BAGHDAD — At 20, Ayat al Qurmezi isn't the youngest person jailed for speaking at Bahrain's anti-government protests earlier this year — a 15-year-old boy may hold that distinction — but she's the only one now serving time for reading her own poetry.
Qurmezi was sentenced to a year in jail Sunday. During three brief hearings spread over 12 days, she spent about a half-hour before the judge, according to family members, not much longer than the time it took her to read the poems before the crowd at the Pearl Roundabout, the now-demolished center of the protests. Neither Qurmezi nor her lawyer was permitted to mount a defense.
She's achieved a rare distinction, having proved that rhymed lines can make even autocrats quake.
The Bahraini authorities severely mistreated Qurmezi during her first two months in jail, according to two sources who asked not to be identified because they feared for their safety. Their accounts couldn't be independently verified because the Bahraini government has blocked a McClatchy reporter from the tiny Persian Gulf island.
Guards made Qurmezi stand for nine full days while they beat her, forcibly inserted objects into her mouth, used electrical shocks on her and threatened her with rape, the sources said. Family members said they werent allowed to take Qurmezi a change of clothes until two weeks after her arrest March 30.
But from the poems she read before the crowds on Feb. 23, she wouldn't have been surprised by what happened to her.
In a powerful voice that breathed passion and anger, she portrayed King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa in a conversation with the devil. The devil comes across as compassionate, while the king, his protege, comes across as outdoing him in cruelty.
"O Hamad, fear God, for them. My heart is breaking for them.
Although I am the Devil, I swear I would put my hand in theirs
And turn against you, Tyrant, and kneel at this moment to their Prophet
And repent to God, because I am surprised by their efforts."
"Hamad, you taught me, my supporter, how to turn against them,
Through humiliation and afflicting troubles upon them,
And now my brother Devil, you come to mediate for them?
It looks like you've been shaken by their dignity, their awareness."
Later in the poem, Hamad replies that he didn't yet pull out all the stops. "I didn't fill my belly with their blood yet," he says.
"I didn't yet torture all the clerics in this country, every infant and every young man.
And step on the flower of youth in my jails.
And opened one thousand million doors of humiliation
And forced all the people to cry in an elegy for themselves."
In a second poem, Qurmezi denounces Bahrain's septuagenarian prime minister, the king's uncle. "You must go. Take His Majesty with you," she implores. She ends with "Give us back our Bahrain. Return this country to us, its people."
In most monarchies, lines such as those could get a person many years in prison for a crime known as "lese majeste." In Bahrain, she faced three charges but was convicted only of illegal assembly, though Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had told protesters they had the right to free speech. Charges of insulting the king and provoking violence were dropped.
The family viewed the trial as a staged event.
On arriving at the courthouse, the guard at the main gate said, Do you want to know the sentence? said a person close to the family who attended the trial and also spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
For Qurmezi, a young woman who speaks her mind, the sentence came as a relief.
"She was happy," said a family member who couldn't be identified. "She had thought she might have to serve three years."
(Hammoudi, a McClatchy special correspondent, contributed reporting and translated the first poem. Ghias Aljundi, with Mitchell Albert, translated the second on the Pen International website.)
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