In 2005, The Wall Street Journal carried a front-page news story about Ali Abdulemam, a young blogger in Bahrain, the island nation off Saudi Arabia's coast that hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The article reported that Mr. Abdulemam's blog mixed "irreverent politics and reverent Islam," and that Mr. Abdulemam had, several years earlier, stopped using a pseudonym. This was remarkable since Bahrain's Sunni-led government has historically used arbitrary detention, torture and other tactics to stifle calls for political equality by Bahrain's majority-Shia population. Mr. Abdulemam's decision to post openly came after King Hamad, who assumed power in 1999, had instituted reforms that included holding elections for an advisory parliament and ending torture.
It would be telling-but impossible-to ask Mr. Abdulemam if he now regrets discarding the pseudonym. On Sept. 4, Bahrain's National Security Apparatus called him to appear for questioning. After making a Facebook post about the call and attempting to contact a lawyer, Mr. Abdulemam left for the Apparatus's headquarters. He did not return.
The next Mr. Abdulemam's family heard of him was from a government news agency's story, reporting that prosecutors were questioning Mr. Abdulemam in a "terrorist network" investigation. Mr. Abdulemam, the account continued, had been "diffusing fabricated and malicious news on Bahrain" and receiving funding from a London-based "terror mastermind."
In retrospect, events during the last weeks of August foretold Mr. Abdulemam's arrest. On Aug. 13, authorities detained longtime opposition figure Abdul-Jalil Singace after he returned to Bahrain from a House of Lords event in London. Shortly after, 20 additional "terrorist network" figures were arrested, including well-known activists, Shia clerics, and a dentist. A charge sheet without reference to any purported facts accused them of "organizing. . . to overthrow and change the political system of the country," and of "working with international organizations."
Prosecutors leveled these impossibly vague charges pursuant to a 2006 "anti-terrorism" law that goes so far as to criminalize acts that "damage national unity," which is another of the accusations lodged against these defendants. The 2006 law also allows for extended detention without judicial review.
To date, authorities have prevented Mr. Abdulemam and the others from meeting privately with their lawyers, contrary to Bahraini law, and have rejected requests for independent medical examinations of torture complaints. Given widespread reports that the 22 detainees have been tortured, the government's actions suggest a desire to keep such allegations from public view. Bahraini security forces have detained hundreds more people, evidently on lower-level charges, and allegations of abuse have arisen in these cases as well, some of which involve juveniles. A recent Human Rights Watch report, which relied in good measure on medical texts from government doctors, documented a resurgence in abusive interrogation practices.
Moreover, the government has engaged in a wholesale crackdown on basic freedoms. This seems unconnected to any legitimate concerns regarding the street violence that has plagued Bahrain over the past year or so, typically manifesting itself in tire burning. Authorities blocked the website of the opposition political society that won a majority of the vote in Bahrain's last parliamentary election, and dissolved the board of a human-rights society that had the temerity to suggest publicly that detainees had the right not to be abused. Most media are close to or run by the government and regularly claim that human-rights defenders and defense lawyers support terrorists.
When I recently visited Mr. Abdulemam's family, these broader issues were not on their minds. Security officials had rebuffed their initial attempts to visit Mr. Abdulemam, saying there was no record of his arrest-effectively "disappearing" him. Also, Mr. Abdulemam was not accompanied by an attorney when he was questioned by prosecutors. Other families of detainees told me similar stories about not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones and fearing those loved ones had been tortured.
After pressure from groups like Human Rights Watch, Mr. Abdulemam's family was allowed to see him on Sept. 29 (in the presence of security personnel). Mr. Abdulemam bore no marks of injury, but spoke with exaggerated excitement about getting new slippers and being allowed to play sports in jail. "Ali doesn't care about sports," his wife said. "That was not Ali talking."
Mr. Abdulemam's family scoffs at the notion that he received funding for the blog from anyone, let alone a terror mastermind. "The blog cost maybe $200 a year and Ali has-or had-a good job," she said. Gulf Air, a government-controlled airline, summarily fired Mr. Abdulemam from his long-held information technology position after his arrest. On a more personal note, she recounted that her nine-month-old twins had learned the word "daddy" just before Mr. Abdulemam's arrest. "Now, he's not there," she said, her voice trailing off. Nobody in the family expects to have Mr. Abdulemam home anytime soon.
"Business Friendly Bahrain" reads the visa that was stamped in my passport when I arrived in Bahrain. But it seems questionable that Bahrain will be able to sustain its carefully honed image as a country that respects the rule of law. Judging from Ali Abdulemam's fate, a reversion to the vicious repression of the past seems more likely.
Mr. Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer in private practice in New York, is a consultant for Human Rights Watch.