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Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United States: Interview with Zainab Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab

Amy Goodman: The Bahraini government is intensifying its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.  In a pre-dawn raid Saturday, masked police officers broke into the home of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist.  Alkhawaja and other family members were beaten and detained.  They remain in police custody at an unknown location.  Human Rights Watch has condemned his arrest and called for his immediate release.

His daughter, Zainab Alkhawaja, has written a letter asking President Obama to stop supporting the government in Bahrain and asking for American assistance in locating her father and other family members.  Her husband, Wafi Almajed, and brother-in-law, Hussain Ahmed, were also picked up the same night.  Zainab has tried to determine where they are but has found no answers.  On Monday, she started a hunger strike in protest.  She’ll eat only once all her family members have been released.  She’s joining us now from Manama, Bahrain.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Zainab.  Describe what happened on Saturday.

Zainab Alkhawaja: Hello, Amy.

What happened on Saturday is that security forces attacked my home.  They came in without prior warning.  They broke down the building door, and they broke down our apartment door, and instantly attacked my father, without giving him a chance to speak and without giving any reason for his arrest.  They dragged my father down the stairs and started beating him in front of me.  They beat him until he was unconscious.  The last thing I heard my father say was that he couldn’t breathe.  When I tried to intervene, when I tried to tell them, I told them, “Please stop beating him.  He will go with you voluntarily.  You don’t need to beat him this way,” they told me to shut up, basically, and they grabbed me from my clothes and dragged me up the stairs back into the apartment.  By the time I had gotten out of the room again, the only trace of my father was his blood on the stairs where he was dragged on.

Amy Goodman: Why are they going after him, Zainab?

Zainab Alkhawaja: They came after my father because he’s a human rights activist and because he has been speaking out against the crimes of our regime and speaking out against dictatorship and calling for democracy.  My father has actually even spoken about the King of Bahrain and said that the King of Bahrain is responsible for crimes and that he is responsible for detention, for torture, for killing, for corruption, and that he should be on a fair trial, he shouldn’t be ruling our country.  And I think that’s the reason that they have come and taken my father and attacked him in this way, because in a country like ours, in a dictatorship like this, it’s a crime to speak for basic rights and to speak for democracy.  They expect us to all stay silent and not say anything against the dictator here.

Amy Goodman: And Zainab, what happened to your husband, to Wafi Almajed, as well as to your brother-in-law, Hussain Ahmed?

Zainab Alkhawaja: Well, what happened is that they were with us there at home when they attacked.  And I know that they had come for my father, not for them, because they kept referring to my father as the “target,” and at first they did not even know who my husband and my brother-in-law were.  They asked them for identification and for their names, and that’s when they found out who they were and then, evidently, just decided to arrest them as well, because in this country there are no laws and there are no human rights, basically.  They can just decide who they want to take and who they want to leave and how long they want to detain them and how much information they want to give their families.

Amy Goodman: You have written a letter to President Obama.  Bahrain is extremely close to the United States.  It is the home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.  What is your message to the President of the United States?

Zainab Alkhawaja: My message to Obama is basically that he has to choose.  He has to choose if his administration is really with human rights, democracy, and freedom, as he claimed, and with change towards democracy.  Or is he more concerned about supporting his friends who are dictators in the Middle East?  The American administration has always been speaking about human rights and freedom and democracy.  But their action in Bahrain proves otherwise.  It proves that they care more about their relations with a dictator here and that they’re willing to support him even when he is oppressing and killing and detaining and torturing pro-democracy protesters.  And that’s why I wrote the letter to Obama, specifically, to ask that question and to share with him what kind of injustice we are living under and to tell him that if they are supporting this regime, then they are also responsible for what is happening and for the human rights abuses that are happening in my country.

Amy Goodman: Zainab, we’re also joined from Bahrain via Democracy Now! video stream, by Nabeel Rajab, the president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights, facing possible military trial for publishing the photograph of Ali Sager, a protester who died in custody.  Can you tell us about the situation now, Nabeel?  And are you, yourself, afraid of being taken, like Zainab’s family?

Nabeel Rajab: Well, as you know, I was referred to the military court or military prosecutor for publishing photos of someone who was killed by the interrogators by torturing him.  And you know the government were trying to hide the crimes they have been committing in the past few months.  And as you know, at least 30 people have died so far, and more than 3,000 people were wounded.  And approximately, we have 800 prisoners out of a 500,000 population, and that’s a high percentage.  So, Bahrain’s government, by blocking journalists to come inside Bahrain, by blocking websites, by closing down the only independent newspaper, they try to make a gag — they want to make blockage on the news going outside to the outside world of the human rights abuse and violation.

So, my Twitter account and my Facebook account become one of the main places where people seek information, among the journalists, among the human rights organizations.  And I posted those pictures, and that upset the government, because the government don’t want to show the crime they’re committing.  And they say they’re going to take me to the military prosecutor.  And I think that is intimidation and harassment and a pressure for me to stop my human rights work.  But that won’t let me stop, and I’m going to continue doing my work, as far as I am free. . . .

Amy Goodman: Nabeel, very quickly, the role of Saudi Arabia in all of this, U.S.-backed, as well?  And we only have 30 seconds.

Nabeel Rajab: You know that any democracy here in Bahrain could have an impact on Saudi Arabia.  And Saudi Arabia are very much afraid of democracy getting closer to its border.  And Bahrain becoming a democracy means Saudi Arabia sooner or later.  So, Saudi is willing to pay anything, with any kind of cost, to stop any kind of democratic movement in Bahrain.  And that’s what they have done.  They are sending their own army, to crack down on the peaceful protest, and that’s what we are witnessing today.
Amy Goodman: Finally, the fact that the U.S. Navy is there, that the Fifth Fleet is based there, the extremely close relationship between Bahrain and the United States — your message for President Obama?

Nabeel Rajab: Well, until recently, a month ago, I used to think it is a positive thing to have a strong relation with the United States, but now I realize it is — it is difficult.  It is not a positive one, because now we are not supported by United States for our democracy, democratic movement, because we have an American base, and our ruling family have guaranteed them that they will guarantee their interests and they will guarantee their military presence.  And that’s why the Obama administration are not supporting us, but supporting the government.  So, this base is becoming too hard for us, too difficult for us, making our job more difficult.  The interest of United States, as they believe, lies with those dictators and the repressive regimes in the region, but not with anything democratic.  But this is not good for Obama administration, not good for the United States government.  They are losing the hearts and minds of people here.  And I don’t think it is a positive thing that they lose the hearts and minds of people here.


Zainab Alkhawaja is a pro-democracy activist in Bahrain.  Follow her <twitter.com/angryarabiya>.  Nabeel Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.  Follow him at <twitter.com/Nabeelrajab>.  This interview was broadcast by Democracy Now! on 12 April 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.




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