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An Uprising in Bahrain: Interview with Human Rights Activist Maryam al-Khawaja

Mar 06, 2012 Written by  Steve Lutes, Contributor
Bahrain_ActivistAdvocating for human rights in Bahrain and elsewhere may be Maryam al-Khawaja’s profession, but it is clearly more of a calling - and a personal one, at that. For nearly the entire 45 minute interview, her voice projected the passionate conviction and purpose one would expect from a strong-willed activist. She spoke confidently and forcefully at length on a range of issues pertaining to the situation in Bahrain; from the throngs of demonstrators collectively overcoming their fears to publicly call for change, to what she perceives as cosmetic and unfulfilled promises of reform and a failure of the international community to hold those in power in Bahrain accountable for their transgressions.

While much of the conversation centered on the diplomatic and political, it did touch on the personal for Maryam. In April 2011, Maryam’s father, a prominent critic of the regime in Bahrain, was arrested, beaten unconscious, and his jaw severely broken. He has since been tried by a military tribunal on charges of anti-government propaganda and sentenced to life in prison. Her father is currently on a hunger strike to protest his treatment and detention by the Bahraini regime. As Maryam was finishing answering a question about her father’s condition, her voice clinched briefly and in that moment her language veered from that of activism and universal rights to a personally emotive level, as the determined activist gave way to a daughter expressing concern for her father’s health and well-being.

For Maryam, this story began in Denmark where she was born to then-exiled human rights champion Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his wife, Khadija, who had been banned from Bahrain in the 1980s. With permission, they returned to Bahrain in 2001, and Maryam went on to graduate from the University of Bahrain in 2009. Her next move was to Brown University in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship. And now at twenty-four years old, Maryam is the director of foreign relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights that her father co-founded, as well as recently assuming similar responsibilities at the Gulf Center for Human Rights.

A tiny but oil-rich island nation, Bahrain has visibly experienced the impact of the Arab Awakening more so than its Gulf neighbors. However, the situation there has largely gone unnoticed in the West in comparison to developments in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and even Yemen. In February of last year, thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets calling for the government of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to institute an array of reforms and address systemic discrimination against the Shi’ite majority. Maryam was part of the masses that gathered at the Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of demonstrations in Bahrain, in the capital city of Manama. The peaceful protests were met with violent, at times lethal, force by domestic security forces. More than 60 have been killed and thousands injured, arrested, and dismissed from their jobs with January 2012 seeing the highest death toll in Bahrain since March of 2011.

But Bahrain is more than just the setting for another act of the Arab Spring to play out. While physically connected by a mere causeway, Bahrain is substantially tied through familial and cultural ties and strategic interests - as well as membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A regional political, economic, and cultural power, Saudi Arabia is worried about both a menacing and influential Iran and the threat posed by the democratization movement to the region’s monarchies, including the spread of unrest in its oil-rich Eastern Province which is adjacent to Bahrain. As unrest grew and fearing its hold on power slipping, Bahrain’s royal family requested help. In mid-March 2011, Saudi troops, joined by police from the United Arab Emirates under the guise of the cooperative GCC defense agreement, entered Bahrain and aided in the effort to suppress the protestors. In doing so, the brutal crackdown was significantly amplified and the situation further polarized, taking on new dimensions with the presence of these outside forces.

Bahrain is also home to the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet. This reality means the security partnership between the two nations is considered vital to the ability of the U.S. to project its influence in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East. At a recent panel discussion entitled “The Unfinished February 14 Uprising: What Next for Bahrain?” on Capitol Hill, Dr. Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East at the Pentagon, remarked “there’s probably no other country in the world that is more important to our ability to counter Iranian influence and potentially Iranian military aggression in the Strait of Hormuz or elsewhere than Bahrain.”

The protestors in Bahrain do have allies in Washington, DC, on Capitol Hill and in the NGO community, who stress human rights considerations. One of the leading advocates for this perspective is Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) who has led Congressional opposition contesting decisions by the Obama Administration to sell arms to Bahrain. Wyden indicated that any kind of arms sale sends the wrong message and added, “The continued violence by the police, continued tear-gassings, and continued abuses perpetrated by the government, should cause our government to use every lever it has to influence the Kingdom.”

This is an abbreviated review of some of the issues and context surrounding events in Bahrain. Last March, Maryam left Bahrain to carry the plight of the protestors abroad and put a humanizing face on the struggle for audiences in the United States and Europe. I caught up with her by phone in London where she was speaking at a forum held at the University of London on what lies ahead for the Middle East. In the excerpted interview below, Maryam shares her insights on the events of the past year and the challenges facing Bahrain summarized above.


Diplomatic Courier: How is your father doing?

Maryam al-Khawaja: You have to take into consideration that usually a healthy person who goes on a hunger strike can survive about 60 days without food. In the case of my father, when he was arrested they broke his jaw and for a while he couldn’t eat very well and he lost some weight. And then he’s been on two or three hunger strikes since he was arrested. So when he started this recent hunger strike there’s only been a 24 to 48 hour break between it and his older hunger strike. So basically when he started this hunger strike, he didn’t start it in full health and that’s why this time we’re seeing symptoms and effects on him that would usually only happen to a person on the 60th day of their hunger strike. It’s affecting the brain; he has difficulty speaking, he has difficulty moving and walking and is very fatigued. It’s starting to get to his kidneys. Because of my father’s torture, continued detention and his hunger strike, he’s experiencing these conditions much, much faster.

DC: They broke his jaw?

MK: When he was arrested, he was beaten unconscious and they broke his jaw in four different places. And right now he has a number of metal screws in place holding his jaw together to his face. He had to have a three to four hour long surgery to put his jaw back together. The thing is that after that surgery was done they continued to torture him and some of the times on his injury. And according to what he told my family, at one point the doctor got very angry because he keeps repairing his face and they keep ruining it; he was telling this to the guards in the prison because of the torture. All these things have a huge effect on his health and his well-being.

DC: How has your father’s example influenced you?

MK: Both he and my mother are the reason I am who I am today. They taught me that the rights of people are the most important thing. I’ve learned a lot of things from my father. I’ve learned what it means to be a human rights activist, what it means to put the cause and your work as a human rights activist before anything else. So it becomes your top priority in life. It comes before family and friends or anything else. I’ve also learned perseverance and determination. Despite everything that is happening and despite how badly he was tortured, his main concern still is that he’s in prison and can’t be doing anything about what’s going on outside so that’s why he went on a hunger strike.

DC: Share with me your experience at the Pearl Roundabout.

MK: I returned to Bahrain around the 8th of February after I heard there were going to be protests. I was basically playing a role of documentation and recording. My main job was that if there were any people injured or if there were deaths to go and get information and meet with the family. I remember it was pretty amazing seeing thousands and thousands and thousands of people out in the streets and to see the barrier of fear broken. I think that was the most amazing thing about it. The fact that people were actually able to go out and chant the way they did to me was the most amazing step forward. I think my father put it best when he said that ‘the initial victory isn’t whether the people are able to change the regime or create reforms or so on, the greatest victory is they are actually going out in the streets and demanding it.’ I think that is very true.

DC: What do the protesters ultimately want?

MK: It depends on who you ask. If you ask the political society, they’ll say a constitutional monarchy and the resignation of the government. If you’re asking the protestors on the street, they’ll say the complete stepping down of the regime; they want the entire regime gone because of the things that have happened. Those were not their initial demands which were reforms to the constitution. After everything that has happened in the past year, their demands have changed from reform to the stepping down of the regime. To me as a human rights activist, our view is not what kind of government there should be, but rather it’s making sure we have a government that respects human rights. I think that is the most important thing to us.

DC: [The King established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in June 2011 to investigate human rights violations in conjunction with the earlier protests. In addition to making recommendations, the BICI’s final report released in November 2011 documented the government’s excessive use of force, torture, abuse of freedom of expression, destruction of Shi’ite houses of worship, and violations of media freedoms, as well as finding no influence of an Iranian hand behind the protests.] What are your thoughts on the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report and recommendations?

MK: I think there were definitely shortcomings in that report. I think the recommendations were not at all what we had hoped they would be. They were very, very weak. But nonetheless, there was a lot of documentation in that report that we weren’t able to do because we don’t have access in Bahrain. So for us the concentration on the report was not that this report had shortcomings and problems with it, but rather that this was something we could hold up and demand that the government, in its own report that they fully acknowledged and accepted it, that they actually address the recommendations that were made.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case; they haven’t addressed their own report. A number of times they’ve done the exact opposite of what the report actually says. For example, the foreign minister and King said that there were no political prisoners in Bahrain but rather there are only criminals. Or the fact that they still think Iran had a hand in the protests and their report found that it didn’t. So there are a lot of things in that report, the recommendations and so on, that can be used as a tool to tell the government this is your own report, you paid for this, you initiated this; now you need to follow through. They haven’t been doing that, and I think mainly for the government this report is not about actually changing the situation. Every day that passes it becomes more and more clear that this report’s approval was set up by the government, by the regime, and the main purpose of it is to gloss over all of the violations they already committed and to continue to commit, while engaging the international community in a dialogue about the politics of the situation and allowing an opportunity for governments like the United States and the United Kingdom to start selling them arms again while they’re waiting for the full implementation of the report.

DC: How do you respond to those who say the government is implementing some of the suggested reforms and that it takes time?

MK: This is what they told us in 2001, and look where we are ten years later. It’s not only that. There are things that have to happen at the same time. The government of Bahrain does not need an international report to know that torture is wrong. Torture is still happening. They did not need an international report to tell them they need to stop killing people in the streets and injuring protestors; they’re still doing that. They didn’t need an international report to know that arbitrary arrests shouldn’t be happening. But that is still happening today. So these things — wider steps toward democracy and freedom — that they keep talking about are going to take a long time. But what about all these urgent human rights violations that can be stopped within a day, literally? All they need is a very direct order saying ‘no more torture and if you do torture you’re going to be put in jail.’ These things are not that difficult to do. I think that the fact that the situation in Bahrain is actually getting worse and human rights violations are still being committed by the regime is a very clear indication that the government is not interested in stopping these violations, and I think a lot of this goes to the fact that there’s no incentive for them to change. There have been no consequences for their actions in Bahrain. So why should they have an incentive to change the situation on the ground.

DC: There’s an old notion that a monarchy can only last as long as it’s considered legitimate by a majority of its citizens. Do you think King Al Khalifa’s rule is legitimate?

MK: The largest protest in Bahrain that happened despite the (human rights) violations was around 250-300,000 people. The population of Bahrain, without counting the immigrant workers, is around 600,000 citizens; that’s almost half the population. It is like 40 million Egyptians coming out in Egypt demanding change. So I would say that we are in a situation where you do have a very, very large number of the population demanding change, demanding a new government or a new regime depending on who they are. So I think we are definitely seeing a huge movement in Bahrain. On the other hand, I think that something to take into consideration when looking at revolution is that, usually a revolution is done by a very small fraction of society. For example, in Egypt it was only around 1-2 million gathering in Tahrir Square. That’s a very small number from 80 million. In Bahrain, we have almost half the population coming out. Still people are asking questions of the movement like ‘is it legitimate’, ‘are we talking about a majority’, and things like that. I think this is very unfortunate.

And two things are unfortunate about the way the international community has responded to the situation. The first thing is the constant framing of this as sectarian, referring to it as a Shi’a revolution against a Sunni monarchy. It has nothing to do with people being Shi’a and it has nothing to do with the monarchy being Sunni; it’s about royalists and non-royalists. I think that’s one thing that has really hurt the situation is when people constantly frame it as being a sectarian revolution that really hurts the situation on the ground.

The second thing I also find very unfortunate is this downplaying of it. Because Bahrain has such a small population, when you look at the numbers of how many have been arrested and how many have been killed it seems like it’s not significant. So a lot people are going ‘what’s 64 people dead, what’s 70 people killed in Bahrain, that’s nothing compared to the other countries where thousands are being killed.’ They don’t take into consideration that first of all one life lost is one life too many. We shouldn’t be talking about whether its five people killed or five thousand; it’s about the fact that people are being killed. Their right to life is one of the, if not the, most important right within the universal declaration of human rights. The second thing is that looking at the situation per capita, there’s no question that the situation in Bahrain is very big because if Bahrain had the same population as Syria the deal toll would amount to 2,000 people killed if not more. So, of course, I think it’s very problematic to look at a situation this way to decide how significant it is or how grave it is because at the end of the day these are people are out there demanding things like human rights, freedom and democracy and they should be treated just as important and not have it downplayed by the media and by other governments.

DC: Some contend the U.S. is being hypocritical vis-à-vis our approach to Syrian versus our approach to Bahrain. Your thoughts?

MK: There’s definitely a double standard and there has been from the very beginning. I would never say that ‘because they’re not doing it for Bahrain, they shouldn’t be doing it for Syria’. I’m actually glad that they’re trying to do something for Syria. And I hope that they actually do something to stop the human rights violations there. But at the same time, we’re not seeing the same response to other countries. And this is something I’ve said over and over again. The United States today is to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria. It’s a government that is willing to sell arms to a repressive regime that is continuously committing grave human rights violations. And this is very disturbing for a country that keeps talking about its values, about how they value human rights and democracy and how they keep fighting for these things that they keep talking about. I find it very disturbing that at the same time they’re criticizing Russia for what they’re doing - and rightfully so, Russia should be criticized for what they’re doing in terms of the Syrian situation - but at the same time the U.S. is doing the same thing in Bahrain. And I think this is something that needs to be brought up over and over again. When it comes to human rights violations, people who are in a situation where they can make a difference need to be made to change.

DC: How do you respond to those who say Bahrain is too important of a U.S. ally, with the Fifth Fleet based there, to ‘rock the boat’? In other words, that our hands are tied and our security relationship must come first.

MK: I think it’s very simple. The fact is that when you work with something positive, you usually get a positive outcome. Of course that sounds very idealistic, but in this sense when you see a situation where human rights become widespread in the region, it’s going to be very difficult for other authoritarian regimes to stay in place. So if human rights and democracy and the fight for freedom are supported in one country, as we’ve already seen, it’s going to quickly spread to other places. If we’re talking about violence and wars and so on, the way to combat those things is not by creating more violence, it’s not by creating more wars; it’s by creating communities and governments that actually respect human rights and their citizens and their societies. So I think that argument is very flawed. I think on the contrary, if we saw a situation in Bahrain where the government respected human rights and their citizens, it’s going to be a lot better for everyone in the region security-wise. Along that same line, in Bahrain we see a continuation of the situation, a continuation of violence, a continuation of human rights violations; it’s only going to be much, much worse for everyone’s security in the region. Because if it does turn into a situation where it breaks down into sectarian violence, all we’re going to see is a situation that cannot be controlled anymore. And it’s going to very quickly spread through the region and that’s not going to be good for anyone. So I think that argument is very counterproductive.

DC: In July of last year, you spoke of a concern about the situation being pushed toward sectarian violence and turning into a situation which is a lot more difficult to resolve. Obviously, the situation wasn’t resolved and a lot has happened since. How much more worse are things from July 2011, and how much more difficult is this situation to resolve?

MK: I think the situation is definitely moving toward a more difficult one. The way the crackdown was done is along very sectarian lines. The reason for that is the government wanted to create the idea that the situation is Shi’a versus Sunni and that it has nothing to do with them being protestors. So when they cracked down, they did it in very sectarian ways, despite there also being Sunni activists who were arrested and tortured. But for the most part, they did it along sectarian lines because they want to create the mindset that this is a sectarian situation. I still think what I thought several months ago; I think that it is only a matter of time and it’s actually amazing and I think a very positive thing that the protestors in Bahrain still remain unsectarian. Just like I said several months ago, it is only a matter of time and we don’t know how long this is going to last.

DC: How much influence do the Saudis wield with the Bahraini government? How concerned are you that Bahrain seems caught up in a larger regional context, Saudi vs. Iran, Sunni vs. Shi’a?

MK: One of the things I used to say in the beginning is that the difference between the Bahraini revolution and the other revolutions is that in Bahrain people were not fighting against one army or one government - they are fighting the entire GCC in their protests. And that’s why it is a lot more difficult in Bahrain. We saw foreign troops coming in to help the Libyans liberate themselves from Gaddafi. In Bahrain, we saw foreign troops coming in and crushing the protests to have the Bahraini regime retain power. So they definitely played a huge role, and I think this idea of what they’ve been talking about for the past two weeks or so about a kind of unification between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia - it is a very scary idea. Because I don’t think it is too farfetched that the Bahraini regime finds itself in a situation they can’t control anymore and there would be a semi-takeover of Bahrain by Saudi Arabia which already, to some extent, is going on because of the presence of GCC forces in Bahrain today. They never left when they came in last year and that of course is very worrisome to the human rights situation. We’re all very familiar with the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and what goes on there. Given the way that we’re headed right now in Bahrain it can only get worse if the Saudis get more involved.

DC: What are your thoughts on the Obama Administration’s approach to the situation in Bahrain? If you had one message for President Obama what would that be?

MK: I would say that if they’re going to say that they have values, then we would like to see them stick by them. President Obama came out last year and said wherever people come out to fight for freedom and democracy, they will find a friend in the United States of America. That was true of some countries, but that was very untrue of Bahrain. Even today, despite Assistant Secretary [of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor] Michael Posner going to Bahrain and actually leveling criticisms about how the Bahraini government has not followed through with the recommendations in their own report, we’re still seeing the United States selling arms to Bahrain. We’re still not seeing any kind of consistent statements on the situation in Bahrain; we’re not seeing any action through the United Nations. And these are human rights violations being committed by a very important ally to the United States. So this situation of double standards, it is scary to think that this is still possible in the age and time that we’re living in. I guess that my message to President Obama would be just like he wishes to see his daughters live in a country where they’re respected as human beings and where their right to live is not violated by a regime then I think he should take a more firm stand and stick by his morals when it comes to Bahrain as well.

DC: The U.S. cancelled its $53 million arms sale to Bahrain but is still proceeding with the $1 million sale contending that it is to be used just for external defense and not against the protestors. Are you buying this?

MK: My recommendation is that none of these sales should go through. Any kind of weapon export or sale to Bahrain today sends a wrong message. It sends a message that even if you are violating human rights almost on a daily basis, we’re still willing do business with you as usual. And that is the biggest mistake. Like I said, the reason why the Bahraini government has no intention to change is because there have been no consequences for their actions internationally. Ideally, we should be in a situation where right now Bahrain would have had several special sessions at the United Nations; we’ve should’ve had people talking about and even starting to impose economic sanctions on Bahrain; we should’ve seen a complete stopping of any arm sales to Bahrain; all these different things should’ve happened by now, but none of them have. And in Bahrain, the U.S. government also has another thing they can use as leverage — the free trade agreement. The Bahraini government has violated a number of labor laws because of the sacking of people who were part of the protests. Why doesn’t the United States use that as leverage to push on the Bahraini government to reinstate these people who were sacked? I think that Bahrain was a test for the United States as to whether they stick by their values or not, and so far they’ve failed miserably.

DC: How do you answer those who say Iran is influencing, directly or indirectly, the protestors?

MK: Every single Arab country that has had some sort of movement in the past year has said the same thing. Sometimes they use Iran, sometimes they use other people to say ‘these are external forces’ and ‘this has nothing to do with the country itself.’ Logically, if you look at the situation in Bahrain, how can a foreign government move almost half the population to go out and protest and demand freedom and democracy? And then again, how can an authoritarian regime tell people ‘go out and demand your rights’? It makes absolutely no sense. The Bahraini regime has been pushing this idea forward since the 1920s. Since the 1920s, every ten years Bahrain has seen some sort of uprising and every time the Bahraini regime has labeled it as something perceived as being an international plot; in the beginning it was socialists and communists and then it became they’re all terrorists as well as Iranian agents. So whatever the Bahraini regime thinks it can label the opposition as to garner international support in the crackdown and to get them to ignore the human rights violations that they commit, they will use it to label the opposition in Bahrain. This time, the idea of Iran being involved that they’re trying to push forward has two different parts. First of all, it pushes forward the idea of it being a sectarian movement which they’re trying to push very hard. And the second thing is that Iran is perceived as the bad guy when it comes to international politics.

DC: I read somewhere that you said you’ve been called a CIA agent, a Mossad agent, and an Iranian agent. Can you share about these sorts of attacks as well as the personal threats of violence you’ve received?

MK: My first response is to laugh about it. I think it’s very funny and I take it as a compliment that people think I’m actually that good that I could get the CIA, Mossad, and the Iranians to all support me at the same time. And I like to say apparently there are a lot of governments that owe me money that aren’t paying up. I don’t take these things seriously. Our center has a very good reputation internationally; we are a source to a lot of people, from NGOs and governments. So I don’t really take these things too seriously. These ideas are the sort of things the Bahraini regime has been doing for many years; anyone who goes and speaks out and especially those who are effective, they try to defame them and try to make them look like they are agents from somewhere.

DC: And the personal threats?

MK: There have been a number of personal threats of violence, especially on Twitter. I think one of the more disturbing ones was when they told my father in prison that ‘don’t think that just because your daughter is in Europe that she’s safe. We’re going to find her and rape her.’ I think that was partially to get a message to me, but I also think it was psychological torture for my dad, especially since that was at a time when he didn’t have any kind of communication with the family. But those things are not uncommon; a lot of people are threatened in Bahrain, especially if they’re activists. I think that the worse threat to authoritarian regimes today are human rights NGOs because when you’re talking about politics, there’s always a gray area; people might agree, people might disagree. But when you’re talking about human rights, it’s very black and white. The government is either doing the right thing or not and they can’t justify not doing the right thing. It’s part of the job and you don’t really get use to it, but you try to normalize your situation so that you can keep going and fight and fight and fight the constant harassment and defamation.

DC: [On Twitter, Maryam has more than 50,000 followers and goes by @MARYAMALKHAWAJA.] How has Twitter and social media impacted the movement in Bahrain?

MK: I think it has played a very important role in many countries. In Bahrain specifically because of the lack of coverage internationally, it has offered a platform to people to speak about what’s going on and to speak about their grievances and their demands, and to document a lot of what is happening at a time when they don’t have that opportunity elsewhere. It’s very important to my job as well. If I need to document a case, I get a lot of my information from Twitter then I’ll have one of my colleagues on the ground. They’re the real heroes, they’re the ones who go and document and verify all the information that we receive online. So the social forums have a lot to do with our work as well.

DC: What’s the endgame in Bahrain?

MK: I think it depends on a day-to-day basis whether I’m pessimistic or optimistic. But I think change is going to come to Bahrain. It’s going to come through one of two ways. It’s either going to come after many, many years and a lot of violence and a lot of protests; a lot of killings and a lot of bloodshed. Or it’s going to come through international support and international pressure, which is going to take a lot less time and is going to be a lot less bloody. I’m hoping it is going to be the latter.

Tagged under Bahrain    Arab Spring    Maryam al-Khawaja    human rights    torture    Fifth Fleet    Iran    Saudi Arabia    Gulf Cooperation Council    GCC    Al Khalifa    human rights violations   


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