Even though that would mean five years of jail and possible torture for protesting.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei outside Harmondsworth detention centre.
On Wednesday I went to Harmondsworth to interview Isa Haidar Al-Aali, a 19-year-old Bahraini protester who has been in detention since the 14th of February 2014, the anniversary of the Bahraini uprising, when he entered the UK on a valid passport and claimed asylum. He was supposed to be deported back to Bahrain on Thursday, where he would likely get tortured – another victim of the Bahraini government, but also of the UK government's fast-track deportation scheme which turns down 99 percent of all asylum claims.
As I travelled to Harmondsworth – a depressing looking, prison like building next to Heathrow airport – Sayed Ahmed Al-Wadaei, a prominent young Bahraini activist also in exile in London made anxious telephone calls to lawyers in the back of the car. A final appeals court was hearing his case at that very moment and if the appeal failed, he would be sent back to a country where he has been sentenced to five years in prison in absentia by a government controlled judiciary.
The pro-government media was already rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of his return. Akbar Al-Khaleej newspaper published an opinion piece on the case, pretty much accusing all Bahraini political refugees of being terrorists. It concluded that, “The British refusal to provide the right to political asylum to Haider is definitely not enough reaction by the British government. We believe that what is more correct and more beneficial is for the British authorities to review all files of the 'Bahraini political refugees' in the UK and to withdraw all of the utilitarian licenses which they have received from the British government to stay there and to enjoy the cold European climate whilst at the same time insulting, cursing and conspiring against the government of Bahrain.”
On the 9th of May, the Home Office summarily refused his claim for asylum, noting in their letter of rejection that, “It does not necessarily follow that a sentence for a crime denotes persecution rather than prosecution.” It's as if they haven't read about how Bahraini political prisoners are treated. If you haven't read about that either, the answer is: very, very badly. The country's Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa is facing the prospect of losing his diplomatic immunity in the UK over alleged involvement in torture of prisoners from the 2011 uprising.
On Tuesday the 20th May, home office functionaries summarily delivered Isa a final notice that he would be deported on Thursday. However, they brought the wrong detainee’s paperwork, and no translator.
In fact, Isa’s treatment in asylum here was almost as judicially flawed as the average Bahraini trial. He didn’t see a lawyer for almost a month, wasn’t told his court documents had to be translated, and these were not even looked at until after his first application had been rejected. Isa was one of those in the centre who went on hunger strike earlier this month to protest their treatment.
When we got to the detention centre, we walked into the waiting room where we were fingerprinted and showed two forms of ID before being told we could only take in blank paper and pens and then given orange wristbands, which made me feel like I was about to enter the most depressing festival ever.
It was almost 9PM by this stage and I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have long to see Isa before closing time. But as we were entering the building, Sayed received a call informing him that the judge who had seen the final appeal had been more sympathetic and postponed the deportation for a week.
Sayed thought we might get away with taking a photo with the Bahraini flag in the waiting room and we just about managed one before the attendant started shouting at us that it was illegal or because this was "private property" or something.
After a final search, we walked through a bunch of sliding doors and into a room where Isa was waiting quietly for us. He had short, waxed hair and wore trainers and hoodie. Unsurprisingly for a man who thought he was about to be sent back to prison and torture, he seemed tired. Sayed told him, "Congratulations, your deportation has been postponed!"
"Really?" Isa replied. He didn't exactly jump for joy. His reaction was more like that of a marathon runner who had just completed a race only to realise he had to walk all the way back to where he had left his car.
How do you feel? I asked Isa. “This is the first good news I’ve had since my detention in the UK, the first positive step that’s been taken by a UK court. I’m still not confident about the next steps for the Home Office. My experience has been miserable, so it’s just a temporary decision.”
I asked him about his treatment by the Bahraini police when he was arrested three times for protesting.
“I was first arrested on the 15th of February 2013 on charges of rioting and illegal gathering. I was captured by the police and tortured. The police fabricated my statement. They took my own statement, but when I was told to sign it, it had been changed. By the time I went to the public prosecutor, I was tired, mentally and physically, from being beaten. I couldn’t refuse anything, I was under their control”, he told me.
He told me that his hands were tied behind his back with a plastic cable tie (he still has marks on his wrists) and was put in a van and taken to an area near an abandoned youth hostel near the town of Sanabis, which has become famous as a place that the police take detainees to torture them since they can no longer do this in police stations, where CCTV has been installed as part of the government’s superficial commitment to reform.
“They put a gun to my head”, Isa said, “and asked me, ‘Are you the next martyr?’”
In the car, the police pulled down Isa’s trousers and put a knife to his genitals. “Are you going to confess, or do you want me to cut off your penis?” his captors asked him.
Other police cars arrived at the derelict youth hostel and he was taken out of the car and pushed to the floor. One put his boot on Isa’s head before the others started kicking him. The police officers took turns until they had all had a go beating him up. This lasted about half an hour before he was taken back to the police station where he was made to wait blindfolded, in fear that the beating would start again at any moment. He was released after three months due to the support of local human rights activists.
After being arrested and released twice more, and with court cases pending against him and the likelihood of a long sentence, Isa decided to leave Bahrain.
I asked Isa if Bahraini kids from the mainly opposition villages feel they have no future in Bahrain.
“The youth in Bahrain are victims of unfairness and injustice by the regime. The revolution in Bahrain is not a ‘bread’ revolution – it’s for political reform. Many have been calling for the release of relatives, improvement of the human rights situation and democratic rights. Our demand is to seek justice for impunity in torture cases. If I return, I’m returning to death and torture.”
Earlier on Wednesday there were reports on Twitter of the death of a 14 year old boy during a demonstration, the cause of death; close range police birdshot pellets.
Sue Willman, partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors, has followed the case to try to get him out of detention. She said, "His continuing detention as a 19-year-old torture survivor and the spectre of removal hanging over him represents a serious injustice. Bahraini cases are not straightforward and clearly have merit and should not be processed under the fast track scheme. I don't understand why Bahrainis were previously granted asylum easily whereas now the Home Office has gone to the opposite extreme."
Isa now has to submit fresh evidence to be considered next week, as his first claim came before his sentencing in absentia. His advocates are fairly confident of his case, given how completely obvious it is that he would face a pretty grim fate were he to be deported. If he is allowed to stay, it will be a rare case of the UK's asylum system working – sort of, in the end. Isa has been in limbo in detention centre for three months already and has had compelling evidence of his fate rejected without due process. This week he was saved from deportation by a last ditch appeal. Being forced to return to Bahrain remains a scary possibility.
More asylum stories: