When twenty-year-old Ayat al-Qurmezi emerged from her vehicle on Thursday surrounded by throngs of cheering supporters, she was more than a little stunned. It was understandable, given that she'd been whisked from prison straight into the international spotlight. She explained to Euronews:
I honestly didn't expect things to be like this outside. In prison, we hardly got any news and we very rarely heard what was going on outside.
Police arrested Ayat at her home in late March after she was caught on film reading poems critical of Bahrain's ruling regime to a group of protestors at Pearl Roundabout, the fulcrum of the protest movement. Last month, a military court sentenced her to 12 months in jail.
Ayat holds that she didn't commit treason, as her poems sought reform rather than revolution. In a poem addressed to the king, she wrote, "We will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. Don't you hear their cries? Don't you hear their screams?" Another poem aimed at the prime minister stated, "You must go. Take His Majesty with you, and leave your deeds behind."
Pressure to free Ayat had been growing since her arrest. Her imprisonment became a rallying point for protestors and drew condemnation from human rights groups including Amnesty International. A groundswell of global support built on the Internet for Bahrain's young "Freedom Poet." And just a few days ago here on the Huffington Post, Philip Bishop of Artists Speak Out called for Stephanie Williams, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in the country, to work to free Ayat.
Ayat was released, along with 200 other political protestors, as part of a series of steps the Bahraini government is taking to reform its image. The government has also begun talks with opposition leaders, has agreed to move trials to civilian courts, and has invited an international panel of human rights experts to investigate its response to the protests earlier this year. The panel could start by interviewing Ayat, who claims that she was mistreated during her time in prison. Her brother gave the horrible details to the Telegraph:
She was beaten with a hose and electrocuted. They put the clips on her lips and other parts of her face. They did not rape her but they told her they would. They put her in a narrow cell. Through the wall she could hear the screams of men who were being beaten. They would come and tell her 'you are next.'
And though Ayat has been released, she isn't out of danger yet: she remains under house arrest and the charges against her still stand. She also claims that the she had to sign a pledge not to attend protests or speak to the press -- a pledge that she's already broken. She told the press, "I'm not afraid to speak out though. I have something to say and I won't be afraid because of a paper I signed."
Despite all she's suffered, Ayat also managed to strike a diplomatic note, telling the press, "I hope Bahrain can move away from the crisis to a transition into a better future, without discrimination or sectarianism." Ayat, it seems, is ready to move forward. Time will tell if her country's government is as well.