'Night raids, torture, sham trials a daily reality in Bahrain' - human rights activist

In an Arab world swept away by revolutions and wars, few states have remained intact. And at what cost? Bahrain has seen protests, arrests and crackdowns on the opposition. Does stability necessarily mean political oppression in the Middle East? Why is Bahrain’s trouble off international media’s radar? We talk to human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja, daughter of Bahrain's renowned dissident, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is now in jail.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Our guest today is Maryam al-Khawaja, a human rights activist, whose father is a prominent Bahraini dissident, currently jailed following an anti-government protest in 2011. Maryam, it’s great to have you with us. To be honest, it’s really hard to understand what’s going on in Bahrain, when it comes to the form of rule; some say it’s a dictatorship, even a tyranny. Others say it’s a legitimate constitutional monarchy, committed to reform, with certain democratic values. How do you see it?

Maryam al-Khawaja: Well, I think describing it as a constitutional monarchy is very problematic, when the Constitution of Bahrain actually gives absolute power to the kings – which means there’s no Constitutional monarchy; yes, there is a Constitution, but just a presence of the Constitution within a monarchy system doesn’t make it a constitutional monarchy. We’re looking at the situation where we have a Parliament in Bahrain, consisting of two Houses, but they don’t have legislating or monitoring power, so overall you can call it an absolute monarchy, which is oppressive.

SS: So, you would say it’s a dictatorship, or you wouldn’t go that far?

MK: Yes, I would definitely say it’s a dictatorship, because when people don’t have the right to vote, they don’t have the right to influence the legal system, when there is no fair independent judiciary, when the ruling family basically decides the ins and outs of everything in the system, be that economically, politically or socially – then yes, you can call it a dictatorship.

SS: But you say protests never stop in Bahrain – does it mean that people aren’t afraid of the consequences?

MK: No, I think the consequences are very real and people know that the consequences exist – but it’s because people know that stopping the protest now would mean going back to a situation that was worse than the one that existed in 2010, before the protests started in Bahrain. So, the people believe in the demands they are calling for, they are calling for human rights, they are calling for an elected government, and many of them call for the stepping down of the ruling family, and that’s why they continued to protest almost on a daily basis.

SS:Since you’ve mentioned human rights – human rights activists have alerted [us to] the ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain – why there has been so little reaction from the international community, so little media coverage worldwide?

MK: I like to call it an “inconvenient revolution.” Bahrain of course is a country that’s a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Now, the Gulf Cooperation Council has its tentacles all over in the world, whether we are talking security-wise or economically. And thus, internationally speaking – or regionally – we’re talking about a situation when most people don’t want to take a stand against the ruling Gulf monarchies that exist today. And so, politically, security-wise and economically it doesn’t make sense for a lot of these countries – who say that they support human rights and democracy in other places – to actually take a stand when it comes to Bahrain. They would rather turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the situation.

SS: Unlike in Syria, Egypt or any other Arab country, the US hasn’t said much about Bahrain – critics connect this to the strategic positioning of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain – is that how you see it?

MK: The Fifth Fleet definitely plays a role in the US position toward the Bahraini human rights situation, or should I say the deteriorating human rights situation in Bahrain. But I there are also other elements to it – you should also look at the US-Saudi relationship that has existed for a while now, which is also based largely on an economic ties and also security ties. So any stance on Bahrain also influences and affects the relationship that the US has with Saudi Arabia, which is a relationship they don’t want to have any problems with, and so the US would rather turn a blind eye to a human rights situation, rather than risk having difficulties in their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

SS: Was your February 2011 protest really an attempt to have another Arab Spring episode – I mean, the difference basically is that the government managed to put the fire out quickly?

MK: I would not say they managed to put a fire out. They managed to put it down, but not completely out and that’s a reason we’re still seeing protest today. But when the protest started on February 14, 2011, people came to the streets and their demands were pretty similar to what we saw in other countries, like Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and others. And their demands were basically that they wanted an end to the violations, they wanted to be treated with respect and dignity by their government, and they wanted to have a say in their government. Now, the Bahrainis weren’t calling for the stepping down of the regime to begin with – they were calling for a Constitution that actually recognizes their rights as citizens, but it was after the very, very violent crackdown which was of course helped by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that the Bahrainis said, “If the government is going to respond to us with this kind of violence, if they’re going to kill unarmed protesters for going out on the streets and demanding something that is rightfully theirs to begin with…” – Then the demands changed. It went from a change in the Constitution into calling for the king and his family to step down from power.

SS:But can I tell you something, Mariam – looking at the results of the Arab Spring revolutions in other states, one can’t help but wonder if it may have been for the best that the revolution never started in your country…

MK: I disagree on the issue of starting – the revolution has definitely started – it just hasn’t had the results that people wanted to see, just like in other countries, whether we’re talking about Syria or Egypt. And I think that even if we look at the situation in Egypt or Tunisia, it’s a process. If we start believing that democracy which represents everyone, whether that is a majority or a minority and respects all citizens will come overnight – then of course this is the result that will be. We have to understand that we’re in this for a long run; we’re in this knowing that it’s going to take many, many years before people to see the kind of government, the kind of country that they set out demanding. I don’t think that a situation right now necessarily is hopeless, it’s a part of the process to come into something better, but I think also a large part of it is because of the international consequences or international responses to different situations. In Bahrain of course we’re seeing the responses of the UK and the US toward the human rights situation, and the fact that the government in Bahrain believes and knows that they have international impunity is what allows them to continue widespread human rights violations, and in other countries it’s the same thing – if you look at the international players, they have played a role in the internal situations, and it makes sense why we are where we are in many of these situations.

SS:But you are accepting of the fact that if the revolution actually takes place in Bahrain, that the immediate reality right after that will be probably dismay and anarchy before it gets better?

MK: What I mean... What is anarchy? If we look at the situation right now, where we have is crackdown almost on a daily basis, where we have people arbitrarily arrested in their homes during night raids, where we have children being picked off the streets, where we have people attacked with tear gas inside their homes, where we have tortures rampant – is that not in itself a form of anarchy? We don’t really have a system that is governed by the legal system, there are no laws. Basically the police are free to do what they want, government officials are free to do what they want. In my opinion that is the anarchy in itself.

SS:What’s the most reliable number of the deaths since the breakout of violence in 2011 – data differs and different sources give different data. What is your number?

MK: I think the reason why there are differences about the number of deaths is because of the kind of documentation that we were able to do. The Bahrain Center of Human Rights have documented more than 80 deaths in Bahrain, caused by the use of violence by the government or the excessive use of tear gas. Now, the reason why we’re not able to document many other deaths that we know to be related to the situation – for example, tear gas deaths – and if we were to document them there would be over a hundred deaths is because it’s very difficult or even impossible in Bahrain to have a testing done on the body of the deceased after they are killed, especially if that’s due to tear gas. That’s because the government controls who’s able to do this kind of tests. Now, I believe in many of these cases, if we had access and could do this kind of testing, we would find that many of these deaths that happened in Bahrain were in fact related to tear gas – people suffocating from tear gas, or it going to their bloodstream, especially that it has toxic elements in it. Because we don’t have that kind of scientific access to looking at the reasons of deaths, we’re not able to completely document all of the cases that have taken place in Bahrain.

SS: What about prisoners – how many protesters have been put in prison, and how many are still awaiting trial? Or have all the convictions taken place already?

MK: There are definitely a large number of people who still are awaiting verdicts, and we have a large number of people that have received their verdicts and are in prison. According to the Bahrain Center’s numbers we have more than 2,000 political prisoners in Bahrain right now. Of course, if you look at the system, what the Bahraini government is trying to do is to label many of these prisoners as terrorists and they believe that in doing so they’ll be able to get international justification for cracking down and putting these people in prison. Of course, if you look at the process of how these people are arrested and put on trial – they are usually abducted from their homes, are subjected to enforced disappearance during which they are usually subjected to torture in order to get them to sign confessions on the charges that are put against them, and then they are put on a sham trial where most of the time the judge refuses to listen to the defendants about the torture they endured for these confessions, and of course, usually the only evidence in many of these cases are the torture confessions, there isn’t actually any other type of evidence that is being used. So the entire process in itself, from the day of the arrest to the day when the verdict is delivered and the people are transferred to prison where people who are convicted are kept – the entire process is wrong, there is no such thing as due process in Bahrain, and of course it’s by no means up to the standards of fair international trials.

SS:Dozens of cases of medics arrested for helping protesters were also reported since the protests broke out in 2011 – is that making doctors withhold help in case of need when protests are taking place these days?

MK: Yes, of course, we’re still at the situation when hospitals are militarized in Bahrain. The Bahrain Center actually put out an extensive report on access to medical care and the situation with medical neutrality in the country, and we found out that no matter where you are looking in the country, access to medical care has become very militarized and controlled by the Defense Force of Bahrain. We’re looking at the situation that even if you are a regular patient and have nothing to do with the protests and you’re just going into the hospital for a regular checkup, there are cameras installed everywhere in the hospitals and there’s actually a complete breach of doctor-patient confidentiality because someone from the Interior Ministry is sitting there looking at you being checked by the doctor. And so, we’re looking at the very, very dire situation for the health sector in Bahrain. Doctors are still targeted, they are not able, or if they do treat protesters who have protest-related injuries, they must notify the Ministry of Interior of this, and so many of the protesters or even bystanders who got hit because of the excessive use of force by the riot police are forced to go to the underground secret clinics and be treated by doctors not officially, or at home, because they are afraid of going to the hospitals in Bahrain.

SS:Here’s a quote from a former Bahraini parliament member, Jawad Fairooz, that’s what he told our channel recently: “There’s no clear vision within the government authorities on how to resolve this crisis.” Does anybody have a clear vision?

MK: There is a clear vision – it’s that the Bahraini government does want to reform, and they have no reason to as long as they are not facing any kind of international consequences, as long it’s business as usual and they are able to entertain international events and buy arms and go to conferences worldwide. Why should they think that there’s any need to change their policies or to stop the crackdown in Bahrain? Now, if we look over the past 2 1/2 years, we’ve had the recommendations of Bahrain’s independent commission of inquiry, we’ve had the recommendations of the universal periodic review of the UN, and there has been an ongoing situation when we do have recommendations on how to make the situation better in Bahrain – it’s that the government doesn’t want to make the situation better. But if we look at the situation on the ground, it’s not that difficult to come up with an idea on how to change the situation for the better; the stopping of arbitrary arrests, of the people abductions, of house raids at nights, the excessive use of force, allowing people their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly…All these things, as well as releasing political prisoners, stopping torture, accountability, most importantly – if these things were to happen in Bahrain, definitely we’ll see a very great change in the situation on the ground. But the problem, as I said, is that Bahrain believes that it has impunity internationally, and there definitely is a culture of impunity locally, so there’s no reason for them to think that they need to change.

SS:Many refer to the Bahraini turbulence as [a struggle between] the Shia majority and the Sunni monarchy. How important is the religious component in all of this?

MK: The sectarian discourse and framework that has become what is the Bahraini situation today is something that was promoted by the Bahraini government and their PR companies. The situation in Bahrain, if anyone was at the Pearl Roundabout protest, at which I was personally, you would see that it wasn’t about what your sect was, it was about being Bahraini. People were there from all different sects, different religions, and what brought them together were the demands for rights and government that represents everyone. Now, what the government did, is that in their crackdown… they launched a very, very sectarian crackdown and they did this of course for two reasons – the first reason being that if they were able to frame the situation in Bahrain as a Shia uprising rather than a Bahraini uprising. That, to some extent is because of the media context with what the word “Shia” is linked too, which is Iran and Hezbollah – and that for some extent in their opinion would give them and international justification for the crackdown that they are carrying out. Also, for a second purpose, which was to send a very strong message to the Sunni community in Bahrain that “our problem is now with you, it’s with the Shia, so you need to stay out of the situation.” And of course, in creating a split between Shias and Sunnis in Bahrain… it’s the elementary idea of political control, divide and conquer. If there’s a unity between Sunnis and Shias and they are fighting for the same demands, which are representation and equality, and rights for everyone, regardless of their sect or religion – if that unity would exist in Bahrain, the government won’t last very long. And this is what’s very scary to them and that’s why they launched a very, very sectarian crackdown, targeting anyone who’s Shia, demolishing Shia mosques, and of course, going after people within the educational and work sector.

SS:How have the Bahrainis reacted to a possible thaw that may take place between the US and Iran – have they welcomed it?

MK: The reaction that I saw… of course, there were many jokes made about the phone call that happened between President Obama and President Rouhani. The reaction on the ground was – well maybe this will be a positive outcome for Bahrain, given that the Gulf countries, and especially Bahrain to a large extent, have depended on the situation or the bad relations between the US and Iran to promote the crackdown against legitimate demands of the people by saying that the demands are linked to Iran, and so if there’s a possible thaw between the US and Iran, a lot of people on the ground, I believe or what I have heard, are hoping this would have a positive influence on the US stance towards the human rights situation in Bahrain.

SS: But what do you think of Iran’s new president?

MK: Honestly, I don’t really know too much about him to have much of an opinion. I think that initial steps that are good or seem to be good have been taken, which was the release of some human rights defenders, who were imprisoned, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, and that is something that we all welcome in the human rights community. Now, the question is – how long will it last? Is this something that will be installed within the system of Iran? Because, if the system in itself allows human rights violations, the human rights violations will continue even if there are initial changes to begin with, but the system initially allows human rights violations. What is needed is the system to be fixed, so that the human rights violations cannot be allowed, and there is accountability for anyone who commits human rights violations or targets human rights defenders or civilians for practicing their rights and basic civil freedoms.

SS:Do you expect more support from Iran, if not for democracy, then at least for a Shia rights cause?

MK: No, because the situation in Bahrain is not about Shia rights cause, it’s about Bahraini rights cause, and I think the expectations of Iran are the expectations that we have of the U.S., UK, Russia and all the other countries around the world. We expect these governments to have the correct stance towards the human rights situation. If the Bahraini government is committing wide-spread mass human rights abuses, then these countries need to stop doing arms deals with the Bahraini government, they need to stop doing business as usual, and they need to hold them accountable internationally for the ongoing human rights violations that they are committing.

SS:You live in exile – are you seeing the fruits of your efforts? Is the Bahraini issue hitting home with the world’s leaders?

MK: I think the progress that we are able to make outside of Bahrain is going to take a long time, and we will only see the results after some time. For example, when I first started going to the UN Human Rights Council, nobody spoke of Bahrain, many people didn’t even know what was going on in Bahrain. Today, when you talk to people at the Human Rights Council about the situation in Bahrain, they have a good idea of what the situation on the ground is. I think, that definitely is progress, when you look at the situation of Bahrain, internationally. So, I think, discourse, the understanding of the situation definitely have change, but it’s going to take some time before we’re able to actually exert pressure on different governments to take right stances towards the human rights situation. As you can see right now, for example, with the UK – they have one of the worst stances when it comes to reaction to the human rights situation in Bahrain, when they continuously excused doing business as usual with the Bahraini government by saying that Bahrainis are on a path of the reform and they are supporting this reform, when in reality on the ground what we’re seeing is that the Bahraini government is moving in a very opposite direction of what reforms are.

SS:It must be very difficult for the Bahraini human rights activists when you have US and Saudi Arabia on the side of your opponents. What are your chances, really?

MK: I would say it’s a very difficult situation, like I’ve already mentioned, we call it an inconvenient revolution, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get to where we want to be, and of course, the situation of Saudi Arabia makes it a lot more tricky, given that there’s a bridge between Bahrain and Saudi, and if Saudi decided that they don’t like what the situation is coming to in Bahrain, they could, very possibly, send the military like they’ve already done once before, and take control of the country. And in that situation, especially when there’s no international reaction to an action like that – which we saw in the past, when the Saudis and UAE send troops to Bahrain to help the government to put down legitimate protests – there wasn’t any real international reaction toward it. So my worry is that if we do reach a situation when there is more progress made and people start to realize that the demands they’ve been making for the past almost three years now, what is the Saudi reaction going to be and what is the international reaction towards the Saudi reaction is going to be?

SS:We’ve been speaking about how horrible the situation is in Bahrain – more than 100 deaths, more than 2.000 political prisoners, all these human rights violations… What else needs to happen to get the world’s attention on Bahrain? What has to happen in Bahrain so people will start talking about it?

MK: I think there are many different things that can be done to bring attention to the situation – I feel, definitely, the continuance of the protests in Bahrain plays a big role in the situation, because as soon as the protests stop, it means that the government would be free to do what they what without much of the reaction on the streets. So, the continuation of protests definitely makes the situation a situation that can’t continue for too long. Also, internationally, we need to see things, for example if we’re able to get a special rapporteur on a medical neutrality, that would look into the situations in places like Bahrain and then report on the situation of medical neutrality in places like Bahrain – that would be very helpful. If we can get consistent statements condemning human rights violations, and move forward from just joint statements of the Human Rights Council to an actual resolution on the situation in Bahrain and the deterioration of the human rights in the country – that would be very helpful. There are so many different things that can be done – stopping arms sales, like I mentioned earlier. If these things were to happen, we would see change in Bahrain. The question is what is it that we have to do internationally as a human rights defenders to convince these governments that already say that democracy and human rights are the corner stone of the their foreign policy to actually act upon these elements, on the ideas that they say are instrumental to their foreign policy.

SS:Mariam, we are very short on time, so just very shortly – are you hoping to go back to Bahrain?

MK: Yes, of course. Bahrain is my country and they can only keep me out for so long. So, I will definitely keep trying to go back, even if that does come with a risk of possible arrest or a travel ban if I do get in.

SS:That’s all that we have for today. Our guest has been Maryam al-Khawaja, Bahraini human rights activist and daughter of jailed dissident Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.