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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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?
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."
Photo by MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GettyImages