An interview with a leading human rights activist from Bahrain
- By Azzurra MeringoloAzzurra Meringolo received her PhD from the Department of International Studies at Roma Tre University. She is a Middle East researcher, journalist, and the author of I Ragazzi di Piazza Tahrir which draws on her experiences as a firsthand observer of the dramatic events leading to the revolution which broke out in Cairo.
The Arab Spring is still going on in the tiny Persian Gulf country of Bahrain. The protests began in February 2011 and have continued ever since despite harsh government reprisals. The news that five home-made bombs exploded in the capital of Manama earlier this week, killing two and severely wounding another, has observers fearing that the mostly peaceful uprising could take a turn toward violence.
Maryam Al-Khawaja is one of the country’s leading activists, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and head of the international office of the Gulf Center for Human Rights’ (GCHR). Based in Copenhagen, she comes from one of the most prominent dissident Bahraini families. "The last time I cried was when I read the report on how they tortured my father," said Al-Khawaja. "But my family is just one of a long list." The interview was conducted for Foreign Policy by Azzurra Meringolo.
Foreign Policy: According to the Bahrain News Agency (BNA), the Bahraini Information Minister, Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab, said the bombings were staged by terrorist groups trained outside Bahrain and based in countries including Lebanon. What do you think? And how can you explain everything that’s happening?
Maryam Al-Khawaja: As always we condemn violence, but given the Bahraini authorities’ background in spreading disinformation we are calling for an independent investigation into the deaths of the two migrant workers. We are also reminding the authorities that this is not grounds to start a campaign of collective punishment, arbitrary arrests, and torture as we’ve seen happen before.
FP: The U.S. and European governments often call for the release of human rights activists in Bahrain, but this ultimately doesn’t change the situation. What is the role of the international community? Are Western countries being too silent?
MK: These powers also have interests to defend in the Arab region. The United States, for example, has naval bases in Bahrain. I personally think that, if the European Union and the United States stop supporting the regime, it will fall very quickly. The reason they are still in power is because they have the support of foreign countries. The fact that European countries are selling weapons to the Bahrain government to commit human rights violations is disgusting. These are the same countries that speak everyday of human rights and democracy. They criticize Russia for doing the same in Syria. But then they close their eyes to what happens in Bahrain. Now the regime knows that they are not going to act. It is not afraid of their words because it knows that they are just words. The Western powers are not going to impose economic sanctions or stop selling arms to the regime.
FP: The revolt in Bahrain caught the attention of the media on the occasion of the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Then the media forgot about it again. Do you think that the Bahraini Spring is an invisible revolution?
MK: Our revolution is inconvenient. It is inconvenient for the Middle East, for the West, for Saudi Arabia, and for a lot of people. There is some coverage, but it is very superficial. I am sure that there are some media figures that have decided on purpose not to cover the revolt. The Bahraini and Saudi Arabian regimes are using all their influence to avoid honest coverage. This is not happening by mistake.
FP: A few weeks ago, 13 doctors and nurses who treated anti-government protesters during demonstrations earlier this year were given jail sentences of 15 years for crimes against the state. Seven other medical professionals were given sentences between five and 10 years by a special tribunal set up during the emergency rule that followed the demonstrations. What’s your response?
MK: The doctors’ trial has been closely watched and criticized by rights groups for Bahrain’s use of the security courts, which have military prosecutors and both civilian and military judges, in prosecuting civilians. Most of the medics worked at the Salmaniya Medical Centre in Manama, which was stormed by security forces after they drove protesters out of nearby Pearl Square — the focal point of Bahrain’s protest movement, on March 16. Since 2011, the protests have never stopped. They take place almost every single day.
But something has changed. What has changed is the confidence that the Bahraini regime has about itself. Now they feel as though they have international immunity. They feel that, no matter what they do, they are not going to face consequences for their actions. This allows them to do whatever they want. They are moving against the most prominent human rights defenders. They would never have done this last year. Now they feel free to do what they want because they know that, even if there are international statements, there are no consequences.
FP: Your father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is one of the most prominent Bahraini human rights activists. After 12 years in exile, he returned to Manama in 1999. Now he is in prison as a result of the government crackdown on pro-democracy protests. In July, Khawaja’s longtime friend and collaborator, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested and detained for criticizing the country’s leadership on Twitter, eventually being charged with organizing illegal protests and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. What is their situation?
MK: Over the past few years my father has been the subject of ongoing harassment, including physical attacks and smear campaigns in the media. He was tortured many times. Recently, while in jail, he decided to start a hunger strike. Rajab was recently sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Amnesty International has asked for the release of opposition activists and prisoners of conscience like them. But it hasn’t happened.
FP: Your sister Zaynab, a.k.a. the blogger angryarabia, was also detained for participating in protests, and has taken considerable public risks in an effort to draw attention to the regime’s brutality. As a result, she has faced periodic arrests over the last 18 months and multiple charges that could keep her in prison for years. How does it feel being the only one in the family who is still able to speak freely?
MK: I am free because I am not in Bahrain, but in Denmark. If I were in Bahrain, I would be in the same situation. My name is on a blacklist, not only in the Manama airport, but also in other Arab countries. The last time I arrived at the Cairo airport, the authorities told me that I was not allowed to enter the country. It’s very hard for me, but what’s happening to my family is happening to other thousands of families. Sometimes I feel that my family’s situation is, in a way, better, compared with one of those families who’ve seen their kids shot and killed. My role is part of the process. It’s a kind of price that we have to pay for demanding justice, freedom, and human rights.
FP: Aren’t you afraid?
MK: Everyone is afraid. What we need is not the absence of fear, the fear will always be there because we know what the regime is able to do. We try to overcome the fear. We want to fight despite our fear. This is what is going on in the country.
FP: Bahrain’s Sunni royal family rules over a Shiite majority. There are those who say that Bahrain’s demonstrators are taking orders from Iran, and others who argue that the Saudis are the ones who are supporting the regime. What is the role of the Shiites and the Sunnis in the popular revolt?
MK: Bahrain is not a Shiite country. Bahrain belongs to Bahrainis, it is for everyone. The protests are also for everyone. What happens in every oppressive country is that the government tries to split people on religious issues in order to control them. In Egypt, they tried to convince the world that it was a battle between Muslims and Copts (ten percent of Egyptians are Christian). In Syria, they are convincing people that Alawites are against Sunnis. But this is not the case in Bahrain — we have an oppressive regime that is against the people, no matter their religion. The regime wants to transform the revolt into a sectarian issue, but this is just for their benefit. It is not the truth. At the end of the day, if you are Sunni and you criticize the regime, you are in prison and you are tortured. If you are Shiite and you defend the government, you could be a minister. What matters is not whether you are Shiite or Sunni, but whether you criticize the government or not.
FP: According to a recent Mastercard report, Bahraini women are the most empowered in the Arab region. What is the role of women in the revolt?
MK: They play a very important role. Sometimes Western observers think that women aren’t protagonists just because they march in a different line from the men’s one. But this is a cultural attitude. I believe that we don’t need to think that just because males and females demonstrate in separate lines, women are oppressed. Sometimes it is just more comfortable not to be stuck between two men. One of the goals of the Arab Spring is to break Western stereotypes. My favorite Arab Spring video is the one of a Bahraini woman who’s wearing an abaya and writing graffiti on the wall that says: "Even if the men stop, women will continue."