Panel Event – International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

29 June 2020 – Last Friday, over 100 people joined BIRD and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain for a virtual event marking International Day in Support for the Victims of Torture, featuring a panel of speakers including Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork, award-winning Bahraini blogger, activist and torture survivor Ali Abdulemam, prominent Bahraini human rights defender and former political prisoner Ebtisam AlSaegh and The Independent’s Women’s Editor, Maya Oppenheim.  

Moderating the event was Josie Thum, Research & Advocacy Fellow at BIRD, who opened the event with an overview of the central position of torture in Bahrain’s judicial system, the use of coerced confessions in death penalty cases and the ongoing scourge of medical negligence in Bahraini detention centres. She also pointed to some of the more positive work being done, including recent efforts by UK parliamentarians to secure justice for torture victims in the Gulf. 

A voice recorded message from political prisoner and rights activist Ali AlHajee was also shared with the virtual audience. Ali discussed his experience in Bahrain’s Jau Prison, where he has been subjected to torture and denial of medical care for seven years, expressed his solidarity with other political prisoners and torture victims and called on Bahrain to put an end to torture and secure justice for all victims.

Joe Stork, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Department at Human Rights Watch, shared his over 20 years of experience monitoring torture in Bahrain. He reflected on his first visit to Bahrain in the “bad old days” of 1996, commenting that although conditions appeared to be improving after 2011, he worries that we have seen a resurgence in the use of torture in recent years. He stressed the lack of accountability in Bahrain to be among the largest obstacles to tackling torture in the country and also noted the pernicious role played by Bahrain’s Western allies, the UK and USA in particular, at shielding Bahrain from criticism.



Ali Abdulemam, prominent Bahraini blogger and founder of the pro-democracy site Bahrain Online, shared a harrowing account of his own torture at the hands of state security forces and asserting that torture “changed my life”. He also discussed how difficult it is for victims to hold perpetrators to account, stating that it was impossible for him to know exactly who had tortured him or where it happened as he was handcuffed and blindfolded throughout his ordeal. He ended by encouraging torture survivors to seek professional support, lamenting that many survivors struggle with mental illness and lack the means to effectively address their torture.

 Maya Oppenheim, Women’s Editor of the Independent who has written widely on the use of torture against female activists and rights defenders in Bahrain, used her intervention to share the powerful stories of Medina Ali, Najah Yusuf and Hajer Mansoor, highlighting the “£6.5 million in British taxpayer money” spent on training Bahraini institutions including internationally condemned oversight bodies and officials in detention centres where torture is rife. Maya also shared quotes from her interview with Bahraini activist and torture survivor Najah Yusuf, who attended the event, upon her release from prison last summer.



Finally, Ebtisam AlSaegh, a Bahraini human rights defender and survivour of torture who advocates for the improvement of human rights in Bahrain and has faced serious reprisals, spoke powerfully about her personal experience of torture. Ebtisam went on to note the widespread consequences of torture, stating that “every house in the country is targeted” and “entire neighbourhoods” are affected by such violations, emphasising the need for rehabilitation programmes.

A recording of the event can be watched here.