Anti-government protesters in Bahrain under the posters of political prisoners (courtesy Reuters)
Mohamed al-Buflasa went to the Pearl Roundabout on February 15, 2011, the second day of Bahrain’s Arab Spring–inspired uprising. What he witnessed there was a swelling crowd of Sunnis and Shia calling in a single voice for greater political rights and freedoms. On a whim, he took the stage and gave a rousing speech decrying sectarianism and warning the royal family that its attempts to divide the people of Bahrain would bring great harm to the country.
The speech was noteworthy because al-Buflasa is a religiously conservative Sunni, a former army captain, and, at the time, an employee of the court of Bahrain’s crown prince. He comes from a tribe that is close to the ruling family, and he spent years supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s vows to enact political reform before coming to the conclusion that they were just empty promises. His presence at the demonstration and his impassioned call for unity were a direct challenge to the government’s portrayal of the protests as purely sectarian.
After stepping off the stage, al-Buflasa was approached by a young protester who invited him to share a cup of tea. He followed the man to the edge of the roundabout. As he waited for his host to pour the tea, a truck packed with plain-clothed policemen pulled up. The men threw a sack over al-Buflasa’s head and began punching and kicking him. Before anyone in the crowd could react, he was thrown into the back of the truck and hauled away, becoming the first political prisoner of the Bahrain uprising.
For the next three weeks, al-Buflasa was secretly held in isolation in a tiny prison cell. He was routinely beaten, tortured, and humiliated by his prison guards, although, bizarrely, no one bothered to interrogate him. At one point, the police told his 13-year-old daughter that her father had been bewitched and put under a magic spell.