attainable launch, he mentioned, arguing that it was unthinkable to stay jailed “whereas we see our comrades fall, one after the other.” Inmates accused the authorities of persistent medical neglect.

The Bahraini authorities mentioned that Mr. Ibrahim had acquired common medical therapy and had hypertension and different circumstances, including that it was dedicated to “offering built-in well being care to all inmates.”

In an interview after his launch, Mr. Fateel mentioned the years that he spent behind bars have been characterised by “oppression, ache and heartbreak.”

Prosecutors had accused him of being a number one organizer of the Arab Spring protests attempting to overthrow the federal government, and Bahraini activists and Western politicians spent years calling for his launch. Initially sentenced to fifteen years in jail, he was accused of inciting riots inside jail and sentenced to a different 10 years. Mr. Fateel has denied the costs, calling them “politicized,” and mentioned that his confessions have been extracted underneath torture.

A U.N. working group that reviewed his case decided that his imprisonment was arbitrary, and mentioned that the federal government “failed to ascertain a authorized foundation” for his detention. The identical working group documented accusations that Mr. Fateel was tortured, together with by beating and electrocution.

In its response to the working group, the federal government mentioned that Mr. Fateel was a “member of a terrorist cell” and that allegations of his mistreatment have been “unsubstantiated.”

Mr. Fateel, 38 when he was arrested, spent his fortieth birthday behind bars, and anticipated to spend his fiftieth there as nicely, separated from his 5 youngsters.

Final month, when he heard there could be a royal pardon, “it was the happiest information in my life,” he mentioned.

Hamed Al-Mahfouz, 41, who was launched within the pardon, mentioned that he felt conflicted when he realized that he can be launched whereas others wouldn’t.

“I left behind brothers, and I really feel sorry for them,” he mentioned. “However it’s a pleasure to satisfy family members.”

Mr. Al-Mahfouz was 28 when he was arrested. Prosecutors accused him of main a terrorist cell and speaking with Iranian officers. He thought he introduced the courtroom with “conclusive proof” proving his innocence, he mentioned, however he was sentenced to fifteen years in jail and his citizenship was revoked.

When phrase of a royal pardon got here, his spouse, Iman Hussein, mentioned she initially misplaced hope that her husband can be amongst these launched. Then she started “screaming with pleasure” when a relative despatched her a video of freed prisoners that confirmed her husband, she mentioned. Bahraini human rights activists had shared videos of individuals cheering within the streets as buses unloaded the inmates.

Whereas Mr. Al-Mahfouz was pleased to be residence, he mentioned that he was unsure what may lie forward, and that he hoped he would get compensation “for the years I misplaced” and assist discovering a job.

The federal government mentioned in an announcement {that a} reintegration program would help launched prisoners with an “array of instructional and coaching packages, job alternatives and focused interventions the place wanted to assist handle the transition again into society.”

Mr. Fateel mentioned that it was tough to think about his future.

“I deliberate in jail and made initiatives and eventualities for after my launch,” he mentioned. “However after I got here out, I used to be nonetheless in disbelief.”

He discovered that life outdoors had moved on with out him — he struggled to make use of a smartphone, and even forks and spoons appeared novel after years of consuming along with his fingers, he mentioned. He didn’t know his daughters’ husbands, and he met grandchildren who had been born whereas he was in jail. He mentioned that he valued the pardon, however hoped that the federal government would take steps to handle the “ethical, psychological and materials injury” that prisoners had suffered.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy believes that there are nonetheless greater than 500 political prisoners detained, together with a number of distinguished Bahraini opposition figures like Hassan Mushaima, 76, the previous chief of the Haq Motion for Liberty and Democracy, and Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, a twin Bahraini-Danish citizen and human rights activist.

“These are bittersweet releases as a result of these are nonetheless left behind,” mentioned Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the institute’s advocacy director.

Nonetheless, Nabeel Rajab, 59, a Bahraini human rights activist who was himself launched from jail in 2020, mentioned that the releasing of so many prisoners was optimistic.

“The royal pardon gave us hope for a brand new starting,” he mentioned.

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