Five years have passed, and many, including the family of consultant orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ali Al-Ekri, had thought that some sort of relief would take place commuting his long bitter prison term. That; however, did not happen and there were no intention whatsoever to do either. In fact, according to Al-Ekri’s wife, the family doctor Fareeda Al-Dalal: “If they could, they would have added more years to his sentence.”
He is the only remaining member of the medical team, who were arrested in March 2011 following the announcement of an emergency state, still behind bars. They paid the price of their devotion to their oath during the February 2011 events, as they swore to protect human lives in all circumstances. They were slandered by the media and tried in politically-driven cases before military courts and then civilian ones. Following immense pressures by international organizations and human rights groups, they were released on September 8 of 2011, with continued trials.
Al-Ekri was re-arrested on October 1, 2012 after a five-year sentence was upheld by a court, in retaliation for his criticism of the authorities’ use of force against protestors and for exercising his right to freedom of expression. It seems like the authorities specifically wanted to lock up Al-Ekri and make him spend the longest prison term- perhaps because he was the biggest thorn in their flesh.
March 10 coincides with the worst event experienced by the political prisoners held in the notorious Jaw Prison. Al-Ekri was among them. Describing him after her first visit following the brutal events, his wife said that “he lost a lot of weight, his skin was darker and had a shaved head,” noting that she passed by him and did not recognize him at first.
Bahrain Mirror met with Fareeda Al-Dalal, who is counting the hours before her husband’s release with pride and yearning. Bahrain Mirror talked to her about her experience as well as her family throughout the period of his long absence, asking her how their lives were during those years and how she is preparing herself to welcome her husband after all that time.
“Since his arrest, I have been counting the days and even minutes awaiting Ali’s release. I made a countdown. I am used to everyone asking me, “how much time is left before Ali is released?” I give them a very precise, calculated answer. My father-in-law is also very meticulous, like me, in his countdown,” his wife highlighted.
She further stated: “When Ali was re-arrested in October 2012, I was four months pregnant with my son Hussain, which made the impact of Ali’s arrest even harder on me. We hadn’t planned on having this child, but he was like a gift sent by God. If my son Hussain hadn’t filled my days, I don’t know how I would have spent these five years.”
“My two daughters Najlaa and Sarah were both in high school and my son Hasan was 11 years old, so I did not have much on my hands. Hussain’s birth alleviated a lot of my suffering as I was occupied with taking care of him. I grew very attached to him. During my pregnancy, I was all alone and suffered from high blood pressure, so my mom moved in with me when my time of labour approached.”
Arrest at crack of dawn
Fareeda goes on to say that when the court of cassation upheld Ali’s five-year prison sentence, he was immediately arrested the next day at first light. “We didn’t expect the sentence to be issued so quickly. Five police vehicles came and the arrests began with Ali, and then Ghassan Dhaif and Ibrahim Al-Damestani.”
“In the early hours of that morning, my daughter Najlaa was still awake [studying from the night before]. Najlaa heard the doorbell ring and was surprised to see policemen at the door. She rushed to our room and told us. Ali changed his clothes very quickly, went into Hasan and Sarah’s rooms, kissed them on their foreheads in their sleep without waking them and then said goodbye to Najlaa and left,” she added.
Fareeda said that she did not go to work that day, nor did her children go to school. Their father’s arrest was a big shock to both Hasan and Sarah, she stressed, adding that they did not expect him to get arrested again, for he had been out for one full year.
“We had hope that there will be a political respite and that Ali will not serve the whole five-year sentence in jail. However, when it comes to me, I had thought of the worst case scenario, because I do not like to shocked and disappointed later on. Everyone else around me expected him to get out before now.”
Despite all the campaigns launched in support of his release and all the calls by human rights organizations urging his release- some were even working behind closed doors- nothing made an impact. Ali completed his whole five-year term. The decision was to make Dr. Ali Al-Ekri spend all these years in prison and if they could, they would have added even more years to the sentence, she further stressed.
We adapted to this reality and my children were aware of what happened to their father, so the challenge for them was to focus on their education. The most thing that hurt me is my children’s longing for their father during these critical periods of their young lives. They remembered him in the most intimate moments. He was like their best friend. It was as if there were no boundaries between him and his kids. I do not recall a time when he got angry with one of his children. He was very loving and that’s why they missed him so much. They had gathered many times to only speak of the good times they spent with their father.
Pride not shame
My children knew that what happened to their father makes them feel proud and not ashamed. I did not need to explain anything to them. My oldest daughter Najlaa graduated high school in 2013 and decided to study law in the United Kingdom. Everyone expected her to study medicine like her father and mother, yet she chose law. Perhaps what happened to her father made her chose this major.
Najlaa was very strong despite the tough circumstances we went through. She was determined to succeed and excel and completed her university studies and now she’s continuing her higher education. She attempts to show that what happened didn’t affect her and hides her pain, but sometimes fails and bursts into tears.
In the Month of Ramadan, during the Nights of Destiny (Al-Qadr), Najlaa gathered her siblings and they performed prayers. They wept and pleaded for their father’s release. I watched them from afar and felt so much pain.
Now Najlaa early awaits her father’s release. She wanted to be there for him when he steps out of prison and decided to take time off from studying and come back from Britain. Her father; however, advised her to postpone her return until April so he would have time for only her and her sister Sarah who is also studying in the UK.
My 18-year-old daughter Sarah graduated from high school last year. Her personality is different from her sister’s, for she always speaks what’s on her mind and conceals nothing. She cries at times, yet her strength lies in her ability to express the emotions inside her and then go on with her life.
Sarah is currently studying psychology in the UK. She likes to listen to people. She likes to contribute to solving their problems. She often initiates conversation with me inquiring about what is tiring me: “Do you want to talk to me about something,” she asks me frequently, as if she is the older one- as if she is the mother.
My 14-year-old son Hasan is very quiet and warmhearted. He always gives me a kiss on the head when greeting me. What hurts me is that Hasan is now a teenager and really needs his father by his side. He always feels the need to talk to his father about what’s going on in his life, but has to wait for the time of a scheduled visit or phone call to be able to do so.
The State of National Safety: A time that cannot be forgotten
What I can never forget is what my children went through during the state of National Safety. I do not know how they endured it. I remember one night, Najlaa was studying for an exam and after finishing late at night, she logged to her facebook account and was shocked by a message from one of her friends telling her that a group of her schoolmates were planning to beat her after school. Najlaa immediately came to me and showed me the message. I froze in my place and didn’t know what to do, so I decided to let all my children stay at home that school day. My gut was telling me that if they were planning to hit Najlaa, then they would definitely do the same to Sarah and Hasan. These students know that they will not be punished and won’t even receive any warning, for we were living in brutal chaos where all human compassion faded away.
My children stayed at home and I contacted the school principal who informed me that he was aware of the situation. I was shocked, how could he know and not protect my children and how could he not tell me about it so I could take precautions!!
My children suffered a lot in their school at that time. They were verbally bullied and students plotted to beat them. They were addressed with hurtful words. I used to always wonder how my children endured all that psychological pressure in school.
Another incident I could never forget was the “Al-Rased” TV episode on my husband Dr. Ali Al-Ekri, and how they attacked him. My daughter Najlaa was watching the show and listening to what was being said. I told her to stop watching. I don’t know how she bore to hear all that. He was being slandered and the media made many accusations about him, which were later denied by the court and the Bassiouni report. He was accused of refusing to treat patients belonging to a certain [religious] sect, aggravating the wounds of the injured, stealing medicines and equipment, possessing weapons and taking over the Salmaniya hospital. In the appeals court, all those charges were dropped, except for the charges of assembly and what was described as an attempt to overthrow the regime with force.
The official state TV that slandered Dr. Al-Ekri before his trial and before he was even convicted by the said two charges did the same thing again after he was sentenced to five years in prison and repeated the same accusations which he was proven of not being guilty of. The official state news did not mention that those charges were dropped but deliberately accused him of them again. As for the two ministers who accused Ali of these heinous crimes during the worst press conference ingrained in the memories of Bahrainis, they did not make any statement correcting their false accusations.
During our visits, Ali used to make us feel that he is living with us. He asked about the smallest of details- about the power and water and everything going on at our house. He even used to ask about the car. Before his arrest, we used to divide the house duties between us, but then I was the only one responsible for everything. The most important thing is that I took good care of his clinic. I paid the monthly rent so it would be ready for him when he is released. I used to prepare beforehand and make lists of all the things I needed to get done every month, because I had night shifts either twice or three times a week. I used to be careful not to tell him about all the repairs the house required, because I didn’t want to worry him with these matters.
During the visits, he used to always remind his children to be committed to their prayers. I always thank God that my children and I are doing fine, for our situation cannot be compared to what happened to other Bahrainis. Some lost their sons and children and others were stripped of their citizenships. All of these people’s conditions were very difficult.
The visit were exhausting. The journey to Jaw prison was very tiring and hard on my children and I, and everyone.
It was torture, not to mention the searches we were subjected to. The way back home was also exhausting. The distance was very long, but all this became part of our routine. We were used to visiting him every two weeks. Sometimes my children weren’t able to visit him because of school. As for my daughters, since they were studying abroad, their father devoted 15-minute phone calls every two weeks on their day off on Saturday, and another 15 minutes for his parents, his children and I as well.
In the summer, it was even more difficult and exhausting, especially the thorough searches we had to go through prior to the visits. The atmosphere surrounding the visits was gloomy and depressing, but all that weariness used to disappear when we saw him and when we saw how high-spirited he was, we used to feel great joy.
Our last visit with Ali took place last January. We were supposed to have to visits in February, but because the system for scheduling- we needed to schedule a month before- was down at the beginning of January, I couldn’t schedule a visit nor wait long until it was fixed. I wasn’t even able to go again because it was very far away. I waited for the next visit so I would be able to schedule, but I didn’t get one. There were no visit times left because they were all scheduled. Now, we have no scheduled visits and are awaiting his release.
Everything about that last visit was very tiring, the procedures, the very thorough search outside the prison compound, which was different from all the times before. We waited for long time outside before the bus came and drove us to the building. As I climbed on the bus I thought to myself: “Oh Allah, I don’t want to return to this place,” May Allah aid the the families of political prisoners. I was very very hard.
Hussain grows up without a father in the House
My son Husain is four years old now. My pregnancy was very difficult. It was hard having all the responsibilities with all the pressures of managing a household. I also had to continue working.
It became more difficult at the end of my pregnancy and my doctor suggested that I undergo a c-section. Ali felt bad because it was my first time having a c-section and requested from the prison administration that he be allowed a one-day release to accompany me during my operation. His request was denied. He was only allowed to call for a few minutes. One week after giving birth. I took our newborn son and went to visit him. He was thrilled, for he always hoped that he will have a second son, so that Hasan would have a brother.
I tried my best to take Hussain to all my visits. He grew and realized that he was his father that doesn’t live with us. One time, he asked me something that hurt me: “Why doesn’t Baba (Dad) live with me at home?,” he asked. I couldn’t answer. At first he didn’t know what “baba” meant. He used to think that every man was “baba”. Now, I prepared him for the return of his father. I told him where he will sleep and that he will be with us, so he could get used to the idea that he will be living with us. Now when he talks to his father, he tells him about all the things we added to the house awaiting his return. He is now ready for his father to return and live with us.
I was always occupied by the thought of him living in that tight space and how he was able to adapt to it. Ali loves wide and open spaces. I don’t know how he endured living in that small place.
I am still surprised at how he was wasted- how all his experience and expertise was wasted. He had great competence in his domain of work. Many of his patients told me that they lost Dr. Ali. I don’t know if he will be able to regain all his capabilities and skills he had before.
I never imagined that I would live this struggle. It was unexpected to me. This experience change my view on life 180 degrees, as well as my view on people and my trust in them. Fareeda before Ali’s arrest is not the same as Fareeda after. I came out strong. This mundane life now means nothing to me. I look at people and see all their sufferings- some have lost their children, some women lost their husbands and other wait for the release of their sons who are sentenced to 20 years in prison. These are pains that cannot be comprehended but by those who suffer them.
I was the head of the A’ali center and then I was transferred to the Isa City center after the events, which means my work was doubled. However, this didn’t affect my performance, for my patients are part of me and I like to listen to them. They realized that and now they ask for me specifically. Now at a personal level, I am capable of managing everything related to my household. At first I depended on my brother, but now I only depend on myself.
Ali stressed to me that he didn’t want any celebrations made for his release from prison, for he is still saddened by the martyrdom of Ali Al-Singace. Out of respect for the Al-Singace’s father, who is also Ali’s cousin, he is hesitant about welcoming people in his hometown Al-Daih or at his house in the village of Jablat Habshi.
Since Najlaa and Sarah are outside the country, they decided to send their father a present celebrating his release. Of course, if they were in Bahrain, it would have been different.
Ali is valued by his family. They depend on his opinion and he is heard amongst them. They consult him in everything. His absence had a great impact on them. Even during his imprisonment, they didn’t stop consulting him. Ali’s parents began preparing for welcoming people at their home. They changed the furniture and even the glassware. They even prepared lists of the foods they want to serve the guests. His mother began preparing all the foods that Ali likes.
Now, I am waiting for his return. I cleaned the house and prepared it for the guests. There are many things I need to buy and prepare for him before and after his release. I took a three-week leave so I could be beside him the whole time and help him with everything he needs to do. He needs to work on lifting the travel ban and plan a short flight so that he could take some time to rest.
On May 3, 2011, the then Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa and the Social Development Minister Fatima Mohammed Al-Balushi held a joint press conference in which they claimed that it was proven that a detained medical staff member committed a number of crimes, alleging that he refused to treat patients, embezzled public funds, assaulted the bodily integrity of others, made attacks that led to deaths, possessed unlicensed weapons and ammunition, refused to perform his duties putting people’s lives and health at risk, used his authority to stop the implementation of the laws and regulations, attempted to take over a public premises by force, promoted the overthrow and the change of the political system of the country by unlawful means, encouraged hatred against the regime in power and a specific sect of people, spread false news and rumors that harm public interest and participated in illegal marches and assemblies.