A Freedom Poet: The Ai Weiwei of the Middle East

Ayat al-Gormezi is a 20-year-old poet in the tiny Middle Eastern island kingdom of Bahrain who was recently thrown in jail.

What for, you ask? For reading a poem.

Dubbed by some the "Ai Weiwei of the Middle East," the young Ayat was imprisoned because, the government said, her poem incited "hatred of the regime."

Now the keys to freedom for this young Middle Eastern artist sit with an unlikely person: the acting US ambassador to Bahrain -- and activists all over the world are using Change.org to call on the US ambassador to use her diplomatic muscle and actually do something about it.

To explain why the actions of a US diplomatic in a country most people have never heard of will help get Ayat released, a bit of background:

When Stephanie Williams took over in January 2011 as acting United States ambassador to Bahrain (she is officially known as the Chargé d'Affaires), there was discontent in the country and calls for reform. The Shia majority had long complained of poor treatment in employment, housing, and government representation, while the ruling Sunnis, lead by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, had the lion's share of all that the island nation had to offer, which takes the form of a large supply of oil and pearls.

On February 14, disaffected Shia took to the streets, gathering at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain's capital of Manama. There they camped for a month, holding peaceful rallies and demanding the democratic reforms that citizens in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa called for this past Spring.

In Egypt and Tunisia, protest brought hope of reform. In Bahrain it brought a brutal and bloody crackdown in which almost 40 were killed, over 1,000 wounded and close to the same number arrested.

Among those arrested was 20 year-old Ayat al-Gormezi, a student teacher. Masked police arrested Ayat at her home on March 30 for reciting a poem she wrote that was critical of the Bahraini prime minister and the monarchy. On June 12 she was sentenced to one year in prison.

The London Independent reported that since being in custody, Ayat has been beaten across the face with an electric cable, spent nine days in a tiny cell with the air conditioning turned to freezing, and was forced to clean toilets just used by police with her bare hands. Other reports say that Ayat was also threatened with rape.

On June 21, beaten down by her abuse, Ayat made a televised apology to the king and the prime minister.

Amnesty International has spoken out against Bahraini brutality and called for Ayat's release: "By locking up a female poet merely for expressing her views in public, Bahrain's authorities are demonstrating how free speech and assembly are brutally denied to ordinary Bahrainis," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Director for the Middle East and North Africa."

The United Nations spoke out, also, calling for "an immediate cessation of trials of civilians in the court of national safety and an immediate release of peaceful demonstrators who were arrested in the context of the protest movement in February."

Thousands of everyday people have spoken out as well, in petitions, through blogs, and on social media, calling for the release of the person they call the "Freedom Poet."

The only person who hasn't spoken out is Charge d'Affaires Stephanie Williams, arguably the most powerful voice in this matter. As the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Bahrain, she speaks with the full authority of the Obama administration.

There's no denying the delicate situation Williams -- and the US -- find themselves in, not least because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. However, arguments can, and have, been made that the Fifth Fleet's position in Bahrain has outlived its usefulness for the U.S.

"Just as we have acknowledged that the status quo must end in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, it may be time to match up American values to interests in the Persian Gulf," wrote Toby C. Jones in the Atlantic. "And that means engaging with the people of the region, rather than the tyrants who terrorize them. The Fifth Fleet serves only to empower -- and increase our reliance on -- the latter."

As Jones says, in the end it comes down to the rights and values upon which the American republic was founded versus the real and perceived strategic interests of geopolitics. All I can say is, there's nothing perceived and everything very real about a 20-year-old woman being tortured, imprisoned and threatened with rape for reading a protest poem.

Chargé d'Affaires Stephanie Williams, it's time for you to speak out.