Hundreds of Bahraini Political Prisoners Freed in ‘Bittersweet’ Royal Pardon

When Naji Fateel was arrested in the aftermath of Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising, his youngest son, Nidal, was a toddler.

Last month, when Mr. Fateel left prison — riding a bus filled with inmates freed by a surprise royal pardon — the Nidal who greeted him was a teenager. Mr. Fateel, 49, a human rights activist, embraced his son and emerged, dazed, into a life forever changed.

“It was an indescribable moment,” he said, “the first hug after freedom.”

After more than a decade in jail, Mr. Fateel was released in a mass pardon in April that included more than 1,500 prisoners — the largest pardon since the reign of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain began in 1999.

The government’s media office would not disclose how many people remain behind bars in Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf. But the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a human rights group run by Bahraini exiles, estimates that the pardon freed more than half of the country’s prison population, including more than 600 political prisoners.

Many of them, including Mr. Fateel, were jailed after joining pro-democracy protests in 2011 that evolved into an extended uprising and were crushed by the authoritarian monarchy, a key American ally, with the help of neighboring militaries.

The Bahraini government described the pardon as a benevolent gesture from the king on the 25th anniversary of his ascension, saying that it was done to “maintain the cohesion and stability of the Bahraini society.” The pardoned individuals, it said, had been convicted in “riot and criminal cases,” and Bahraini officials have denied that any prisoners are held for political reasons.

But Bahraini human rights activists said that the pardon, while welcome, was incomplete, and called for the release of several opposition leaders who are still jailed. The pardon came two weeks after the death of a Bahraini inmate in his 30s set off protests among prisoners and in the streets.

Fury and grief over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza had deepened political tensions in Bahrain and many other Arab countries, bringing the gap between leaders and their citizens into the sharpest focus in years.

Even before the war, analysts and activists have said, Bahrain had been on edge because of friction between the government and opposition movements that has persisted since the pro-democracy uprising was put down. In August, hundreds of prisoners staged a mass hunger strike that lasted for weeks, prompting street protests.

After the inmate who died, Hussain Khalil Ibrahim, collapsed of a heart attack while playing soccer, Mr. Fateel led a group of prisoners who tried to negotiate with the prison administration over their possible release, he said, arguing that it was unthinkable to remain jailed “while we see our comrades fall, one by one.” Inmates accused the authorities of chronic medical neglect.

The Bahraini government said that Mr. Ibrahim had received regular medical treatment and had high blood pressure and other conditions, adding that it was committed to “providing integrated health care to all inmates.”

In an interview after his release, Mr. Fateel said the years that he spent behind bars were characterized by “oppression, pain and heartbreak.”

Prosecutors had accused him of being a leading organizer of the Arab Spring protests trying to overthrow the government, and Bahraini activists and Western politicians spent years calling for his release. Initially sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was accused of inciting riots inside prison and sentenced to another 10 years. Mr. Fateel has denied the charges, calling them “politicized,” and said that his confessions were extracted under torture.

A U.N. working group that reviewed his case determined that his imprisonment was arbitrary, and said that the government “failed to establish a legal basis” for his detention. The same working group documented accusations that Mr. Fateel was tortured, including through beating and electrocution.

In its response to the working group, the government said that Mr. Fateel was a “member of a terrorist cell” and that allegations of his mistreatment were “unsubstantiated.”

Mr. Fateel, 38 when he was arrested, spent his 40th birthday behind bars, and expected to spend his 50th there as well, separated from his five children.

Last month, when he heard there might be a royal pardon, “it was the happiest news in my life,” he said.

Hamed Al-Mahfouz, 41, who was released in the pardon, said that he felt conflicted when he learned that he would be released while others would not.

“I left behind brothers, and I feel sorry for them,” he said. “But it is a joy to meet loved ones.”

Mr. Al-Mahfouz was 28 when he was arrested. Prosecutors accused him of leading a terrorist cell and communicating with Iranian officials. He thought he presented the court with “conclusive evidence” proving his innocence, he said, but he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and his citizenship was revoked.

When word of a royal pardon came, his wife, Iman Hussein, said she initially lost hope that her husband would be among those released. Then she began “screaming with joy” when a relative sent her a video of freed prisoners that showed her husband, she said. Bahraini human rights activists had shared videos of people cheering in the streets as buses unloaded the inmates.

While Mr. Al-Mahfouz was happy to be home, he said that he was not sure what might lie ahead, and that he hoped he would get compensation “for the years I lost” and help finding a job.

The government said in a statement that a reintegration program would support released prisoners with an “array of educational and training programs, job opportunities and targeted interventions where needed to help manage the transition back into society.”

Mr. Fateel said that it was difficult to imagine his future.

“I planned in prison and made projects and scenarios for after my release,” he said. “But when I came out, I was still in disbelief.”

He found that life outside had moved on without him — he struggled to use a smartphone, and even forks and spoons seemed novel after years of eating with his hands, he said. He did not know his daughters’ husbands, and he met grandchildren who had been born while he was in prison. He said that he valued the pardon, but hoped that the government would take steps to address the “moral, psychological and material damage” that prisoners had suffered.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy believes that there are still more than 500 political prisoners detained, including several prominent Bahraini opposition figures like Hassan Mushaima, 76, the former leader of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, and Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen and human rights activist.

“These are bittersweet releases because those are still left behind,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the institute’s advocacy director.

Still, Nabeel Rajab, 59, a Bahraini human rights activist who was himself released from prison in 2020, said that the freeing of so many prisoners was positive.

“The royal pardon gave us hope for a new beginning,” he said.

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