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Bahrain Interview: Former MP Matar Ibrahim Matar on His Detention and The Country's Future

Matar Ibrahim Matar is a former member of the Bahraini Parliament and a leading figure in the Wefaq Society, the largest opposition political movement. Soon after the protests began against the Bahraini regime in February, and as Al Wefaq's 18 MPs resigned their seats, Matar was imprisoned for over a month. He still faces charges of support of the uprising. 

Five days before the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, we post Matar's interview with the Aswat website:

Explain who you are, your involvement with the Bahraini government and your current role in political affairs.

My name is Matar Ibrahim Matar; I have an M.A in computer science from Kuwait University where I specialized in artificial intelligence. After university, I came back to Bahrain and developed the youth arm of the Wefaq Society: the largest Shi’a party in Bahrain. Some may refer to our society as a political party, but because Bahrain does not have a true democracy it acts more like a society. As I moved up professionally within the system, members elected me to the Shura al Wefaq, a legislative council which monitors al-Wefaq’s executive council.

Later, I was chosen to represent the largest constituency in the Bahraini parliament and was elected with 85% of the vote. In parliament, I was placed on the Committee of Economic and Financial Affairs, which reviews budgets of various ministries and state organizations. On many occasions, some of the ministries, such as the Ministry of Defense or the National Guard, refused to submit their budgets. Also, other individuals from the government refused to attend their committee hearings. Unfortunately, their refusal to cooperate with our committee was not met with any penalties.  This is one example of the undemocratic nature of the Bahraini government; Bahrain has had declining transparency, competence, and a worsening human rights record in the last ten years.

What happened to you? Why and how did they arrest you? What happened during and after your detention?

The political authorities were always preparing cases against me in an attempt to provide a legitimate reason to arrest me. The first attempt came from the television confession of Ali Sager who was tortured and was forced to give a false confession. On TV, he confessed that I had ordered him to run over security personnel and kill them with a car. This accusation meant that I could face the death penalty, if tried and convicted in court. Ali’s recent death in prison as a result of torture, however, reveals that the authorities must have coerced him into providing false confessions and accusations. 

The second case fabricated by the government involved eleven detainees who were tortured until they confessed, falsely, that I had funded a program to create a media center that, according to the government, disseminated false information about the state. When I confronted the police and asked the security forces to show me one recording of a conversation I had with these detainees, they were unable to provide me with any proof.  

The third and final case involved a woman calling me asking to meet her somewhere. When I told my wife she felt very uncomfortable with it and she accompanied me. When I arrived at the location, my wife came out of the car and met the woman. At the same time masked and armed civilians came and arrested me. They tried to accuse me of committing adultery but because my wife was with me, they could not justify such a claim. They arrested me anyway. 

What about your time in prison?

Only masked men interacted with me in prison so I never knew the identity of the guards (with the exception of two guards, who showed me their faces after a while). They first questioned me for two days and then sent me to the Bahraini national intelligence agency’s jail. I was placed in solitary confinement for 45 days in a very small room with no windows; the lighting never changed. I could not recognize the time or day, only the calls to prayer gave me some idea. Whenever I left the room, they covered my eyes. I was tortured, physically and psychologically.

I was completely isolated for three weeks. They tortured me physically when they questioned me. They would even torture me after the questioning just to demonstrate their dominance. They saw it as a punishment for my actions. They made me stand up until I felt like fainting and they refused to help me when I was weak. They told me if I were to stop standing, they would move me outside and have me stand in the sun. The psychological torture was worse. I would hear the screams of others being tortured around me all the time. I began to imagine the horrible things that were happening to them. I could never sleep because whenever I heard noises outside my door, I would think that they were coming for me. 

Did you ever think about keeping quiet? Or did you always know you were going to make your case and experience known?

When I was in prison, I constantly reflected on the uprising in Bahrain. I thought about the future of the uprising.  Many times I thought that there was no hope. We are in a complicated region within a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition, the passivity of the US toward the Bahraini uprising hasn’t helped the situation. When I was released, however, I was surprised by how strong the people were even after a lot of suffering. Even after all they went through, they still spoke out. So I felt that I should make my voice heard and support them and speak out regardless of the consequences.  

How has your daily life changed?

It was difficult to adjust to my daily life again. As my phone is always monitored, I remain hesitant to use it. I’m afraid to walk in the streets. My family is still trying to recover. My son, who is five years old, was very affected by my time in prison - he did not know where I was.  At one point, he thought that people were lying to him and assumed that I had been killed. He felt better after he visited me in prison, but even now, whenever I leave the house, especially at night, he feels very uncomfortable and worried.

Can you talk a little bit about your trial and how transparent you feel it is? Have media been allowed to observe the trial? Have you had access to your lawyer throughout the process?

I think the media has been allowed into the trial. I met with my lawyer for less than 60 minutes. My first trial lasted less than 30 seconds. The judges asked me if I confess to my crimes; I said no, and that was the end of the first hearing. The second hearing took place without my presence. Can you imagine that? I had sent a request to include the ill-treatment and torture I experienced while in prison in the trial. This was rejected because no prior case has ever approved the inclusion of ill-treatment.

Human Rights Watch reports that evidence exists to prove that the judges were ignoring the issue of torture in their trials.  The judges should be neutral but they are not. The international community has commended the retrials that are taking place as a result, but these trials are not the solution because the same system that will produce the same result. There is also no differentiation between civilian and military trials. The only thing that influences the outcome of a trial is the political situation. If the political situation is good, then the judges will exercise clemency and dismiss my trial and others. This is what I believe.

Do you feel that your trial is more or less fair than those of other members of the opposition movement due to the international attention your case has received? Does the government treat you differently from other activists because of your past involvement in the government?

My involvement in the government has been good and bad for my case. The physical torture of other detainees was much worse than mine. The other doctors and lawyers experienced much worse physical torture. But I never met anyone else who spent 45 days in solitary confinement; I stayed the longest. Others had bigger cells and better conditions than I did. So, the psychological torture was worse for me. As for the effect that international exposure might have had, I think the Bahraini government has responded somewhat to international pressure (coming from the media and other governments).  This should be positive for me. 

What do you think will be the impact of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report release on 30 October [now delayed to 23 November? Does anyone still have faith in the commission?

Maybe the report will not cover everything and will not reach the root of the conflict. The regime had the BICI come in to investigate in order to protect themselves and stay in power. Cherif Bassiouni is a professional; his resume is 65 pages long! (Cherif Bassiouni is an International UN war crime expert heading the human rights investigation in Bahrain). He is a good person but he is conflating the humanitarian role with the human rights role. He has done a lot to get people released from prison. I was one of those people he helped. On the other hand, it is just a temporary fix for many. For example, he did not succeed in securing the release of Jalila Salman, Vice President of the Teachers Society. Bassiouni has focused a lot on humanitarian issues, such as advocating for the release of political prisoners, but he has not focused on fact-finding or building a case against the government. He is acting as a mediator between the government and the people and this is a political role. He is mixing his roles and I think this will affect the outcome of the report.  I will be happy if he succeeds in being both a mediator and a prosecutor of the regime.  

What do you think of the Manama Declaration? How is public opinion treating its release? Strategically, do you think it was a good move for the opposition? How is this going to be implemented?

It is a positive step for us because it is consistent with our legitimate and basic demands. Many say it is not realistic but we must continue to demand for a fair voting system, elected legislative and executive branches, and an independent judiciary. I do not see the country moving forward politically or economically without these demands being met. This is Wefaq’s vision of the future. The shortest path to change in Bahrain does not come from outside pressure but from internal drive. I want to open windows where all sides can participate to solve problems. Yes, we do not see any horizon for such ideas, but there is no other choice but to ask for these demands.

Why the recent election boycott by Al Wefaq?

There is no legitimacy in the elections. The majority of people boycott the elections because no one believes that this path will bring about stability and change. If we participated in the election, we would increase the gap between us and the youth movement and the new generation. The youth are demanding a regime overthrow and they will not easily enter into dialogue with the regime. If we do not boycott the elections, those who are ready to die in front of excessive force used by riot police and insist on overthrowing the regime would have more influence.  In order to make sure we have a peaceful reform movement, we must boycott the elections in order to have the youth on our side. We are trying to decrease the number of casualties. We do not need more suffering.

What are your thoughts on the Saudi/GCC intervention in Bahrain? Has Iran played any role in the Bahraini uprising?

I do not blame the Saudis for what is happening. Their entrance into Bahrain is a symbolic move. Bahrain spends 30% of its GDP on security and military, unlike any other country. So we do not need military or financial aid. If there is ever a problem in a Gulf country, Bahrain exports its riot force to help. Those who killed civilians in Bahrain are Bahraini forces. The policy to kill civilians is Bahraini policy. I do not believe that Saudi citizens, with the exception of some fundamentalists, support the violence in Bahrain. Additionally, if you look at history, Abdullah Al Sabah of Kuwait created the Kuwaiti Constitution fifty years ago. This was a positive step towards democracy. Maybe the Saudis did not like this move but he did it anyway. Bahrain needs a brave king that can take these steps without worrying about the Saudis. This has happened, the Free Trade Agreement between the US and Bahrain is an example. Other GCC countries refused to sign it but Bahrain did. In 2002, King Hamad declared the national charter when he came to power to help bring about democracy. Maybe some Saudis did not like this but he did it. There is a margin where Bahrain can move forward without the need go under Saudi pressure. I am in favor of Saudi interference but in the form of diplomats and academics that can mediate the issue. 

As for Iran, it wants to take advantage of the situation. They supported the uprising and we appreciate that. But they did not support it because it demanded democracy. If they did, why are they not supporting what is happening in Syria? We want the West to compete with Iran for Bahraini support. We want the West to support the uprising. The popularity of Iran’s media is increasing in Bahrain. Regardless, the Iranian model is not what Bahrain wants. We do not want an authoritarian theocratic regime. We thank them for their support, but this is not an “Islamic Awakening” as they call it. The Islamic Enlightenment was in Bahrain before this uprising. We want democracy, liberty and freedom. We look more toward the Turkish model.

More generally, in the context of the Arab Spring, how do you categorize or call the unrest in Bahrain? Would you call it a revolution? Opposition movement? Reform movement? Or any other and explain what you mean. Additionally, what is the likelihood of its success?

Wefaq is demanding a reform movement, the youth are calling it a revolution; they want to overthrow the regime. If we show tangible results through reform, then the youth will move towards reform rather than revolution. But without progression and with the government’s denial of the existence of a political problem, the people will go for a violent revolution. I am the youngest member of the Wefaq, and I want to connect with the youth so that our methodologies can converge. Currently, I see no sign of success for the most part. I hope Bassiouni’s report will give members of the ruling family, who are serious about political reform, a chance to take steps towards genuine dialogue and political reform.

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