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Maryam al-Khawaja on the protests in Bahrain

Mayram Al-Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations, Bahrain Center for Human Rights

Maryam al-Khawaja is currently the Head of Foreign Relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and recently the Gulf Center for Human Rights, and a former Fulbright Scholar at Brown University. In Bahrain, al-Khawaja played an instrumental role in the democratic protests taking place in the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011, which triggered a government response of widespread arrest, discrimination, and fear to suppress dissent and quell voices for reform. She is also the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was among a group of high-profile activists and opposition leaders recently sentenced to life imprisonment.

As you may have noticed, things are going incredibly well in Bahrain. Over the past year, protests in the country have been met with a ruthless government response. Today, opposition groups continue to face a brutal crackdown by the ruling al-Khalifa family, which has been able to so far successfully fend off a popular revolt. The United States, our fearless democracy-promoter worldwide, has yet to take on this problem because, as your mother will tell you, it’s much easier to take on the identical problem when it is occurring in countries you don’t like (Syria) or countries where it becomes too big to ignore (Egypt) than it is to do so in countries that, let’s say, house your navy’s Fifth Fleet for instance, or act as a bulwark against regional powers you don’t like. Indeed, democracy promotion isn’t so simple in the case of important allies like Bahrain. It’s incredibly simple everywhere else though, just to be clear. Maryam sat with your correspondent to discuss the worsening situation in Bahrain and the options facing the country at this critical moment.

TDA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Mayram. Of course, a lot has been happening in Bahrain of late. Let’s start by understanding how we got to where we are. In 2001, Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority oversaw the country’s transformation to a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Seems like the King was being a terrific guy. What has gone wrong?

To begin with I must point out that I find it problematic when the monarchy is referred to as the “Sunni” monarchy or when the protesters as being “Shia”. This gives a wrong indication that the problem in Bahrain is along sectarian lines, which it isn’t. People are not protesting because they are Shiaa, nor are they protesting because the monarchy is Sunni. In reality it is a classic case of oppressors vs oppressed, loyalists vs non-loyalists, with the regime pushing the sectarian card as a means of divide and conquer.

In regards to the happenings in 2001, the issue of reform was quickly put an almost complete stop when the King decided to unilaterally change the constitution. This was despite promises that he would not do so. He crowned himself King, and changed the name of the country to Kingdom of Bahrain. This new constitution instituted an elected lower house with no legislative power, and which also suffers from gerrymandering. It also instituted an upper house, completely assigned by the King.

“People are not protesting because they are Shia, nor are they protesting because the monarchy is Sunni. In reality it is a classic case of oppressors vs oppressed, loyalists vs non-loyalists, with the regime pushing the sectarian card as a means of divide and conquer.”

Basically, long story short, the new regime and constitution built an authoritarian government with the King as head of all government institutions. He issued Decree 56 which granted impunity to all government officials who committed horrific crimes of torture and killings in the 1990’s, some of whom still hold high positions today. Did the human rights situation get better for a little while? Yes, the little while it took for the regime to build up Bahrain as a financial hub, while continuing to repress dissent. Then things went back to the former situation, (there was a violent crackdown which started in August 2010, right before the spark of protests in Tunisia) which led us to where we are today.

TDA: According to your group, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released its report in November 2011, there have been some 31 deaths throughout the country—a majority due to tear gas suffocation and three due to torture. I would assume that surely this sort of thing appalls the United States, but I have heard neither President Obama nor Secretary Clinton say anything about it. Maybe they are so angry with Bahrain’s government that they are speechless?

Unfortunately we have witnessed a very clear policy of double standards when it comes to the foreign policy of the United States. At a time when the US and other western allies are heavily criticizing Russia for selling arms to Syria because of close relations and their base there, the United States is doing the same with Bahrain, preserving their fifth fleet. We continue to live in a world where the price of a barrel of oil holds higher importance and value than human life. Bahrain is too geo-politically important to many Western powers, especially because of Saudi Arabia, and where Libya received foreign intervention to help the rebels, Bahrain received a foreign intervention to help crush a popular uprising.

TDA: The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of interfering in Bahrain. Who do you think is interfering more in the country: Saudi Arabia, which invaded Bahrain last year, or Iran, which hasn’t? Just based on the fact that it actually physically entered your country, I would say the answer is Saudi Arabia. What do you think?

One of the most problematic statements coming out of the United States was when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that Bahrain had the sovereign right to invite the Peninsula Shield (Gulf troops, majority of which are from Saudi Arabia, then UAE) into their country. To begin with, the entry of those forces into the country was and is against the treaty made between the GCC, as well as international law. Does Britain have the sovereign right to invite NATO into their country to help put down a popular uprising? To add to that, the governments very own BICI report found that there was no Iranian interference in the protests, thus annulling the excuse the Peninsula Shield was relying on. Furthermore, Clinton making that statement at that specific time meant justifying their entrance, and making sure no other country with influence condemns it. The Peninsula Shield continues to have a presence in Bahrain.

“We have witnessed a very clear policy of double standards when it comes to the foreign policy of the United States.”

TDA: Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, the former president and cofounder of your organization, has been on a hunger strike for nearly two months. What has the government of Bahrain said in response to the strike? 

The only response we’ve seen from the Bahraini government so far in regards to the strike was publishing a false report saying that he is healthy and all other information is not true. Abdulhadi Alkhawaja has been failed by the international system that was created supposedly to protect those who dedicate their lives fighting for human rights. He is an internationally well-known human rights defender, and despite the BICI documenting the severity of his torture, and the illegality of the case made against him, he continues to be detained. The Danish Government (as he is a Danish citizen) have made significant efforts to attempt to get him released.  He and all other prisoners of conscience must be released immediately.

TDA: What do you consider to be the most egregious acts of the government so far? Considering this, is the government still legitimate in the eyes of the people?

There is such a long list of human rights violations it’s difficult to say one persons case of suffering was worse than the other. Men, woman and children have been subjected to judicial killing, targeting, systematic torture, sexual assaults, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, harassment, sacking, and the list goes on. The systematic collective punishment on a nightly basis using excessive tear gas on residential areas is horrific. This hasn’t only taken many lives already due to suffocation, but will also leave long lasting effects on people’s health for many years to come. The UN recently made a statement raising great concerns about the use of excessive force, specifically tear gas, against protesters in Bahrain. Most messages coming out from Bahrain today say “save us, they are killing us slowly.”

TDA: What would you say is the most feasible solution to the conflict at this point?

Change will come to Bahrain, whether now or in 20 years. It will come through one of two ways, either through a lengthy, very bloody time period of protests and clashes; or in a much shorter period through international pressure. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

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