This article was taken from the September 2013 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
Bahraini activist Ali Abdulemam runs Bahrain Online, a pro-democracy platform in a country where holding such opinions can get you arrested.
In 2011, as the Arab spring spread, thousands were arrested and Abdulemam says he was one of many tortured to sign false confessions. Last April, the 35-year-old escaped to the UK after being in hiding for over two years. Here’s how he managed his incredible escape.
Know when to disappear A few weeks after the start of the Bahraini civil uprising in February 2011, Abdulemam saw the regime attacking “the activists, the clerics, all the human-rights defenders… I realised my turn was coming soon.” So he left his home and family and went into hiding without telling a soul. Shortly afterwards, his home was raided and he was sentenced to 15 years in absentia for plotting to overthrow the regime. “Only because someone posted on my site,” he says. “Not because I did something.”
Lie low While in hiding, Abdulemam couldn’t risk going outside, or contacting friends and family. “The rulers in Bahrain are like the mafia; they would attack my family if they knew I was contacting them,” he explains. The hardest part was not being able to attend a friend’s funeral. The former IT engineer also worked to obscure his activity and location while online. The only option in that situation, he says, is to reduce your use of electronics — especially if you’re unsure of how to secure them.
Keep your brain alert Determined that his time in hiding wouldn’t be wasted, Abdulemam took to reading a wide range of novels and nonfiction, and finished a new book every few days. Unable to buy them, he accessed free texts from pirate websites. “I challenged myself in 2012 that I would finish a hundred books, and I finished 107 books,” he says. He was particularly drawn to those on civil conflicts in countries such as Bosnia, Iraq and South Africa: “I was focusing on these things because I wanted to understand why it was happening in Bahrain.”
Choose your destination wisely Abdulemam can’t reveal the exact details of his eventual escape to the UK for fear of endangering others, but it has been widely reported that he escaped to Saudi Arabia in a hidden compartment in a car before passing through Kuwait and then sailing with fishermen to Iraq, where he took a flight to London. He’d visited the UK before and it made sense for his getaway. “I could enter London without any problems because my passport had a visa,” he explains. He knew others who had fled to London too, and was granted asylum shortly after his arrival. His wife and children are still in Bahrain.
Keep fighting The battle isn’t over for Abdulemam, who continues to call for change in Bahrain. He hopes that raising awareness will encourage others to pressure their own governments into taking action. “I just want people to understand the situation in Bahrain,” he says. “People don’t have their own basic rights and they want the right to elect their government.” He was awarded Danish think tank CEPOS’s annual Freedom Prize last year for his efforts to defend democracy, just weeks after his escape. His advice for those who may find themselves in a similar position: “Don’t lose hope in your people. If you are working for your people, they won’t forget you.”