Bahrain Mirror: He doesn’t regret anything. He has spent five years behind bars for only calling for a general strike in 2011. He was subjected to brutal episodes of torture which caused him to suffer from severe chronic pains in his neck, shoulders, back and knees, as well as reduced eyesight.
Despite all that, the former President of the Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA), Mahdi Abu Dheeb, says, “What’s important is that my soul was never subjugated.”
Only two things make him feel ashamed, he says, “when my eyes meet the eyes of a martyr’s mother, and when I left jail leaving hundreds of youths behind.”
The night before his release, his prison-mates threw him a farewell party. “There are some who never attend any event, yet showed up to this farewell party. Others don’t wake up in the morning, but on that day they asked to be woken up. They surrounded me and placed their heads on my shoulders and cried. One must become emotional- in such a situation- and weep,” he said.
Abu Dheeb continues recounting the memories of that last day at Jaw Prison: “Until the last step at the outer door, they held on to me so tight to the extent that the bus was late for its appointment. I was hurting a lot and I still am for being apart from them. I remember them whenever I see the joy in people’s eyes for my release, They will always live within me.”
Some people leave prison with big changes. What about Abu Dheeb? “Our nation, our offsprings and our people deserve what we offered.”
As other opposition leaders who were forced to make false confessions under brutal torture and on camera, Abu Dheeb said that he saw: “First, a Journalist, you and I know. Second, a very prominent and important rights activist. Third, a top TV director who supervised the filming process.”
“There were three feet between me and one of them, who criticized my clothes, as if I wasn't a prisoner and had picked what to wear from my closet at home,” he noted.
Abu Dheeb didn’t reveal their identities, but said: “You must know these figures. I reserve the right to hold them accountable.” He was asked, is it a desire to take revenge? “I don’t adopt a vindictive attitude against anyone. What I want is to guarantee that these practices aren’t repeated against anyone else in the future,” he answered.
He further stressed: “I give up my personal right [to compensation] from those who abused me, but these practices and their perpetrators must be countered.”
The Following are excerpts from Bahrain Mirror’s interview with Mahdi Abu Dheeb:
Bahrain Mirror: What are 5 years in prison to you, the president of the BTA Mahdi Abu Dheeb?
Mahdi Abu Dheeb: It was a big opportunity to sit with myself and learn and read more. I see that it was an opportunity to come closer to people from different backgrounds, who I wouldn’t have come to know if it wasn’t for prison. I, in my nature, love to learn from everybody, young or old and from various cultures. These years gave me a chance to improve parts of my character that I never paid heed to before. I always tried to look on the bright side of that experience despite the cruelty it brought forth.
Bahrain Mirror: What are the marks of that brutality you still carry with you?
Abu Dheeb: I have injuries all over my body. I have problems in my neck, shoulders, back, spine and knees, as well as high blood pressure and reduced eyesight. However, the most important thing is that they failed to affect my psychological and spiritual states.
Bahrain Mirror: You faced a wave of attacks before the widespread campaign of arrests in 2011. What is your stance regarding those who [verbally] assaulted you?
Abu Dheeb: It hurts me that some of those who attacked me crossed the line of political disagreement and insulted my family, especially my wife. I; however, absolutely believe that we pay a price for our commitment to our national causes, and everything that was said was nothing but lies that faded with the wind, because stances like these can never affect our will.
In prison, we used to hear even harsher comments. We were subjected to torture and our holies, families and honor were insulted. But all that didn’t affect us and everything would end as soon as the torture session and the attempts to break us ended.
Bahrain Mirror: Some people leave prison with big changes, maybe that’s normal, yet others who serve lengthy prison terms may wonder ‘was it worth it’?
Abu Dheeb: Yes, our country deserves all these sacrifices from us. Our offsprings and the people deserve them as well. What we offered is nothing compared to the families of martyrs’ sacrifices. I feel embarrassed when looking into the eyes of a martyr’s mother and I felt ashamed to step outside jail, leaving hundreds of youths behind. We will feel joy when the last prisoner is released and the people achieve the demands they have been calling for.
Bahrain Mirror: You seem tough, isn’t there any situation that [emotionally] affected you? Ebrahim Sharif, for instance, stated that he cried when the society he was affiliated to “Wa’ad” issued their May 2011 statement?
Abu Dheeb: Ebrahim’s tears were [a result] of strength. He considered that situation was wrong and still adhered to his stance. If he hadn’t cried, we would have thought that he was becoming weaker.
Bahrain Mirror: During those 5 years, you received many news from outside prison, which one of them affected you the most?
Abu Dheeb: I don’t recall a specific incident, but there are two situations that upset me. First, when I feel like brothers are harming one another among opposition factions. For this hinders our ability to achieve our demands.
As for the second situation, it was and still is saddening how the authorities faced the people with brutality. The government’s response to the people’s demands really hurt me.
Bahrain Mirror: Who of the figures or persons you met in prison influenced you the most?
Abu Dheeb: The young men who believe in their cause are the ones who touch my heart to the core. They make me see the future that awaits this beautiful country.
Bahrain Mirror: How did you say your last goodbyes?
Abu Dheeb: We lived together for 5 years. They threw me a farewell party. There are some who never attend any event, yet showed up to this party. Others don’t wake up in the morning, but on that day they asked to be waken up. They surrounded me and placed their heads on shoulders and cried. One must become emotional- in such a situation- and weep. Until the last step at the outer door, they held on to me so tight to the extent that the bus was late for its appointment. I was hurting a lot and I still am for being apart from them. I remember them whenever I see the joy in people’s eyes for my release, whenever I move around freely and have a new meal. They will always live within me.”
Bahrain Mirror: The stance your family took in defending you was expected, but what do you think about the BTA deputy head Jalila Al-Salman who advocated your case for five years, what do u have to say about such loyalty?
Abu Dheeb: Jalila Al-Salman was a companion in this journey since the the establishment of the association. At times, she wanted to have her distance for certain reasons, but I had faith that this woman was capable of giving at an exceptional level. When she became the secretary and then the vice president, her character began to show. She is a person that’s ready to give at all times.
However, what Al-Salman offered after she was released from prison exceeded all expectations. I don’t think any other person offered what she offered and did that exceptional work for the association’s affiliates.
I always used to say that Allah blessed me with four lionesses: My mother, my wife Um Hussein, my daughter Mariam and the dignified and praiseworthy lady Jalila Al-Salman, and I shall never forget my lawyer Jalila Al-Sayed. She was more than just a lawyer. She was always determined to visit me even after the Appeals Court sentence, and stood by my family in every other legal situation and condition not related to my case.
Bahrain Mirror: What’s your say on the personal retaliation practiced against you since the moment of your arrest?
Abu Dheeb: The authorities didn’t expect the teachers to do what they did. They did a great job, and I won’t be exaggerating if I said that there isn’t any other group that worked as much as the teachers. I am not underestimating the work others did, especially the huge efforts made by the medical staff.
The unity of the teachers and the association during the 2011 movement was exceptional. The authorities were surprised by it and wanted to retaliate against it through me, Mahdi Abu Dheeb. In addition to that, the authorities had a history in dealing with the Bahrain Teachers Association, which never gave up on defending teachers’ rights.
We also shall never forget the great cooperation between the students’ parents and teachers, which was unacceptable to the authorities. This justifies the dissolution of the BTA and other groups who had a great role, despite the government or opposition’s view on this role.
Bahrain Mirror: What’s your view on the steps the association took? Were they successful or flawed?
Abu Dheeb: The association did its duty and what satisfies its conscience and the teachers’ conscience with regards to the difficult events that took place in the country. We didn’t do anything illegal. Even the Bassiouni (BICI) report stated that the teachers’ strike was legal, and let us not forget that these steps were made to protect the educational institutions and their employees.
The court; however, didn’t take the BICI report into consideration and even issued a ministerial decision banning educational institutions from going on strike, and this decision is much less compared to the harsh 5-year prison sentence issued against me.
Bahrain Mirror: Many dissenters were tortured in order to make false videotaped confessions… Were you forced to do that?
Abu Dheeb: Yes I was forced to make videotaped confessions, aimed at incriminating the association, me, Jalila Al-Salman and other opposition figures and societies, yet I very much refused to say something that incriminates anyone.
It was filmed in the presence of a journalist, you and I know. I always believed that a journalist is willing to sacrifice his life for freedom of speech and the freedom of his people, yet this journalist was willing to sacrifice his people for his own sake. A very prominent and important rights activist was present as well. There were three feet between me and one of them, who criticized my clothes, as if I wasn't a prisoner and had picked what to wear from my closet at home.
A top TV director supervised the whole filming process. You must know these figures. I reserve the right to hold them accountable.
Bahrain Mirror: Does this mean that you have the desire to take revenge?
Abu Dheeb: I don’t adopt a vindictive attitude against anyone. What I want is to guarantee that these practices aren’t repeated against anyone else in the future. I give up my personal right [to compensation] from those who abused me, but these practices and their perpetrators must be countered.
Bahrain Mirror: What about your family, how do they seem to you after all this time apart?
Abu Dheeb: I went to prison in a time all my children were at a critical age. My youngest was 9 years old and oldest was 20. I have no doubt that they missed me. Before I went to prison, I had a special relationship with them. I treated them like friends since their childhood, I feel like they are all in the phase of maturity.
Um Hussein (wife) endured a lot during my absence. I saw that my youngest (Layla) has become as mature as I wanted her to be. They all suffered from big emotional pressures, but that didn’t affect them.
Bahrain Mirror: You met many people in prison who are deprived for their right to an education, how would you describe that?
Abu Dheeb: Yes, there is an advertising campaign that speaks of available education opportunities for prisoners of all levels, claiming that the prison administration promotes it. This is rather a propaganda than a reality.
I had proposed a study program for students, but the prison administration wasted that program and the situation now is even worse.
Bahrain Mirror: How is that?
Abu Dheeb: One of the dozens of examples is that a young student who was with me in prison was surprised to be given the exams schedule without even receiving any school books. This couldn’t reflect a genuine desire for guaranteeing education. There are many detained students whose parents face obstacles during registration and others were moved to lower classes. In brief, they are not giving them any chances and telling them to completely forget about their education.
Bahrain Mirror: What about university studies?
Abu Dheeb: I never met a detained student who graduated from high school and was registered in the Bahrain university, and never heard of one either. High education studies are extremely difficult [to pursue in prison]. I’m talking about my experience. I only needed to present my thesis. They procrastinated the process of authorizing the extraction of my university degrees for a whole year. Even when the necessary papers were made available, I found it difficult to pursue my studies.
Bahrain Mirror: What do you have to say about depriving detained students of their right to education?
Abu Dheeb: I think that there is a clear targeting of a certain group of people’s right to education. We have warned before the 2011 events of some people’s desire to commit sectarian cleansing on all levels, including education, employment, promotions, internships, scholarships, and acceptance in universities. We spoke of the necessity to address this issue by a national comprehensive vision that would guarantee everyone’s rights. We need education to be based on equal citizenship not sectarianism. But unfortunately, there’s who wants to weaken national unity.
Thank God, there are rational people from both sects. For instance, there was a gathering with people from both sects celebrating with my mother. They wanted me to join them. This is the spirit we should seek if we want to end the crisis which the country is suffering from.
Bahrain Mirror: You proposed the idea of creating a civil fund aimed at financially supporting students who don’t receive scholarships or are deliberately deprived of them, do you think there is a real chance amid the ongoing government repressive policies?
Abu Dheeb: The opportunity is there and I think people will work with it one way or another. There are many people who personally pay for their education without the aid of civil funds and institutions that also were targeted, after the authorities decided that acceptance in universities cannot be approved with the Education Ministry’s approval. We cannot accept anything that would deprive top-grade students of their right to plan their future and select the domain of study they desire. This is what the law stipulates; the Education Ministry is required to create education opportunities, especially for top-grade graduates.
Bahrain Mirror: The Interior Ministry inaugurated a rehabilitation and training center in coordination with the UAE, what did that center offer the detainees?
Abu Dheeb: We heard about it like you on the media, yet there is no trace of it inside prison.
Bahrain Mirror: How do you describe the condition of children in prison?
Abu Dheeb: They shouldn’t be there. Imagine 100 children held together without anyone older than them; their condition will remain the same or even get worse. However, they cannot be held with other prisoners with a big age difference between them. There are prisoners who have been held over serious criminal charges, like drug addiction, and some of them are taking advantage of these children and trying to spread such immoral practices among them.
Bahrain Mirror: What is your advice for these children’s parents?
Abu Dheeb: We had some discussions in prison and saw that placing them with a group of educationally and religiously qualified detainees would allow them to benefit from the situation at some extent . That’s what happened in block 10; there was a group of minors held with us who benefited from the activities we made.
The parents could advise their children to get close to prisoners who can play the role of guidance.
Bahrain Mirror: Following 5 years, do you sense that the people are close to achieving their demands?
Abu Dheeb: I always have faith in that. I have great faith in Allah and the people. Experiences have taught us that no right can be lost if there’s someone demanding it.