June 26, 2011
Bahrain: A Face of Opposition
By Jenifer Fenton
Matar Ebrahim Matar, a former MP for the opposition party Al Wefaq, was born in Bahrain on May 3, 1976 into a well-known family. He was the fifth of seven children from his father’s third wife. His father, a simple farmer turned wealthy businessman, had 11 additional children with his two other wives. It is a big family that includes different political and ideological views, a family member said. (None of his family is named out of concern for their safety.)
A family member described Matar’s brothers and sisters as “leftists, Islamists, Communists, some…conservative and some liberal.” Matar was brought up in an environment where politics was a part of daily life, according to a close friend.
Before he resigned from the Kingdom’s Parliament to protest the government’s crackdown, Matar represented the biggest constituency in Bahrain, approximately 16,000 people. Matar was one of 18 Al Wefaq MPs who resigned. As the youngest Member of Parliament, Matar is described as very intelligent by Khalil al Marzooq, another Al Wefaq leader who resigned. Most of Matar’s family are active members of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group, or the secularist Waad party.
Two of Matar’s brothers were detained in the 1990s, during a wave of Shiite unrest. Now, it is Matar who is locked up. He is accused of “public incitement for regime change and deliberately spreading biased rumors, in addition to taking part in public gatherings,” according to Bahrain’s state run news agency. He has pleaded not guilty.
His family said he was a shy, but bright child. He went to Al Razi primary school in Daih village – the sight of protests earlier this year – where his family still lives. He continued his studies at Jedhafs intermediate school and Naim secondary school. He was always a top student, a close friend of Matar’s said. He studied in Kuwait, where he obtained a Masters degree in Computer Science specializing in Artificial Intelligence. Matar left for Kuwait in 1994, the same year an uprising began in Bahrain. “Bahrain went through years of brutal crackdown on protestors just like now,” Matar’s friend remembers.
The unrest continued until Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the King of Bahrain came to power after the death of his father. “The situation in Bahrain calmed down and went through a quiet reform period as promised by Hamad,” his friend said. Matar was away during this period, but “he was so concerned about what was going on in Bahrain and decided to contribute (to) any reform process that would help improve the situation of Bahrain,” his friend said.
When Matar returned to Bahrain he joined Al Wefaq and helped establish the Bahrain Youth Center, which elected him to be the center’s first president. Around this time he met his wife, Dr. Amal Habib. The two were married in 2003. With Amal, “He was very polite and shy,” a family member said. “Although when it comes, to politics he becomes very active and vocal.” In 2010 he was elected and became an Al Wefaq MP. He was active in the society and people liked him, al Marzooq said.
Bahrain is a tiny Kingdom where a Sunni royal family rules over a majority Shiite population, who for years have complained about discrimination and called for democratic reforms. Matar was at the Pearl Roundabout during the protests that began in mid February. He also attended a couple of protests organized by Al Wefaq during the ensuing unrest. Bahrain declared Martial law on March 15, which was followed by a crackdown by the authorities.
At least 1,000 people are believed to be in detention. Matar was at the protests because he just doing his duty as a politician to defend people, to call for their rights, al Marzooq said.
Matar is being held with Jawad Fairooz, another former opposition MP, and others while he awaits his third court appearance scheduled for July 5. Matar was not at his second hearing on Tuesday June 21 for reasons that remain unclear. Guards at the court initially would not allow the family in, saying that Matar’s name was not on their court list. The guards later confirmed to his family that Matar’s trial would go ahead despite the fact that Matar was not there, a family member said. His lawyer asked to postpone the hearing, but according to his lawyer, the judge decided to proceed. The judge said Matar’s case was a minor case so there was no need for him to be there, al Marzooq said. If it is a minor case then “why is there (a) need for him to be in custody for now two months?” Bahrain has not responded to a query about why Matar was not at his own hearing.
Armed men took Matar from his car on May 2, according to his family. His wife was with him at the time. He was in solitary confinement for at least two months from May 2 to June 12. His wife Amal, who works in the ophthalmology department at Salmaniya Medical Complex, was allowed to see him on Wednesday June 22 in accordance with a judge’s order, a family member said. She did not take his children, Ahmed, 4, and Sarah, 3, to see him. She “thought it is better for them not to see their father in this condition,” a family member said.
Matar told his wife he has not been tortured. A family member said Amal checked Matar’s body to see if there were any signs of abuse. There were not. Matar also reportedly said that he had not been harmed. But a family member says they will not be comfortable unless they “see him released and given the freedom to express his opinion and views.” Just because Matar said he is fine “does not eliminate the possibility of him being subjected to other kinds of mistreatment, like psychological abuse…We can’t be sure that he is not threatened not to mention any mistreatment he might be facing,” a family member said.
A human rights activist said that Matar was beaten on the same day he saw his wife. Matar’s visit with his wife was at court on Wednesday June 22, the same day 21 people were convicted on terrorism-related charges in connection with anti-government protests. The trial was denounced by rights groups. The 21 were forcibly removed from the court and taken to a side room where they were beaten by Bahraini security forces, according to Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Matar happened to be in that side room following the visit with his wife and he was also beaten, Rajab said. The extent of his injuries is unknown. Bahrain has not responded to a query about the alleged incident.
There have been credible allegations of abuse in Bahrain’s prisons. Richard Sollom, Deputy Director for Physicians for Human Rights told CNN previously, that his group could “attest to violent assault and defensive wounds on…detainees who have died in custody. We have analyzed photographic evidence of two such deaths in custody that are highly probably the result of severe abuse including blows to the face, torso, arms, and legs.” Bahraini officials have said that they are investigating several security personnel alleged to have mistreated detainees.
The police also questioned Amal for six hours on June 19, according to her family. The authorities asked her about Salmaniya Medical Complex, which was a focal point during the protests. Government officials allege that some of the staff helped turn the hospital into a base for the opposition and denied some patients treatment. Human rights groups believe that the medical workers are being targeted because they treated protesters and witnessed gross violations of human rights by Bahrain security forces.
When Matar resigned from parliament earlier this year, a family member asked if he was fearful about not finding work. Matar said no. “‘The last thing I think about is money,'” the family member recalls him saying. “‘People elected me to represent them and to defend them.” It is unclear if Matar will have another opportunity to serve as an elected official again.