Protests against the Formula One Grand Prix held in Manama on 22 April could have reminded the world that repression in Bahrain is still ongoing. But once more the so-called international community by and large turned a blind eye: no diplomatic pressure, certainly no “crippling” international sanctions. The Grand Prix went ahead as planned. A firebomb thrown by Bahraini protesters, however, caused US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland to ask for “demonstrators’ restraint in ensuring that they are peaceful.” The contrast with Syria, where Western politicians systematically downplay violence by the Syrian opposition, and some even talk of offering military support to the Free Syrian Army, could hardly be larger.
Maryam al-Khawaja has consistently raised her voice against these double standards. At twenty-four years of age, she heads the foreign relations office of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). She has testified on human rights violations in Bahrain before the UN, the US Congress, and the European Parliament. Her sister Zainab has been arrested over and over by the Bahraini regime, once reportedly just for trying to see her father. Maryam’s father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is an illegally-detained human rights activist who has been on hunger strike for over two months now.
Marc Botenga: You are responsible for international affairs at the BCHR. How did you get involved in activism?
Maryam Al-Khawaja: In 2010, I started volunteering and writing reports for the BCHR. We would go and document human rights violations, people being arrested and tortured and so on. We would then send these reports abroad to different NGOs, the United Nations, and several governments. This was what the regime feared most: someone documenting their violations. I was threatened. It became impossible for me to find a job inside the country just because of my name. So I started working full-time with the Center. I was in Bahrain in February 2011 when it all started. After I left to testify to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011, I was unable to return.
It is no surprise that the Bahraini government is not fond of you, but you also received threats from inside the United States. Why is that?
I am not sure, but the Bahraini government has a lot of friends in a lot of places. They have around 12 public relations companies working for them, but, despite all the money they are spending, we have still been able to bring out what is happening inside the country.
Your father started a hunger strike on 8 February. What does he hope to achieve?
Most importantly, he wants to bring international attention to the situation in Bahrain and to how human rights abuses are still happening on a daily basis. The government of Bahrain has been making a lot of empty promises about reform and change, but on the ground nothing has changed.
Since the start of the Bahraini revolt, you mean?
Yes, Bahrain had the largest protests in the so-called Arab Spring. According to the opposition, the largest protest in Bahrain was around 400,000 people. Bahrain’s population [migrant workers excluded] is around 600-700,000 people. That would be like 40 million Egyptians turning out to protest on the same day and at the same place! That hasn’t happened in any other country. Also, if you look at the numbers per capita, around 80 people have been killed in Bahrain since the beginning of the protests. If Bahrain had the same population as Egypt, today we would have more than 11,000 people killed in Bahrain. So it might seem as if there is not a lot going on in Bahrain because of the smaller numbers, but one has to look at the situation per capita because Bahrain’s population is very, very small. Now, that’s just the 80 people killed, but imagine if we would be comparing [per capita] the thousands of Bahrainis who got injured, the thousands who got tortured, or the thousands who got fired. . . .
What brought people to the streets?
In 2001, the Bahraini king promised the people a constitutional monarchy with a real parliament and a constitution agreed upon by the people and the government. But on the 14th of February 2002 he unilaterally created a new constitution. Whereas before he had just been an emir, this new constitution made him king and created a parliament that has absolutely no legislative power or authority. In 2011, encouraged by the other Arab revolutions, the people demanded the king make good on his promises. They had given him ten years to change, to fulfill his promises. They came out onto the streets and demanded a new constitution that represents the people, a real parliament, freedom and human rights. In 2007, torture had been reintroduced and arbitrary arrests started. There was a very severe crackdown in August 2010, when around 500 people were arrested. Their imprisonment was one of the reasons behind the revolution. However, it was only after the army and riot police started killing people on the streets that the demand changed from a new constitution to the fall of the regime.
You say the Bahraini revolution is pro-democracy, but very often so-called experts speak of a Shi’ite revolt against a Sunni monarchy. . . .
That’s the way the government has tried to portray it. It is just like in Egypt they tried to say it’s Muslims against Copts, a very basic concept of divide and conquer. If you are able to divide the people, they will stop remembering that they have something else to fight: the government. It is in the interest of the Bahraini government to turn this struggle into a fight between two factions of society, but since the protests started both Sunnis and Shi’ites demonstrated and got arrested. The first political prisoner after the start of the revolution was Sunni not Shi’ite. Today, what it comes down to is whether you are a loyalist or not. There are Shi’ites who are loyal to the government, who are living very comfortable lives supporting the government, and there are Sunnis who have criticized the government, who were tortured and imprisoned.
Pro-government people have turned very sectarian. On social media platforms a lot of sectarianism comes from government supporters. Protestors still today on the other hand are saying no to sectarianism. This is a really good sign, but you don’t know how long it is going to last. If the government keeps pushing people, there is a risk that some people might fall into sectarianism.
Bahrain also has an important population of migrant workers, very often from South Asia. They are almost as many migrant workers as there are Bahrainis. Did they participate in the protests?
Migrant workers are not treated well at all in Bahrain. They probably have not got the time to participate in protests because of the way they are treated. A lot of them work very, very long hours. They also tend to stay away from politics because being involved is being at threat. There are also Western expats working in Bahrain. Some of them have supported the protests and were forced to leave the country. Some of them continue to speak out. But there are also Western expats whose livelihoods — and a lot of the money they are making — depend on contracts with the royal family. These people support the royal family against the protestors.
Although your father’s case has received some attention, Bahrain seems to have disappeared almost totally from the West’s radar. Some will remember the violent February 2011 attack by Bahraini security forces on sleeping protestors on the central Pearl Square in Manama, or the tanks overrunning the square a month later. But this is over a year ago. Have things cooled down?
People are still being killed today. The protests in Bahrain have carried on every single day since the 14th of February last year. Every single day. Western media have just stopped covering it. It is in a lot of people’s interest that the revolution in Bahrain does not succeed. The geopolitical importance of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have a big part in this. That is why I feel there has been a blackout when it comes to the media and international reaction to what is happening in Bahrain. The king’s own report, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report, very specifically says that crimes against humanity, including the systematic use of torture and the use of force against unarmed protestors, have been committed. In an ideal world, the king would be on trial for crimes against humanity, because he’s the head of an authoritarian regime directly responsible for these crimes.
One of the most shocking aspects of this repression has been the crackdown on doctors. Doctors who treated injured protesters have been arrested and put on trial for doing their job.
They were released after international condemnation, but their trial is still ongoing. The government targeted them because they were witnesses to crimes committed by the government, because they treated all the protestors. They saw the people who were killed and knew what was going on. I remember on the 17th of February, after the attack on sleeping protestors, the regime gave the doctors orders that no ambulances were allowed to enter Pearl Square. The doctors were outraged when they were not allowed to help people who were being attacked and killed. In reaction, they started protesting and demanding the resignation of the minister of health. The problem is that Bahrain has no independent judiciary: judges are assigned and paid by the king. In the absence of a real judicial system, everything will depend on the decisions of a few people within the regime. If they decide it is in their interest to release the doctors and drop the case, then that’s what will happen. If not, the trial can last for several years.
You say it is in the interest of a lot of people to hide these crimes and to make the Bahraini revolution fail. One of those countries seems to be Saudi Arabia. Why do you think Saudi Arabia opposes the Bahraini revolution?
There are several reasons. Many monarchies in the Gulf believe that, if the Bahraini monarchy falls, this will mean the end of the other monarchies as well. They fear it will cause a domino effect in the area. If there were to be a real transparent and democratic government in Bahrain, this government would not be a Saudi ally. Saudi Arabia would lose a friend in the region.
It is interesting that at a time when Western governments are criticizing Russia for selling arms to Syria, they are doing the exact same thing with Bahrain. It is very clearly a situation of double standards.
Why is that? What are the West’s interests in Bahrain? Is it just the US naval base?
The West has an interest in the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and especially in Saudi Arabia when it comes to oil. The GCC states are also among their biggest customers for weapons. As I said, the West continues to sell weapons to Bahrain. There is indeed also the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. So the West has a lot of interests at stake in Bahrain, which is why they don’t want democracy to happen.
Would democracy necessarily be less pro-Western or less pro-Saudi than the current regime?
It would definitely not be friends with Saudi Arabia, because there are longstanding problems between the people of Bahrain and the government of Saudi Arabia. The Bahraini people are close to the Saudi people and know what the Saudi people go through with their government. They know that the Saudi government commits human rights violations.
I don’t think it would necessarily be less pro-Western. The presence of the US Fifth Fleet was never an issue to the people of Bahrain. The West in general was not the issue. The issue was obtaining their rights from the government. However, because of the way the West has reacted to the situation so far, people are becoming a lot more anti-West. The fact that the West has not done anything about it, that there have been absolutely no international consequences for the Bahraini royal family, is why human rights abuses continue. They have absolutely no incentive to stop human rights violations. This makes the West to a certain extent complicit in what is going on in Bahrain — especially since they are still selling arms! I think if this situation goes on this way, we will get to a situation in which people are going to say very openly and very strongly: “Once the decision is ours, we will not want the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.”
Apart from stop selling arms, what can the West do?
There have to be diplomatic consequences. We haven’t even seen consistent outrage at or statements condemning human rights violations in Bahrain. This would be the very least. Another step would be special sessions in the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. We have seen those for all countries of the so-called Arab Spring, but not for Bahrain. They are just not doing anything in regard to the situation in Bahrain.
A YouTube-clip shows you meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and asking her for a strong US statement against repression in Bahrain. How did she react?
I did not only ask her for a strong statement. I also asked her to stop selling arms to Bahrain. She didn’t really respond. She just said “Thank you for coming” and “I understand.” But the US, the UK, and France are still selling arms. The European Parliament urged European governments not to do so anymore, but governments are doing it anyway. The US Congress halted a 53 million dollar arms deal with Bahrain. In turn, the Obama administration started selling arms to Bahrain in small batches of less than 1 million dollars. That way the administration does not need the approval of Congress, so it can carry on with arms deliveries. This is disappointing for a country that claims to support democracy and human rights.
The US often says it supports the GCC and the Bahraini government to stop Iranian influence.
There clearly is a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the Bahraini government’s own BICI report very specifically says that Iran had absolutely nothing to do with the protests in Bahrain. But, because of the policies of the West, we could be going into a situation in which people will turn to Iran for help because they have no other way out. When you corner an entire population and allow human rights violations against them, people are going to look for someone who can help them. They are doing the exact opposite of what they say they want. They claim they want to limit Iran’s influence, but their policy pushes the Bahraini people to Iran.
Europe first supported the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators, then claimed to defend human rights in Libya and now Syria. What is its attitude towards Bahrain?
Europe is not going to do anything that goes against the interests of the United States. In a lot of places where I went for meetings, I was told that this is a US ballgame and that we will not get involved. This is very, very disappointing, because the EU is known for being more truthful in their human rights advocacy. This has not been the case for Bahrain. They have, like the US, been silent for the most part.
One aspect the West has also been particularly quiet about is the presence of Saudi occupying forces in Bahrain.
They are GCC forces. Most of them come from Saudi Arabia, but Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also sent forces. The US, through Hillary Clinton, came out and endorsed their presence by saying that Bahrain has the “sovereign right” to bring in GCC forces. This way, the US made sure that no one could come out and criticize it internationally.
Does this lack of international support make you pessimistic regarding the movement’s future?
I believe that the initial victory was not about changing the regime or even reforms. The initial victory is the fact that people came out to the streets to demand change and democracy. That in itself is a victory and should be celebrated. The people are determined, so change is definitely going to come to Bahrain. It is just a matter of when.
Marc Botenga (Ph.D., IMT Institute for Advanced Studies-Lucca, Italy) is a Belgian political analyst.