By Alex Neve, Secretary General
Amnesty International Canada
“I’ll always come” – a tribute to valiant human rights defender Naser al-Raas who passed away on September 20 in Toronto, Canada
Naser al-Raas had a very busy life, by any measure. He was newly married, with a full-of-life toddler. He was enrolled in human rights studies at Carleton University, in Ottawa Canada. His schedule was full of medical and other appointments as he healed from the torture, ill-treatment and harsh prison conditions he had endured in Bahrain, coped with his heart and respiratory ailments and readied for the impending prospect of a heart and lungs transplant. He read voraciously, was active on social media and maintained contact with an extensive network of activists concerned about the human rights situation in Bahrain and the wider Middle East, ending torture and various concerns within Canada.
It’s a full plate that would daunt any of us. But Naser pushed through this busy schedule while moving around in a motorized wheelchair and requiring a constant link to oxygen to ease his breathing.
And yet whenever I was in touch with a request that he come to an Amnesty International event, an invitation to speak at a rally or just to let him know about something happening in the Ottawa human rights community, his response was always, “you do not need to ask, just tell me where it is. I’ll always come.”
And he did. He always came.
He spoke at press conferences and rallies on Canada’s Parliament Hill. He wheeled into House of Commons receptions and shared his experience and plea for action to prevent torture. He spoke to Amnesty International audiences large and small, young and old, in person and online. He did always come. And he always touched hearts and opened minds.
He showed people that the cost of human rights abuse is very real and very personal and may be just around the corner from where we live. He assured people as well that it is when we join together to take action that we make a difference. When I finally met him in person in May 2012 – after he returned to Canada following his grueling and terrifying experience of illegal imprisonment, torture and unfair trials in Bahrain – he put that to me so powerfully.
Naser told of turning himself into the Bahraini authorities for a second time, after several months in hiding. He knew he would be taken back into custody. But incredibly he said that he headed off with ‘a smile on his face’ knowing that this time he was not facing his jailors and torturers alone, this time ‘Amnesty International was going in with me.’ And he was held only a few short days that second time.
I will always come. That included what is almost certainly the coldest, snowiest demonstration I’ve ever attended. In January 2015 we gathered to draw attention to the case of blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and a punishment of 1,000 lashes. We were trudging through heavy snowfall from Parliament Hill to the Saudi Embassy. I had my head down and collar turned up; and heard my name. And there was Naser, pushing through drifting snow on his wheelchair. My heart soared and the the blizzard suddenly seemed more gentle and the urgency of why were out, all the more compelling.
And then of course there is Naser al-Raas, the love story; an account sure to make anyone’s heart soar.
Naser and Zainab’s love for each other was forged amidst the intensity of Bahrain’s energizing but dangerous 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests. I can almost imagine their eyes meeting as tear gas wafted past them.
Their bond was so strong and so immediate. Zainab, in fact, became a tireless advocate for Naser’s freedom when he was arrested and disappeared into Bahraini jails for a full month without any trace. I know that she did not sleep until Naser safely left Bahrain many months later; I can attest to that by the fact that no matter what time of day I sent questions or updates through to her I received an instantaneous response.
It was infectious to watch them begin a life together in Ottawa, triply so when their adorable son Hassan joined the family. To watch Naser’s love for Hassan and see how deeply Hassan adored his father, was to know the very best of what it is to be true to those we hold dearest.
My own experience with Naser was shared by anyone and everyone who had the honour to share a piece of his life. That is certainly so with hundreds of Amnesty International staff and supporters; his classmates and professors at Carleton; his health professionals; lawyers who helped with his case; and politicians and their staff who had an opportunity to meet him.
We all talk in the same terms: inspiration, courage and commitment. And what a smile!
We had all hoped that Naser’s recent trip to Toronto for tests leading to his eventual transplants would go well. Being Naser, we all assumed it would. We all feel the crushing sorrow that instead he has been taken away from us. And it is such a cruel irony that it was his magnificent, overflowing heart that, in the end, simply could not keep going.
His legacy will be immense, and will live in through determined activism across Canada and around the world.
I am so pleased that he was with us, and spoke so personally and eloquently, at a Parliament Hill event in May, aimed at pressing the Canadian government to finally sign on to a 13-year old UN torture prevention treaty. How tremendous that Naser was in the front row when Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion announced that Canada would now take that step.
I cannot and will not shake, however, that Naser’s own quest for justice for the torture and other violations he went through in Bahrain remains unfulfilled. No justice in Bahrain, as expected. But no progress yet in Canada, either, where he lodged a criminal complaint with the RCMP four years ago, asking them to investigate and lay charges against those responsible for the torture he endured. That is certainly one concrete way we can be true to his legacy, by picking up his struggle for justice.
I will miss much about Naser, including the many moments during the course of the day when one of my tweets would be retweeted and liked by @NaserAlRaas. It always made me feel like he was watching and approving; even during his frequent hospital stays.
So perhaps the final word lies in 120 characters or less:
.@NaserAlRaas, you touched hearts & opened minds defending rights. Your work to #StopTorture will #ShineOn. #OurLivesAreRicher #ThankYou
– Alex Neve