An activist in Bahrain has written an impassioned letter from prison describing her life in a cell with her infant son, just as the country faces growing international pressure to release her.
Zainab al-Khawaja, 32, known as "Angry Arabia" on Twitter, where she posted tweets critical of the Bahraini government in the wake of the Arab Spring, was sent to prison in March with her 17-month-old son, and faces up to three years for tearing up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the country's leader.
In the letter smuggled from prison – and seen by BuzzFeed News – Khawaja describes her detention and her fears about its impact on her child, and makes a plea to Western governments on behalf of those, like her, suffering in a fight for democracy.
"If nothing changes for the people of Bahrain, then my staying in jail or release is not of great consequence," she writes in the letter. "I am a mother with a job. I will carry my baby with me and continue on my path, so that I can clothe him in resilience and feed him in dignity."
She also says: "I am the daughter of a political prisoner and the mother of a political prisoner. But my story was never about my family, and the pain I carry is not the pain of a family but the pain of a people." The letter is believed to have been written shortly before her sister received it last month.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, her sister Maryam said she was surprised when Khawaja was arrested, because Khawaja had been busy with her new baby and hadn't been tweeting. "Neither she nor her baby should be in prison," Maryam said.
Last month, Bahrain's foreign minister told US secretary of state John Kerry the country would release her on humanitarian grounds. Three days ago, the US State Department repeated its call for her release. The UK has not called for her release officially, though a minister at the Foreign Office has said her case has been raised with Bahrain's government "at the highest levels".
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told BuzzFeed News: "The continued detention of Zainab al-Khawaja and her infant exposes the broken promise of Bahrain's foreign minister. [The UK Foreign Office] say they support human rights defenders, but they have failed the defenders in Bahrain. We want to see them start by calling for Zainab's release."
Maryam al-Khawaja sent screenshots of the letter to BuzzFeed News. It is reproduced in full below.
As Hadi dozes off, I quietly get out of bed. I put my folded prayer mat by the bars of my cell so I can get some light to finish reading my book. I underline: "Power in defense of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression, because power, real power comes from conviction which produces action". As I finish underlining I remember– no, I close my eyes and relive a memory, as prisoners often do. I had spent months and months worrying about how my arrest would affect my 6-year-old daughter Jude; and the day had finally come. The police were at the door to take me away. I sat her on my lap and told her that when you do what's good and right, you don't need to be afraid. I told her that I would go to prison but I would be carrying her with me in my heart, and that I would stay in hers. She stared at me silently, her eyes welling up. I got up thinking that I must go fast before they break in. When my husband opened the door, I was glad Jude didn't get a glimpse of how many police officers stood there. What I didn't expect was that, as I was about to leave, my little Jude got up and said "I'll walk you out". She came by my side and held my hand. I walked out the door carrying my baby Hadi on my hip and holding my daughter's hand. As we walked down the stairs, it was hard to be fully aware of all the police walking around us. They were armed and they carried video cameras. Yet they looked so small with their downcast eyes, so weak, so helpless. I looked at Jude; she was the biggest person there. Her eyes wide open, her head held high, going down each step with such determination. Is that the power of truth? That a beautiful, tiny, skinny six-year-old can be towering over dozens of armed men and women in uniform?
"Prison guard Shaikha report to the officer in charge!" I open one eye hoping the loudspeakers didn't disturb Hadi's sleep. He rolls over and continues sleeping. I keep reading my book until I can't sit on the floor any longer. I smile at Hadi; as usual, he takes over the whole bed and leaves me the edge. I get under the cover and curl down beside him, kiss his chubby cheeks and think to myself: "now that's the most adorable cellmate ever," and fall asleep.
I hear banging, very loud voices, orders, and see florescent lights in the cell. I look at Hadi, he's wide awake too. I can tell he's scared; he's not making a sound. I go to the metal bars, but can't see anything except things being thrown out into the corridor from the cell next to mine. It's 1 am. I hug Hadi and sing "you are my sunshine" to calm him down. Then, they get to my cell. "OPEN! CELL 19!"and the electric cell opens. "Whats going on?" I ask. Officer replies "TAFTEESH!" I feel Hadi gripping my clothes. "At this hour?" I protest. "You're scaring my baby". Five prison guards walk by me into the cell, crowding the place.
"Do you have something we can throw your stuff on?" The female officer asks. I look at my father's picture that I stuck with toothpaste on the wall. "Do whatever the hell you want, we're used to your riot police attacking our homes". Hadi stares at a prison guard going through the few baby books that he has, wearing plastic gloves. I look at the colorful pages that I've memorized and see her flipping through them like evidence at a crime scene. My one-year-old hides his face in my neck. I carry him and walk out of the cell. I stand in the corridor whispering prayers into Hadi's ears.
The officer tells me "we know you don't have anything". I stare at her. They know that the only things that doen't belong in this cell are my child and I.
As they leave, memories of my father's arrest flash before my eyes. I rock Hadi back to sleep. He falls asleep and I sit by the metal bars to write this letter.
My name is Zainab Al-Khawaja. I am the daughter of a political prisoner and the mother of a political prisoner. But my story was never about my family, and the pain I carry is not the pain of a family but the pain of a people.
During a visit a couple of weeks back, my husband told me that the Bahraini regime had announced that they would release me and my child for humanitarian reasons. I didn't know how to react, but my first feeling was one of failure. For if all I have achieved is to somehow save myself and my child, while the regime uses my case to come off as "humanitarian," then I have failed. As I thought of that again later in my cell, I remembered the bodies I had seen of protesters killed. Where was the regime's humanity when they shot a 13-year-old child? I heard the cries of mothers as they call out to their children's graves. I have kept those cries in my heart. I recalled the voices of the torture victims, describing the horrors one would not even believe possible. Remembering how their voice would soften, how their voices would crack. How at some instances they would stop speaking, unable to put into words what happened next. I used to bury myself in my notes, unable to look the person in the eye, unable to see all that pain. I remembered the blood, my father's blood, the hundreds of injured protesters' blood, the blood left in the homes of those arrested. I saw all the innocent people, in handcuffs, I saw the anger in their eyes as they sat before a judge with no soul. I heard the pleading in their lawyers' voices: "He is just a child, there is no evidence against him, let him go back to his family before Eid". I looked at the judge's frozen eyes and thought of how many innocent people he had sentenced, how many prisoners he had kicked out of court as soon as they described the torture they were subjected to. I saw a child, who placed her tiny finger on a glass partition separating her from her father. I saw the longing in her father's eyes as he reached out to touch his daughter, holding back tears.
I carried their pain, I still carry their pain. My cause is the cause of my people. If nothing changes for the people of Bahrain, then my staying in jail or release is not of great consequence. I am a mother with a job. I will carry my baby with me and continue on my path, so that I can clothe him in resilience and feed him in dignity.
I think of all those western governments between us and our freedom; those governments who see us suffer for democracy and still support dictatorships in our countries. I remember another line I underlined in my book "She preaches one thing while deceitfully practicing another".
As for people who are trying to help anyone who is oppressed, I send my love and gratitude from behind bars.
Isa Town Women's Prison
20th April 2016