Reports of Torture Haunt Bahrain's CID

02/23/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Last week, President Obama got it right about terrorism and its causes.

Speaking at a Washington summit on countering violent extremism, he said, "We have to address the political grievances that terrorists exploit... When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied -- particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines -- when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available."

Among the U.S. allies represented at the conference was Bahrain. Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Undersecretary, Ambassador Abdulla Abdullatif heard the president say that "lasting stability and real security require democracy. That means free elections where people can choose their own future, and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law, and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups."

At the same time as the president was speaking last week, prominent human rights defender Hussain Jawad says he was being tortured in Bahrain's Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). Jawad is known in Geneva, London and elsewhere as a leading human rights activist, a peaceful critic of the Bahrain government, and chair of the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (OBOHR). His wife, Asma Darwish, told me he had been seized from their family home in the early hours of February 16 by masked officers in civilian clothes and that later that day he called briefly from detention, for a few seconds. "I asked if he had been harmed and he said yes," she told me.

Jawad was already in trouble. When he went to a police station in November 2013 to register a complaint about being targeted by a local newspaper loyal to the government, he was arrested and detained for 46 days. He was then charged with insulting the monarchy and inciting hatred against the regime in a speech earlier that month. His trial on those charges has already opened, with the next court date set for this Wednesday, February 25.

Last week turned into an agonizing wait for Jawad's friends and family. Despite the Bahrain authorities' claims to have addressed abuses in the criminal justice system by establishing an Ombudsman's Office to handle complaints, the CID offices have a reputation for torture.

Asma says the public prosecutor actually ordered her husband's release after 48 hours in the CID but he stayed there, incommunicado. She says neither she nor his lawyer were allowed to see him. I called the CID offices repeatedly last week and on Saturday someone finally answered, confirmed that Jawad was there but would give no more details.

Later that day, Asma says he appeared before the public prosecution "in very bad physical condition." She says he was forced to confess to crimes he didn't commit, and was physically and sexually abused. She says he confirmed to her that he had been "stripped fully naked while blindfolded and handcuffed from behind, and by a woman he was not able to see. She handled and abusively interfered with his genitals in a humiliating and demeaning way,' that he was "forced to listen to other detainees being tortured by electric shock," he was blindfolded and handcuffed throughout the period of detention, and he was subjected to death threats.

The Bahraini authorities have confirmed they have opened an investigation "regarding an individual who collects money from Bahrain and abroad to aid and abet saboteurs."

His lawyer, Reem Khalaf, told me that when she was with him at his appearance at the public prosecution office he said he hadn't been tortured but later told her that he had been threatened at the CID not to mention any torture or they would "take him to hell and back." He's now been transferred to Bahrain's Dry Dock Prison.

By throwing its peaceful critics in jail Bahrain only encourages those pushing violence as a solution to the country's political crisis.

A few weeks ago, Jawad told me he hoped the U.S. government would take an interest in his case and send someone to observe his trial on the charges of insulting the king.

If President Obama's words on terrorism are to be anything more than rhetoric, the U.S. government needs to speak out about Jawad's case and remind its military ally that when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism.