The Spirit of Henri Young: A Bahraini Prisoner Tries To Take His Own Life

Bahraini protesters with placards and Bahraini flags met outside the US Embassy in London before marching to the Saudi Embassy to call for justice for 3 pro-democracy protesters sentenced to death in April by a military court.UK. 26th November 2011. Photograph by Peter Marshall. Copyright: Demotix

Bahraini protesters with placards and Bahraini flags met outside the US Embassy in London before marching to the Saudi Embassy to call for justice for 3 pro-democracy protesters, including Ali Altaweel, sentenced to death in April by a military court.UK. 26th November 2011. Photograph by Peter Marshall. Copyright: Demotix

Solitary confinement. For me, it was worse than physical torture. What is time if nothing changes? If you are kept in a room with nothing to do but to listen to your own thoughts. In your solitude, you summon up everything you tend to push away in your regular daily life. It's easy to be consumed by fears and dark notions.

For me, the way to survive solitary was to build an imaginary world in my mind: a different place, with different people. A world where I could escape and spend as much time as I could without running out of new things to see and feel. By the time I was back among other inmates I had already built a whole story, complete with characters and events which I followed and observed how they evolved. That was my mind helping me to adapt and survive. I cannot imagine, however, how I would have managed if my solitary confinement had lasted longer than a couple of weeks.

In prison, there was a near-urban legend about a prisoner that was a source of both fear and strength. The name Ali Altaweel cropped up frequently in conversation. If you complained to your fellow inmates about the conditions of your incarceration, they told you you should be thankful that you were not in Ali Altaweel's shoes. If you flouted the rules, guards would remind you that your fate could end up being like Ali Altaweel's. Altaweel's story became a cautionary tale for some, and a source of hope and resilience for others. But for most people, he was a ghost, a prisoner you never saw, a prisoner who received no help, not even a mention in a headline.

25-year-old Ali Altaweel has been in solitary confinement for over three years. He attempted suicide twice: once by cutting his veins and recently by trying to hang himself. He told his lawyer to arrange a visit so that he could hand her his last will and testament, as he would try again to end his misery. After suffering a mental breakdown he was moved to psychiatric hospital, as reported by activist Maryam Alkhawaja:


In the 1995 film adaptation Murder in the First, millions learned the story of Henri Young, who after three years of dehumanizing mistreatment and solitary confinement in California's notorious Alcatraz prison, decided to take another person's life. The creators of the movie might have never imagined that this story, set in the first half of the 20th century, might actually manifest in this day and age.

Ali Altaweel was sentenced to death for allegedly running over a policeman at the start of Bahrain's uprising in 2011. The incident is alleged to have happened during an attack in the Island of Sitra that left four civilians dead and dozens injured. The video below shows how, on that day, police officers detained civilians and beat them publicly:

In the following video it's also clear that armed civilian(s) also participated that day in the shooting of protesters, and they were calling for them to come out.

Ali's family reported that he was arrested at his sister's house, where he was staying while recuperating after a surgical procedure. He was detained and tortured for months, until his confession and sentence. The torture continued even after he was sentenced.

Ali's case is one of the clearest examples of the dysfunction and corruption of the judiciary system. In a report by a commission of inquiry, the testimonies and information regarding the incident were so contradictory that even the location of the incident is under dispute. On page 237 of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report that was accepted by the king of Bahrain himself, it is stated that “Police officer Ahmed Rashid Al Muraysi was run over by a vehicle at the GCC Roundabout on 15 March 2011.”

The GCC Roundabout referred to in the report is what became known as the Pearl Roundabout, the epicentre of the pro-democracy demonstrations which started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011. The death certificate issued, however, says that the policeman was killed in Al-Mameer village.

The witnesses to the incident are all policemen. Bahrain's police force has been found guilty of using excessive force against protesters. The location of the incident isn't the only thing about which the witnesses and authorities have been in disagreement. All four witnesses gave conflicting testimonies about the incident, stating that the car that ran over the policeman was shot by different individuals. None of the witnesses could identify the driver of the car as Ali. They couldn't even identify the car number plate. All they seem to agree on is the colour of the car, which is not in fact Ali's, but belongs to a co-defendant.

On the basis of evidence that was circumstantial at best, Ali was sentenced to death, despite the recommendations made by commissions and human rights groups. As he waits for his sentence to be reviewed or carried out, Ali's living hell is as real as the grievances of a lot of our countrymen, and beyond the deafening silence he experiences in his solitary confinement, there is a more blatant silence on the outside. Alcatraz was closed in 1963, but in Bahrain's expanding prisons, many stories like Ali's continue to unfold. 

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