For two years, Bahrainis have been asking "Where is Ali Abdel Imam?" And now finally, they have an answer.
The prominent opposition blogger suddenly emerged from hiding last week, announcing he had been granted asylum in the United Kingdom, news sources reported.
He had not been heard from since March 17, 2011, when he cryptically tweeted, "I get tired from my phone so I switched it of no need for rumors plz." The Bahraini government had just declared a state of emergency, as massive reform protests rocked the island country. Abdel Imam, who had already been arrested twice before for his work, feared the government would arrest him again in an impending crackdown. So when they came for him the following day, Abdel Imam made sure he wasn't there. He had not been heard from since--until last week.
The story of Abdel Imam's escape from Bahrain, as reported by The Atlantic, reads like a Hollywood script, complete with outlandish plots involving body doubles, code names, and secret compartments. The news electrified the Bahraini opposition and human rights defenders across the region. His first tweet since his disappearance, simply reading "online," was retweeted 257 times and favorited 74 times.
There was one group clearly not entertained by the news: the Bahraini government. In a statement to CNN, the government accused Abdel Imam of "inciting and encouraging continuous acts of violent attacks against police officers." The government also expressed its surprise that "certain NGOs have taken it as their mission to aid and abet fugitives from justice."
In the strictest sense of the term, Abdel Imam is in fact a fugitive. In June 2011, Abdel Imam was sentenced in absentia to 15 years imprisonment for attempting to overthrow the regime by an extraordinary tribunal established under martial law. Some of his co-defendants--bloggers, activists, and opposition politicians--received life sentences.
In April the following year, CPJ was one of 50 human rights and press freedom groups that sent a letter to King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa in support of Abdel Imam and his 20 co-defendants--all convicted for their political beliefs and activism.
Despite such pressure, a civilian court upheld Abel Imam's convictions in September 2012. At the time, CPJ slammed the court decision, and our executive director, Joel Simon, said, "The expression of critical opinion is protected by international law and can never be a crime."
As such, Abdel Imam is not so much a fugitive as an opposition voice in exile. The U.K.'s decision to grant Abdel Imam asylum indicates the British too believe the charges against him amount to political persecution.
The Bahraini government makes clear in its statement to CNN that it considers Abdel Imam a serious threat to security, explaining he is the"founder of Bahrain Online, a website that has repeatedly been used to incite hatred."
To be sure, anger towards the government is readily apparent on Bahrain Online. Founded almost 15 years ago, Bahrain Online became a central hub for opposition voices, hosting blogs and an immensely popular discussion forum. With opposition voices largely excluded from the traditional press, dissent in Bahrain went digital years before YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Abdel Imam became known as the "Blogfather of Bahrain," and he helped pave the way for netizens across the Arab world to establish their own blogs and online forums.
As the hope of the 2011 Pearl Revolution devolved into repression and street clashes, anger in some corners of the opposition grew. Today, a banner on Bahrain Online reads "No dialogue with you" next to a picture of a vampiric King Hamad and a massive fireball. Some threads now discuss how to battle riot police in actions described by the posters as self-defense. The government calls such operations--usually involving molotov cocktails, stones, and iron rods--acts of terror.
Yet such posts apparently came from website users and not Abdel Imam, who was in hiding, and they are essentially part of an ongoing intra-opposition debate over how to seek change in Bahrain. In an interview with Al-Jazeera last week, Abdel Imam blamed the increase of violence by protesters on the regime "because they didn't provide any proper channel for change."
Asked about his new life in exile, Abdel Imam told Al-Jazeera, "I didn't plan it, but if it's the price of the freedom for my country and for the people I love to have their rights then I'm willing to pay." Separated from his family, at least now Abdel Imam is safe, physically and legally--unlike so many journalists and activists still in Bahrain.
Just yesterday, a Bahraini court jailed six people for insulting King Hamad on Twitter, and another court once again delayed the trial of photographer Ahmed Humaidan, accused of "using violence to assault police" after he covered anti-government demonstrations. In the past month, three international journalists were asked to leave the country for covering unrest coinciding with a major Formula One race, and police continued to harass professional photographers working for outlets like The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and others.
Not everyone under threat can choose exile. Now, the opposition voices that remain will at least once again have an essential advocate to amplify their message.