Bahrain: an open letter

A lawyer for Bahrainis detained in Guantánamo is now excluded from a country where he was once welcome. Joshua Colangelo-Bryan tells the story.
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan
15 June 2011

The Bahraini government barred me from entering the country in early May 2011, marking the low point in a relationship with that nation which formed when I represented the Bahrainis detained at Guantánamo Bay from 2004-07.

That representation involved over 3,200 hours’ work on my clients’ behalf, including twelve trips to Guantánamo . I saw clients through suicide-attempts and hunger-strikes. When my clients were sure Bahrain had forgotten them, I promised this was not true. In fact, nobody spent more time  advocating for the “Bay Bahrainis”, as they were called, than I.

My clients had strong allies inside Bahrain as well. During a visit to Manama in 2005, Sheik Adel al-Maawda invited us to parliament and delivered there an impassioned speech about my clients’ rights to due process and humane treatment. He said that my law firm had done more for his compatriots than anyone else, and led the other parliamentarians in a standing ovation.

On a 2006 trip, Sheik Mohammed Khaled hosted a meeting at his home so that we could speak to Bahrainis about our clients. He too spoke eloquently about the need to treat detainees humanely. (In a lovely non-sectarian moment that would likely now be impossible, we were accompanied to the meeting by Nabeel Rajab, a secular Shi’a who himself was a tireless advocate for our clients).

During these visits to Bahrain, we heard similar sentiments from officials in three state ministries (foreign affairs, justice, and interior). In addition, the Bahraini media regularly reported on my clients during these years, decrying the denial of their rights and recounting their allegations of abuse.

All of my clients were released by 2007 and for the past few years, I have worked with Human Rights Watch, raising concerns regarding the conduct of the Bahraini government. But circumstances have abruptly changed. Whereas before I was advocating due process and humane treatment on behalf of my Guantánamo clients who happened to be Sunni, now I am advocating due process and humane treatment on behalf of Bahrainis who happen (largely) to be Shi’a. For the powers that be in Bahrain this is a critical difference: a judgment reflected in the government's refusal, on 4 May 2011, to allow me even to spend the night in Bahrain.

A double-standard

This, of course, is a relatively minor indignity. Far more important is the remarkable way in which many of those in Bahrain who excoriated the United States for its denial of rights to the Bahrainis in Guantánamo, now defend the denial of rights to Bahrainis in Bahrain.

These individuals never accepted that the earlier denial of rights could be justified by the horrors of 9/11 even with respect to people who had been branded the “worst of the worst”. In this they were right. Now, though, they contend that an Iranian plot - of which no evidence is ever offered - and largely peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain justify the denial of rights to their fellow citizens. While these people never once demanded that I corroborate my clients’ accounts of abuse at Guantánamo (though I had corroboration), they discount all allegations of abuse in Bahrain, even when detainees have obvious and diagnosed signs of injury.

It may have been members of this camp who posted online some comments in response to a recent article of mine recounting my experience. For example, one person tried to discredit my Guantánamo work by saying that I did it for a big pay-day. In truth, my law firm did not seek or receive a single penny in compensation for the millions of dollars worth of legal services that we provided. Moreover, I received death threats from Americans who said the Bahrainis were Muslim terrorists.

Another individual wrote that Bahrain did not really bar me from entering, but rather just wanted me to get a pre-approved visa. While no informed person would actually believe this notion, I decided to test the theory. On 12 May, I applied for a visa at the Bahraini consulate in New York. To date, the Bahraini government has displayed neither the courtesy to grant my application nor the courage to deny it formally.

As such, it appears my days in Bahrain are over. Those who now champion the wholesale denial of rights to certain Bahrainis will undoubtedly celebrate this result much as they once celebrated my Guantánamo efforts. I am thankful that these individuals did not display such a callous lack of humanity toward my Guantánamo clients and wonder if ever - for just a moment - they become aware of the double-standards they are now embracing.

In either event, I will be no more deterred from advocating basic rights for Bahrainis in Bahrain than I was from advocating basic rights for Bahrainis at Guantánamo.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData