Tribunal sends Bahrain protester to prison

— A 20-year-old woman who recited poems critical of Bahrain’s rulers — and later claimed she was beaten in jail — was sentenced Sunday to a year in prison as part of the kingdom’s crackdown on Shiite protesters calling for greater rights.

The ruling by a special security tribunal sent a strong message that Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy is not easing off on punishments linked to the unrest despite appeals for talks with Shiite groups in the strategic Persian Gulf island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Ayat al-Qurmezi became a minor celebrity among protesters after reciting poems critical of Bahrain’s king and prime minister during gatherings in the capital’s Pearl Square, which was the hub for Shiite-led demonstrations that broke out in February after drawing inspiration from the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

One verse, addressed to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, included the lines: “We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. Don’t you hear their cries? Don’t you hear their screams?”

She was convicted of anti-state charges, including inciting hatred, the official Bahrain News Agency reported. Her mother, Sada al-Qurmezi, said an appeal is planned.

The court’s decision drew sharp denunciations from opposition groups and the international rights group Amnesty International, which said the verdict highlighted how free speech is “brutally denied” by Bahrain’s authorities.

Qurmezi surrendered to authorities in late March after police raided her family’s home and threatened to kill her brothers, her mother said. The young woman claims she was beaten and tortured with electric shocks while in custody, Amnesty reported.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, but claim they face widespread discrimination such as being blocked from holding top military or government posts. Shiite leaders have called on authorities to end security crackdowns and protest-related trials before considering talks with the Sunni ruling family.

But Bahrain’s rulers appear strongly committed to keeping a heavy hand in place.

Bahrain’s monarchy and its Gulf Arab allies fear Shiite power, that Iran could use instability in Bahrain to gain new footholds for influence. A 1,500-strong military force — led by Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia — helped crush the protests and is expected to remain in Bahrain indefinitely.

Qurmezi was in her second year of study toward a teaching degree at the University of Bahrain when she joined the protesters in Pearl Square.

“My daughter did nothing wrong,” her mother told the Associated Press from the family home in Sadad, a village in central Bahrain. “She didn’t raise her hands in anger. She used words to express how they felt. She was only using her rights of free speech.”

Across the Arab world, poetry is a powerful and popular form of expression. Thousands of works have extolled the so-called Arab Spring, ranging from free-form verse in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to literary figures such as Syria’s Ali Esber — better known by his pen name Adonis — who has railed against Arab despots and last month was awarded Germany’s prestigious Goethe Prize.

Two former members of parliament, Jawad Fairooz and Mattar Mattar, also went on trial Sunday as part of wide-ranging arrests and trials of perceived enemies of the ruling system. Both are members of the main Shiite opposition group, al-Wefaq, whose 18 lawmakers resigned to protest the harsh measures against protesters.

— Associated Press

Brian Murphy joined the Post after more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has written three books.
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