US-Allied Bahrain Jails Student for Reading of Protest Poems

Bahrain anti-government protesters near Pearl Square in March 2011. Ayat al-Qurmezi recited poems during gatherings in the square. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

US-Allied Bahrain Jails Student for Reading of Protest Poems

Ayat al-Qurmezi became minor celebrity after reciting poems critical of king during Pearl Square gatherings

A 20-year-old woman who recited poems critical of Bahrain's rulers and later claimed she was beaten in jail was sentenced to a year in prison, as part of the kingdom's crackdown on Shia protesters calling for greater rights.

The ruling by a special security tribunal sent a strong message that the Sunni monarchy is not easing off on punishments linked to the unrest despite appeals for talks with Shia groups in the strategic Gulf island state, which is home to the US navy's 5th Fleet.

Ayat al-Qurmezi became a minor celebrity among protesters after reciting poems critical of the king and prime minister during gatherings in the capital's Pearl Square, which was the hub for Shia-led demonstrations that broke out in February after drawing inspiration from the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

One verse, addressed to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, included the lines: "We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. Don't you hear their cries? Don't you hear their screams?"

She was convicted of anti-state charges, including inciting hatred, said the official Bahrain News Agency. Her mother, Sada al-Qurmezi, said an appeal is planned.

The court's decision drew sharp denunciations from opposition groups and the human rights group Amnesty International, which said the verdict highlighted how free speech is "brutally denied" by Bahrain's authorities.

Qurmezi surrendered to authorities in late March after police raided the family's house and threatened to kill her brothers, said her mother. While in custody, the young woman claims she was beaten and tortured with electric shocks, Amnesty reported.

Shias account for about 70% of Bahrain's population but claim they face widespread discrimination such as being blocked from holding top military or government posts. Shia leaders have called on authorities to end security crackdowns and protest-related trials before considering talks with the Sunni ruling family.

But Bahrain's rulers appear strongly committed to keeping a heavy hand in place.

Bahrain's monarchy and its Gulf Arab allies fear Shia power Iran could use instability in Bahrain to gain new footholds for influence. A 1,500-strong Gulf force led by Iran's main regional rival, Saudi Arabia helped crush the protests and is expected to remain in Bahrain indefinitely.

Qurmezi was in her second year of study toward a teaching degree at the University of Bahrain when she joined the protesters in Pearl Square.

"My daughter did nothing wrong," her mother told The Associated Press from the family home in Sadad, a village in central Bahrain. "She didn't raise her hands in anger. She used words to express how they felt. She was only using her rights of free speech."

Across the Arab world, poetry is a powerful and popular form of expression. Thousands of works have extolled the so-called Arab spring, ranging from free-form verse in Cairo's Tahrir Square to literary figures such as Syria's Ali Esber, better known by his pen name Adonis, who has railed against Arab despots and last month was awarded Germany's Goethe prize.

"By locking up a female poet merely for expressing her views in public, Bahrain's authorities are demonstrating how free speech and assembly are brutally denied to ordinary Bahrainis," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and north Africa.

Her mother said Qurmezi also was expelled from university apparently caught up in government-ordered purges of thousands of students, workers and others accused of backing the protests.

At least 31 people have been killed in the unrest in Bahrain. Amnesty said at least 500 people have been detained.

"How can they do this to my daughter?" her mother asked. "Is this fair?"

Two former parliament members, Jawad Fairooz and Mattar Mattar, also went on trial on Sunday as part of wide-ranging arrests and trials of perceived enemies of the ruling system. Both are members of the main Shia political group, Wefaq, whose 18 lawmakers resigned to protest the harsh measures against protesters.

In a statement, Wefaq said the poet's arrest is a "clear message that the government is against freedom of expression."

It came a day after Bahrain's government allowed a Wefaq-led rally of more than 10,000 people in an apparent bid to ease tensions and make overtures for dialogue.

The U S has condemned the violence in Bahrain, but has stopped short of any tangible punishments against the rulers in one of Washington's military hubs in the Gulf.

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