Hiding people on the run in Bahrain is risky. Earlier this month, local press reported that a Bahraini family -- mother, father and son -- had all been sentenced to a year in prison for sheltering a wanted man for just a few days last April.
No one knows exactly how many Bahrainis are living in hiding within the kingdom. It's thought that dozens are on the run from authorities, who stand ready to jail them for their part in the protests. Hundreds more have been imprisoned after sham trials.
Some of those living underground are famous, like human rights activist Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar and blogger Ali Abdulemam. They're part of the group of 21 prominent dissidents who faced trumped up trials in military and civilian courts, politically motivated cases that resulted in both men receiving prison sentences in absentia of 15 years each for their parts in the pro-democracy protests.
Another man living underground, Ali Al Sadadi, was one of the 20 Bahraini medics tried and convicted in a military court after the prodemocracy protests of early 2011. During the trial, Ali and another defendant evaded detention, but were sentenced in absentia. Ali received a sentence of 15 years in jail. He went into hiding in March 2011 and stayed there until some weeks ago, when he escaped from Bahrain.
"I'd worked at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital in Bahrain, for 12 years before the prodemocracy protests began. I worked in the kitchens preparing and serving the food," he told me. "When the security forces attacked the protesters, the hospital was overwhelmed with patients. Many of us tried to help as best we could, helping to move patients around the hospital for treatment and helping those patients who couldn't walk."
On March 16, 2011, security forces attacked and occupied the hospital where Ali worked. He and a number of other hospital workers were ultimately arrested. After his arrest, Ali says he was severely beaten before his eventual release. He told me, "I went to my parents and, after a couple of days, decided I'd go into hiding. People were being picked up everywhere and taken into detention. I took my battery and card out of my phone and I went on the run. My family was harassed and questioned for information about where I was, but they didn't know. I spent nearly two years in a room on my own. Sometimes I moved. I stayed in about five places in all, often just staring at the wall, talking to myself, really on the edge of going crazy. I also felt a bit ashamed to have to ask people to help me."
Ali says he had access to the internet much of the time, but not always. When he did have it, he keep up with what was happening. He recalls, "I really couldn't sleep. The early hours of the morning were worst, when you know the police raids are happening. I slept usually three or four hours a day at most. Every few months, I went out for maybe a minute or opened the door to look out. It was really very stressful."
Ali's fears are common among Bahrainis in hiding, including those who are less well known. One man in his late 20s told me that he's in hiding from fear that if he is caught, "I might spend most of the rest of my life in prison. I've been sentenced in three cases already and have about another 10 trumped up charges. I could be sentenced to dozens of years in prison."
The man, whose name I cannot disclose, says torture is common in custody, that it's been going on for years and that it's not right for the government to ask him to give himself up to a dictatorship which has no legitimate authority. Even so, the strain of living in secret is harsh. He told me, "I live like dozens of others in hiding. It's difficult communicating with people and getting medical treatment, and it's hard to sleep. For some of us in hiding, it's possible to emerge for a few minutes now and then if there's a big crowd outside. I was nearly caught by the security forces once when I was on the street at night. I was injured, but am okay."
He adds, "I've even been able to say a quick hello to my family before diving back into hiding, but phones are too dangerous to use. People have been traced through their phones and arrested."
And while the risk for this man are great, he acknowledges that those who conceal him are also in danger. "There have been so many raids on my family's home, on the houses of my extended family. In my village alone, 160 houses were raided on the same day. But I can stay hidden as long as there are people willing to shelter me," he told me.
One of the men caught up in this recent phenomenon within Bahrain is Ahmed Al Muqabi. He was convicted of offering refuge to wanted dissident Mohammed al Moqdad, who was in hiding after being sentenced to life in jail. Muqabi was sentenced to three and a half years for sheltering al Moqdad. He says he was tortured and sexually assaulted in jail. It is a steep price to pay, but there are countless Bahrainis who remain willing to take the risk in order to protect those who have been targeted by the Kingdom.
Others in Bahrain have decided to go to jail instead of going underground. For example, in January, five Bahraini girls and women, aged between 16 and 25, turned themselves in to serve the remainder of their sentences. They did so after being convicted of charges that included taking part in an "illegal gathering." After serving part of a six-month sentence, the women had previously been released pending an appeal. When they lost that court challenge, they decided not to run, but to return to jail and complete the 37 remaining days. One of their husbands said his wife feared being abducted by masked security men in an early-morning raid, something that has happened to many other women wanted by the authorities. The fear of being caught by the police was too much and kept these women from going underground.
These women are not alone. Few Bahrainis successfully go into hiding, and even fewer manage to slip out of the country like Ali Al Sadadi. He will not, for good reason, give details of who helped him escape from Bahrain. He knows that would put them at grave risk. He will tell me that he's in Europe now, "so happy, so comfortable." But that doesn't take away the concern he still feels for others who remain in hiding, on the edge of sanity, as well as his hospital colleagues who are still in jail. "I won't rest until they are all out - I'll do everything I can to help them, wherever I am, whatever it takes."
Many in Bahrain are doing all that they can to end the crisis there, but the Kingdom's ongoing crackdown has limited their ability to make progress. They need the United States to speak up and to pressure the Bahraini government to start fulfilling the promises to reform. They need the United States to make clear that it will not stand by as the Kingdom silences dissidents, many of whom remain in hiding awaiting change that the U.S. could help to bring about.