23 Apr 2012

A day at the races

Channel 4 News foreign correspondent, Jonathan Miller, gives a personal account of his and colleagues’ recent arrest, detention and deportation from Bahrain.

Sunday was race day in Bahrain. It began with me watching Formula One gladiators screaming around the Sakhir circuit in the controversial Grand Prix.

It continued with Channel 4 News racing a Bahraini police helicopter and a fleet of police land cruisers through the byzantine village back alleys and across desert scrub.

It ended in the back of a police van, seven hours later, heading at breakneck speed for Bahrain airport where we were summarily deported.

We were in one of the several Shia Muslim villages that have been flashpoints for anti-government protesters in recent days. Three 12-year-olds were stoking the blazing barricades as dusk fell fast over the dusty, graffiti-strewn village. We had been filming the young protesters who scuffled past. An injured man was being half dragged, half carried, into the family home from the camp frontline. Young men and women ran towards police lines shouting, and were pushed back. There were no molotov cocktails. The protesters were unarmed.

I remember a teenager showing me the fresh birdshot scar on his leg where he had been hit by police shot gun pellets. The wound still has not healed.

We were on the run from Bahraini security forces. The police helicopter was spiralling overhead, and within five minutes, had spotted us. We’d lost all sense of direction, having zig-zagged through the back streets.

The tensions and risks rose by the minute. Everyone in the village was on edge, adrenalised, although these running battles with police, they said, were a daily and nightly occurrence.

By the time we made it back to our four wheel drive, we thought we’d been clocked by the chopper. In the vehicle: Ali, our driver, David Fuller, my producer and video editor, Joe Sheffer, on camera, back left, me in the middle, and on my right, Dr Ala’a Shehaba, an activist and academic.

It was she who thought to look behind us. “Yala!” she said to Ali, “let’s go, fast.” A phalanx of riot police was charging straight at us, they were 50 yards away.

Ali took off like Sebastian Vettel off the grid. But unlike the F1 racers, we were bouncing around and across waste ground, jumping Earth’s ramparts, swinging left and right and back into now-empty alleyways.

The helicopter was still there, low, somewhere overhead. We ducked and weaved and drove through the village like demons. But it was useless. The chopper had us.

We hit a main road. A police vehicle, blue lights flashing to the left. We swerved right, weaving through the traffic.

A checkpoint ahead, a bank of armoured vehicles. We mounted the kerb and bounced, did a sharp U-turn and roared back down a parallel side road. We were on borrowed time here, for all of us, my colleagues and I, working in Bahrain unaccredited, where foreign journalists had been refused visas, others turned away at the airport, some had already been deported.

The Bahrain government wanted international coverage of the Grand Prix, but not of anything else. We knew the risks for us were probably professional, but for the locals with us, the risks were very personal.

I glanced behind me again. There were at least three police land cruisers on our tail, and they were gaining speed – Channel 4 News’s unofficial Bahraini bureau was now in a high-speed car chase, the police pursuit vehicles directed by the stalking chopper above.

There was a shopping centre ahead. A sharp left, a car park. No escape, we were cornered. “That’s it,” I heard myself saying as the police vehicle screeched up and cut us off. Men in helmets and balaclavas surrounded us, bright lights, shouting: “Get out, stay in, your name, your identity.” Doors opening and slamming all the time, Ali and Ala’a verbally abused, Joe and Ali both slapped around through the windows.

I subtly pulled my phone from my pocket and rang my foreign editor, Ben De Pear, in London and left the line open, the phone in my pocket. “Ben,” I said, “if you can hear me, here’s what happening.” I explained what had been going on and let him listen to the events in the vehicle while we tried to figure out what to do.

There was a stand off for about an hour, where we were trapped in the vehicle. They were threatening to separate us all from each other, but there was no way we would let them take Ali. The Bahrain police has a bad record when it comes to beating people up in detention.

Eventually we were transferred to a police minivan with iron bars as windows. The shouting and intimidation had given way to more measured questioning.

We were led to the Budaiya police station, where we were interrogated by young, plain clothed police officers, the irascible, uniformed men still lurking in the crowded room. Relieved of our phones, our cameras, our computers, each was photographed as evidence of our crime of committing illegal journalism.

We had repeatedly asked to be reunited with Ali, our driver. Eventually, he was brought in, to stand in the corridor, outside our room. I moved towards him, but was pushed back.

There were long fresh cuts down the inside of his arms. “What happened,” I asked. I was told I cannot talk to him. I demanded to know what they had done to him. “What are these cuts?” I asked.

“What cuts?” came the reply. “There are no cuts. We don’t see any cuts.” Ali was led away.

We were also told we were not allowed to see Dr Ala’a, despite repeated promises that we would. It reminded me of the promises of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, promises of dialogue and reform which were never delivered on either.

Our fate was decided a few minutes before the British Embassy called the plain clothes police officer. Eventually he handed me the phone. “We’re being deported,” I said. “Now.”

We were to be driven straight to the airport. The police let us pick up our bag on the way. If only all airport departures were as speedy as being deported.

We were whisked through security, immigration, and straight to the gate. The last passengers boarded the BA jumbo. It was 1.40 in the morning, there was nothing we could do any more to safeguard Ali and Ala’a, who were still in detention. We had no choice.

To our surprise, the British Airways security and captain of flight 124 to London decided they did not want us on board, apparently because the paperwork supplied by the Bahraini government was not in order.

We were left stranded at gate 17, and as we watched, the Boeing 747 pushed back and headed for the runway without us.

I’ll keep my ticket for seat 46e as a bookmark. I write from another Middle Eastern country at 8am, local time, Tuesday. I’ve been awake now for 24 hours.

When we do finally catch a plane to London, it will at least be in the knowledge that Ali and Dr Ala’a have been released too. They were freed in the early hours at 3.20am. Dr Ala’a tweeted: “A helicopter on tail, ten police cars, 30 plus cops, just to chase three foreign journalists, filming in a village. #excessiveparanoia #Bahrain.”

For now our Bahrain story has ended. For Dr Ala’a and Ali, we hope it ends well.

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