Human Rights activists attacked in Bahrain, Interview with Maryam Al-Khawaja
This is John Robles, you’re listening to the interview with Maryam al-Khawaja, she’s the Acting President for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Can you give us a little bit of information about what’s going on down there in Bahrain with the activists?
What we’ve seen lately is definitely escalation of attacks on human rights’ defenders. There were protests in several different areas of the country and my colleague was hit by police. He wasn’t hurt too bad, but several people were injured and one person was critically injured. Most activists are getting arrested. The president of out Center is currently in prison as well.
Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your center?
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights was set up in 2002, basically it covers all kinds of human rights’ violations inside the country. So we were one of the first centers in the Gulf region. We also work on women’s rights. Recently it has been covering the violations committed by the Bahraini government.
I talked to your president, I guess it was about a year ago, regarding the US supplying the Bahraini government with weapons that they were using against civilians. How long has your president been in prison? What has he been charged with?
First he was arrested at the beginning of May on his way back from Lebanon to Bahrain. And he was kept in prison for about three weeks, then he was released and then at the beginning of June he was rearrested, he has been in prison since then. Mainly the charges against him are things that he writes on Twitter.
Have you had any similar problems yourself?
I don’t live in Bahrain at the moment and I can’t come back because I would be arrested. That’s why I was able to stay out of prison.
What’s going on with the activists right now that have been detained? What were they charged with?
You have activists who are being charged with illegal gatherings, you have those who are being charged for writing things on Twitter. For example, the former president of the Bahrain’s Center was arrested last year and tortured severely. He was actually charged with taking part in a terrorist organization and attempting to violently overthrow the government.
This was because of his activities with the Bahrain Center?
This was because he is a human rights’ activist. I think that in the Arab region, in the South African region today the worst threat to this regime is not political activists or people with guns, it is human rights’ activists, because either the government is doing the right thing or not, they don’t have any justification. So they are really going out for human rights’ defenders.
What’s going on now with the medical workers?
Of course, medical workers were arrested last year, they were tortured and got from one year to fifteen. There was a lot of international pressure, they actually sent for an appeal. The Court two weeks ago actually sentenced nine of them from one month to five years imprisonment. Governments considered the crime that they treated injured protestors.
What were they supposed to do? Just let these people die?
Yes. When it comes to people who speak out against the government these are not people who deserve to live and so either they kill them on the street or they injure them and force doctors not to treat them.
How many people have died in Bahrain since these crackdowns began?
At least seventy people have been killed in Bahrain from the beginning of uprisings. That’s a very huge number. If Bahrain had the same population as Egypt, 11 000 people would be killed. Bahrain also had the largest quota in what is called the Arab Spring, because almost 50% of the population took part in the protests. Again if to compare to Egypt, it’s like saying 40 million Egyptians came out on the streets.
Is there any possibility that the situation may change for the better? That there may be a regime change?
I think that as long as Bahraini government has immunity internationally just because their Western allies, I don’t think we will see any change soon. Western governments talk about human rights and democracy and their support for that, but they need to actually implement what they say. Right now they don’t. It’s not in their interests.
What do you think people internationally can do to help people there in Bahrain?
There’s more or less media blackout on the Bahraini situation. There are countries in the world where people vote smarter, like in Europe or other places. That’s really the population that convince their government that something needs to be done about Bahrain. People should convince their governments, they should say: if you don’t do anything about Bahrain, if you don’t stop your double standards, we will not vote for you’re the next term. I think that can make a change.
What’s the governmental system right now?
Bahrain is an absolute monarchy, basically the King is the head of all different authorities in the country. He is above the law, above the Constitution. People who work within the Bahraini regime are completely immune, which means that they can torture, they can kill and won’t be charged with that.
What would be a typical day for a Bahraini citizen?
Everyday there’re people put in the streets demanding human rights and democracy and dignity. Usually at night what happens – police go to different residential areas and teargas people for hours, even inside people’s homes. Actually they go up to the window, break it and shoot teargas inside the house. And there’re families who try to keep their children alive as they suffocate to death because of the teargas. This is happening almost every single night. This is more or less routine for Bahraini families.
Do you see change in the near future?
The Bahraini government right now isn’t going to change anything because they think they can continue to commit human rights’ violations and there won’t be any consequences. They don’t have reasons to create any change. And that’s why – as I said – without the right international pressure, nothing will change in Bahrain. The message that’s coming out of Bahrain right now is call for help. Because people lost hope in their government.
Is the UN, in any way, involved with your organization?
I’m in Geneva now and I’ve been attending sessions for human rights. Unfortunately we don’t have a similar institution that actually implements human rights for implementing human rights. Even the UN Human Rights Counsel is very much politicized. At the UN Counsel it’s very difficult to get anything on Bahrain done. And in Bahrain we even don’t have laws condemning human rights’ violations.
And you’re saying this is all because the Bahraini regime is pro-Western and is backed by the West?
Yes. Especially because it’s close to Saudi Arabia and it plays a huge role in keeping Bahrain protected from any kind of consequences internationally.