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Bahrain 1st-Hand Special: The Coupled Suffering of Younis and Amina Ashoori

Younis AshooriUPDATE: As this piece was going to press, we received news that Younis Ashoori was taken to Salminayah Medical Complex this afternoon for treatment of kidney and prostate problems. The judge in the case is expected to receive a copy of the medical report; however, the family are concerned that this will lead to a further delay in Younis' trial which resumes tomorrow morning.

UPDATE 2: In court on Wednesday, the judge adjourned Younis' appeal until 18 July.

On the morning of 20 March 2011, 60-year-old Younis Ashoori went to Muharraq Maternity Hospital as usual, where he worked as an administrator. Suffering from a migraine and pain from kidney stones, he decided to go home early. Amina, his wife, recalls that he arrived around 11:30 am. Shortly afterwards, he received a call from his boss asking him to come back as there was an urgent need for his assistance.

Despite his pain, Younis, a dedicated worker with nearly 30 years of public service, consented to his boss’s request. Saying goodbye to his wife, he drove back to the hospital.

Amina waited anxiously for her husband to return home, but he never did. He still hasn’t.

This was a period of great unrest in Bahrain: five days before, King Hamad had announced a state of national emergency to last for three months, handing over much authority to the military. Younis Ashoori would be one of the people caught up in the crackdown.

Upon his return to the hospital, he had been violently arrested. He was subsequently tortured and tried before a military court, where he was convicted of transporting oxygen to the site of a protest on 14 March and given a three-year sentence.

Following the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November, Ashoori's case was transferred to a civilian court; however it has been subject to a series of adjournments and delays since March. Six witnesses have testified to Younis’s innocence and that anything he did was on instruction of his superior; The government’s witness, perversely, was an alleged accomplice to Younis’s torture.

These delays further endanger Younis’s already precarious health, yet he has had scant access to suitable and specialist treatment. "hen taken to a military hospital last year, after he began urinating blood as a consequence of the torture he was enduring, a doctor allegedly asked Younis where it hurt and then proceeded to punch him in his kidney.

Amid this treatment --- and unlike the 20 medical professionals whose verdict was recently heard --- Younis was not granted release on bail while his appeal was heard. Many NGOs, including BRAVO, BCHR, Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights, have called for his release and sought to raise awareness of his plight.

Younis is back in court tomorrow, with many hoping Wednesday’s hearing will finally bring his freedom. Foremost among them are his wife Amina and their son Mohammad. With Ramadan just days away, any further adjournment will likely keep Younis behind bars until at least September. “It's very difficult for someone to be away at Ramadan. It is a very special time for a family. His mother needs to see him. We need Younis home,” Amina says.

Mr and Mrs Younis and Amina Ashoori with their son Mohammad

The morning after Younis’ disappearance, Amina, fraught with worry, had gone to the local police station desperate for their help. Officers told her to be patient and wait 48 hours, at which time she could formally report Younis as missing. Returning, two days later as instructed, Amina was greeted not with sympathy, but with disdain. “They told me bad things about my husband. They said maybe he has contact with Iran.” The officers insulted her, asking her why she ever married Younis.

What Amina did not know then, but does know now, is that Younis was in detention. “Younis was missing for me, but he wasn’t missing for them,” she says. After the news emerged that he was being held at Hid police station. On hearing this, Amina went there with Younis’ essential medication. The officers refused to take it, falsely claiming that he was not there.

During this time, Younis was enduring unspeakable things. Amnesty International covered his case in a recent report:

During the first two weeks of detention Younis Ashoori was reportedly tortured. Reported methods included beatings with a hosepipe, punches to his face and his stomach, suspension upside down and electric shocks. He was told that if he did not sign a “confession”, his wife and sisters would be brought to the police station and raped in front of him. He was denied medicine for his prostate, kidney problems and migraine.

It would be 18 days before Amina heard her husband's voice again. That day, Younis rang home unexpectedly. He told his wife he was “okay”, although he was unaware of his exact location. “I have to come to see you,” Amina pleaded. “I am here, that is enough,” Younis replied. Amina asked his permission to contact human rights organisations to report what was happening, but he asked her not to do so.

Younis said he had been told if he signed some documents whilst blindfolded, he would be released. These documents, signed under torture, would come to constitute the government’s main evidence against him.

Younis would call home around once a month. Each time Amina would ask him if she could alert organisations to his case and each time he would ask her “not to say anything about him”.

It was during this time that Amina was subjected to a second traumatic and terrifying experience. Since Younis’ disappearance, she had found it very hard to sleep. Afraid, she slept with a small light on and the bedroom door open. One night, around 12:30 am, masked men burst into her bedroom. She awoke with a frightened start:

One of them asked me to get out of bed. I tried to cover my hair and body and asked them who they were. No one answered. I repeatedly asked the same question, “Who are you?”, on and on. Suddenly, one of them said to me, “wear your hijab” whilst they were looking at me with their masks on. I had no idea who they were and was in fear of being raped at any time. They showed me a picture of one man, thinking that this was his house. But it was not my husband’s picture but his brother. They searched the house and then they realised that they were in the wrong place.

Removing their masks, the men wanted to know the precise address of Younis’ brother, but Amina could not recall it. The told her to call her son, Mohammad, who was out that night. Unable to reach him by phone, the men went out and tracked Mohammad down in the local area. They they drove off, taking him with them to see if they had been given the correct address.

It was after one o’clock at night. I went outside screaming, crying, “I WANT MY SON!”. And nobody came out to support me because they are afraid.

Mohammad eventually came home safely, but the incident exacerbated Amina's anxiety. Since then, she barely sleeps; when she does, it is in bursts of 15 or 30 minutes. “Any sound in the house and I get up. I think they are coming back,” she says.

“If I call out to my son and he doesn’t answer,” Amina starts, before her voice trails off with the horror of the prospect. “We are not safe in our house.” She pauses, an added sadness in her voice, “We are not safe in our country.”

Mohammad, 20, is Younis and Amina’s only child. He is currently at university studying IT, hoping to one day own his own business. His studies, however, are presently in jeopardy.

Younis’s salary was stopped by the hospital. Amina has appealed to various officials and ministers within the Ministry of Health, but with no response. Younis was the family breadwinner and over time, this has placed a huge financial burden on the family, particularly in covering Mohammad’s university fees. Mohammad has 1 1/2 years of study left. He has been trying to find work, but is continually turned away, a consequence, Amina believes, of Younis’s imprisonment.

“I give him all so he can go to university,” Amina said, describing how she has sold jewelry and valuables to try and ensure that Mohammad achieves his degree. Medical colleagues have also offered support out of fondness for the family and sadness for their suffering.

As we discuss her family’s precarious finances, Amina implores over Younis: “I need him. My son needs him. We might need the money, but we need to be with Younis more.”

Amina finally saw her husband in person on 18 May 2011. Two days earlier, the family received a call to say that that they needed to bring clothes for Younis’ forthcoming court appearance, of which they previously knew nothing. They immediately contacted a lawyer, but he was nott able to see Younis until the court session, watched by the military. In court Younis was charged with delivering oxygen to the site of a protest, replacing images of Bahrain’s leaders with Shia religious symbols and inciting hatred against the regime. Each charge was related to the documents he had signed while blindfolded under torture.

By the time of his sentencing on 28 September by the military court, the charges had been reduced to just the delivery of the oxygen tanks, an indication perhaps of the non-existence of the evidence against Younis.

Amina has been able to visit Younis in prison about once a fortnight for up to one hour. All the while, guards keep watch and monitor any physical contact between the two. “It is not possible to hold him for long,” she said. “Maybe I can hold his hand for one minute, then the officer says stop.”

Conditions in prison are not pleasant. The air conditioning frequently fails, especially in hot weather. Amina was told of a week when the broken air conditioning was accompanied by a blocked drainage pipe in a toilet, creating an acrid, festering stench which Younis had to endure. On days when prisoners are allowed visitors, they are forced to undergo incredibly invasive body searches, which seem designed to humiliate detainees and to stop them wanting visitors. Those visitors are not allowed to bring anything as gifts, other than money.

The so-called National Safety Court which convicted Younis has been condemned by a multitude of institutions and organisations, from the United Nations to Amnesty International. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, commissioned by King Hamad, found this form of justice deeply questionable and recommended all cases be heard before a civilian court. The process is slowly underway for Younis, but unlike many of his fellow health professionals, he has not been granted release on bail. After assorted delays and adjournments, the appeal was expected to reach a final verdict last month, but still the case drags on.

All the while, Younis remains in ill-health, without access to specialist treatment. He suffers from migraines, an enlarged prostate, osteoarthritis in his knees, and kidney stones for which a doctor has advised surgery. Following his experience with the military hospital last year, he has not wanted to return there, asking to be sent for specialist treatment at Salminayah Medical Complex. The judge has supported this request.

This all begs the question: Why? Why are Younis and his family being put through all this? He had nothing to do with the opposition protests last year. Amina wonders aloud, frustrated, “Who’s afraid of an old sick person?” She then adds, sadly, “He is being punished for being a Shi’ite married to a Sunni.”

Younis and Amina have been married 25 years. They met through work, although ironically they had lived together for a long time as neighbours in Muharraq without knowing each other. He was working in Salminaya Medical Complex as an administrator, whilst she was a health educator. The two have lived a happy life together in public service, without any issues stemming from their different sects. Until last year. “This change is very different,” Amina sighed.

Since Younis’s disappearance and detention, Amina has found herself increasingly cut off from family, friends, and neighbours. Mohammad has faced a similar fate. A handful of members of Amina’s family call her about once a month, very briefly. “My family are afraid that if they contact me, this government will do something bad. The good people are scared to talk.”

The atmosphere is made worse by sectarian propaganda put out by BTV and other pro-regime sources. “Can you imagine what this is like? No neighbour talking to you? Not able to even talk to your husband?” She continues, “Bahrain is a small island, we are nice people. We just want to be free. This is our home.”

Bahrain is indeed a small island. The judge who has been presiding over Younis’s appeal, and may tomorrow deliver a final verdict, is an old neighbour of his. The two were friends as teenagers.

Peace for Amina will not come until her husband is home with her and their son Mohammad, where together they can heal --- victims of a shared ordeal --- physically, emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps that is also a prescription for Bahrain’s own peace and reconciliation.

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