Mahmood has not slept at home in eight months. His younger brother has not slept there in a year. But armed riot police continue to raid their family home monthly, breaking down bedroom doors searching for them.
Mahmood and his brother are wanted by the government of Bahrain. They have been charged with various forms of involvement in anti-government protests, which for the past two and a half years have pinned the kingdom’s Shia majority against the ruling Sunni minority. The Ministry of Interior’s police forces are currently searching Bahrain’s Shia villages for over five hundred wanted young men, according to reports gathered by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). Arrests and raids have intensified in the weeks leading up to Bahrain’s Egypt-inspired Tamarod (rebellion) protests, set for August 14.
“Yesterday, they raided Sitra village for four hours,” says Said Yousif al-Muhaftha, head of documentation and monitoring at the BCHR, referring to a recent police operation. “Do you know how many they arrested? None. Not one. None of the boys are home.”
Wanted boys put a high stake on invisibility. The government tracks the young men using informants and nightly house raids; anywhere Mahmood stands, he risks being seen by government informants and arrested almost instantaneously. He cannot work because going to the Ministry of Labor effectively guarantees arrest. He says he cannot return to school because walking onto campus would make him highly visible. Getting married requires a blood test, and hospitals are off-limits for the wanted. Should he need any kind of medical care at all, seeking hospital treatment could mean years in prison.
Building a case
The exact crime associated with each “wanted” case is nebulous at best. The mass cases that police produce utilize what human rights lawyers in Bahrain call “copy and paste” evidence: the crime and evidence listed after each suspect in a case file is identical to hundreds of other concurrent Bahraini cases.
“Young men that have been imprisoned for anti-government protests, even once released, remain go-to suspects for future ‘crimes.’” – Chloe Kems, human rights researcher
Most families only learn that their son or sons are wanted the first time their home is raided. According to human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer, house raids often serve as a substitute for a subpoena. But after every round of nightly clashes, the parents of participants expect the worst. Lawyer Manar al-Maki says no less than five families per day come to their office asking if their son is “wanted” by the government.
Police generate group cases – which soon turn into “wanted” lists – in a number of ways. After a night of either violent clashes or a peaceful march, village protesters scatter quickly. If police are lucky, they will manage to catch one young man. He is then detained and often tortured until he provides the names of other “terrorists” from his village.
If the detainee refuses to speak, al-Maki says that police will generate a list of his brothers, cousins, friends, and other young men from his village. The officer building the case then presents this list to the public prosecutor asking for permission to arrest; in one recent case in Bani Jamra, west of the capital, Manama, the generated list of family and acquaintances contained over thirty names. Each young man whose name is written on such a list is now officially “wanted.” Then, often without court permission, the raids begin.
Young men that have been imprisoned for anti-government protests, even once released, remain go-to suspects for future “crimes.” Hussain*, a wanted boy from Juffair village, a suburban neighborhood of Bahrain’s capital, was arrested and imprisoned in 2011 along with five other young men from his village for allegedly chanting anti-government slogans in public – Hussain’s family claims government informants are to blame. Almost a year later, local protesters set fire to a riot police vehicle in Hussain’s village. Within days, riot police raided his home at 3 am and produced a piece of paper displaying Hussain’s name as the number one suspect in the case. Hussain claims he was not in Juffair the night the crime occurred. The five other “suspects” in the case were the five neighbors who had been arrested with him in 2011.
After Hussain was released from prison in 2012, he continued to participate in clashes with riot police and was arrested again. He was imprisoned for four months. During this time, security forces beat him so severely he had to be hospitalized upon release. A lawyer was called to collect him from a government-run hospital in March 2013. Today, despite having served his sentence and having been legally released, he remains wanted. He comes home once or twice a week to see his mother, before leaving again for an undisclosed location. Asked why he was still wanted, his younger sister answered: “The Ministry of Interior does not know the word finished.”
And their mothers?
Of the nine times his home has been raided, Mahmood has only been home for three of them. After the third night, when riot police entered his home at 3 am, with time for his sister to cover her head and his mother to dress herself, Mahmood left home. “Enough,” he said. But riot police have continued to raid his family’s home as well as those of his close relatives.
Mahmood lives a near-homeless life in an attempt to stop the nightly raids on his parents and younger siblings. Many wanted Bahraini men sleep at different locations every night to evade police, but live with the constant knowledge that they endanger anyone kind enough to open their door to them. Al-Maki says that well into the third year of violent nighttime raids, there is a growing sense that wanted boys are becoming distinctly “unwanted” in family homes.
Ahmed* is one of the more fortunate wanted boys in Bahrain: he sleeps in an apartment with three other wanted men, each of whom is from a different Bahraini village. When asked how he spends his days, he looked down at the couch and replied “…this. We do this.” There is a lot of sitting involved in being wanted. Ahmed’s family does not know the location of the apartment where he sleeps, not even which town it’s in. An anonymous “donor” rents the apartment for the young men, aware that, without it, they would face homelessness as a result of their activism.
As these boys’ mothers say, the most harrowing aspect of being wanted in Bahrain is the persistent fear of living in hiding. But Ahmed says he is not scared when he is outside, in the street, or playing football. “[Being wanted] is normal now. I will be wanted until the revolution is finished.” Motioning to his mother and sisters, however, Ahmed says he is terrified when he comes home for dinner.
*Hussain and Ahmed are not their real names.
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Erin Kilbride is a human rights researcher and photographer. This post was originally published under the name "Chloe Kems," which the author was using while in Bahrain.