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Behind the Bahraini Revolution: An Interview with Maryam Al-Khawaja

[Protesters in Bahrain stand on the ground they were evicted from just three days before. Image from Flickr.] [Protesters in Bahrain stand on the ground they were evicted from just three days before. Image from Flickr.]

[The following is an interview conducted with Maryam Al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the deputy director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. She is currently in self-imposed exile in Denmark due to safety and security reasons, but remains closely connected to events on the ground in Bahrain. She posts regular updates on her Twitter, @MARYAMALKHAWAJA.] 

Samia Errazzouki (SE): Can you give us a general overview of the current situation in Bahrain?

Maryam Al-Khawaja (MA): Whenever you want to know the human rights situation of any country, ask where their human rights defenders are. In Bahrain, all of the most prominent human rights defenders sit in prison cells today. The human rights situation has been deteriorating continuously since the beginning of the Bahraini Revolution on 14 February 2011. There are currently up to one hundred extrajudicial killings, and approximately one thousand eight hundred political prisoners, a significant amount of which are children under eighteen. At the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), we continue to document cases of excessive force against protesters, arbitrary arrests, lethal use of tear gas, kidnappings, and systematic torture (physical, psychological, and sexual). The protests have continued on a daily basis since 14 February 2011.

One of the main problems for why the country has not moved forward in regard to stopping human rights violations is the culture of impunity that exists within the country, in addition to the existence of international immunity for Bahrain. The culture of impunity enforced by the regime and the king is the reason why nothing has changed. As Bahraini activists, we were hoping that the regime would take the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) as an opportunity to take a step in the right direction and implement real reforms. Instead, the regime used this five hundred-page report as a tool to buy itself time while it continues to commit the same violations. In some cases, the violations got worse. Additionally, during this period, Western countries continued to sell arms to the Bahraini government and business continued as usual. The people who were responsible for the massive widespread human rights violations in high positions were kept in their position or even promoted.

SE: What is the background for the political and civil rights movement in Bahrain?

MA: The 1990s Intifada was only one of many uprisings in Bahrain. To understand what led to the 1990s Intifada and the current revolution of 14 February 2011, one must understand the history of uprisings in Bahrain and the role of the civil rights movement. Since the 1920s, Bahrain has witnessed some sort of uprising almost every ten years. For example, in the 1950s, Intifadat al-Haya’a, which was led by the religious leaders of both the Sunni and Shia communities, started. At the time, Bahrain was still a British protectorate, so with the help of the British, the regime arrested all of the leading figures of that movement. The Sunnis among them were sent to Saint Helena Island and those who were Shia were exiled to Iran and Iraq.

In 1971, the British withdrew from Bahrain and one of the only good things they did for Bahrain was leave a constitution that gave people a real parliament. The constitution was passed in 1973. The parliament was elected, but in 1975, when Emir Isa tried to pass a decision to enforce a state of emergency, the parliament refused. In response, he dissolved the parliament. When people took to the streets in the 1990s, they were demanding a return to the 1973 constitution. There was systematic torture, arbitrary arrests, and people were killed. The general perception was that Isa’s brother, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who was appointed prime minister in 1971, was the person actually ruling the country. During the 1990s, there was an uprising demanding a return to the 1973 constitution and an elected parliament. People were arbitrarily arrested, a number died under torture, and the crackdown continued for years. The main person known for setting up the systematic torture in Bahrain was Ian Henderson, who was nicknamed the “Butcher of Bahrain.”

In 1999, Emir Isa died and his son Hamad took over. Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa changed the ongoing political and popular scene in Bahrain. He promised Bahrainis that if they sign his referendum, he will release all political prisoners, that Bahrain would be a constitutional monarchy, and people in exile would be able to return. He called it the “Days We Have Yet To Live.” He held his promises in the beginning: political prisoners were released, those exiled were allowed to return, and torture ceased. In 2002, after his referendum passed and despite making a videotaped promise to not change the constitution of 1973, he unilaterally changed the constitution to make himself king and announced the “Kingdom of Bahrain,” when it was previously the “State of Bahrain.” He gave himself absolute and unchecked powers. He also passed royal decree 56 in 2002, which is a big part of the reason for why Bahrain is where it is today. It granted amnesty and instilled a culture of impunity for all those who had been involved in grave human rights violations, such as torture and extrajudicial killings. 

SE: Why did the 2011 Bahraini Uprising take place? 

MA: Since Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa took power, he reappointed his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, as the prime minister, making him the longest standing unelected prime minister in history. After 2002, the human rights and political situation started to decline again but not to levels seen in the 1990s. The constitution of 2002 created a bogus parliament made up of an upper and lower house. The upper house has forty members, who are all appointed by the king himself. The lower house is the elected chamber, which also holds forty seats. Due to astounding gerrymandering, it is impossible for the opposition to get more than eighteen seats out of the forty, even if they get majority votes. All that aside, the parliament has no legislative or monitoring powers. Recurring protests demanding accountability for criminals who were still in government, as well as better housing, jobs, and an end to discrimination, were violently attacked. The popular perception was that the Ministry of Interior, the security forces, and riot police were connected to the prime minister. When people got arrested, Bahrainis blamed the prime minister, and the king who was seen as “more progressive” would then pardon and release prisoners. It was the good cop, bad cop scenario.

During this time, corruption increased; the crown prince was heavily involved in the land reclamation that was taking place, and the Bahraini royal family moved towards gaining more economic power at the expense of the population. They brought in cheap labor from Southeast Asia, who were then treated like modern day slaves, while Bahrainis remain unemployed. Bahrain is essentially run like a family business, and citizens are treated like subjects. If they are not profitable for the family business, they are sidelined. 

In 2007, as per Human Rights Watch’s report, Torture Redux, systematic torture reemerged in Bahrain but mostly against convicts. On 13 August 2010, a crackdown started and the regime arrested many prominent activists. Local human rights groups started documenting the return of physical, psychological, and sexual torture against political prisoners. Because it was Ramadan and the Eid festivities were coming up, many expected that the same ongoing scenario would reoccur and the king would come out and pardon the political prisoners. What happened instead was that the king and the crown prince condoned the crackdown for the very first time. That is when it was clear something had shifted. This crackdown continued, around five hundred people were imprisoned; twenty one percent of all political prisoners were children. There were also repeated cases of kidnappings. People would disappear for several hours to a few days, then found half naked dumped on the streets. Most of the underage boys who were kidnapped had their pictures taken completely naked and then blackmailed into working as informants for the intelligence services. This situation continued until the beginning of the mass uprising in February 2011. On the day that Mubarak stepped down in Cairo (11 February 2011), the Bahraini king announced on national television that every Bahraini family would receive one thousand dinars. The announcement drew negative reactions from people who responded by saying, “Is our freedom only worth a thousand dinars to this king?” Later, during the Pearl Roundabout protests, the protesters launched a campaign to use the one thousand dinars per family towards the protest movement. 

SE: What are some of the tactics that the Bahraini regime uses that have been used in previous uprisings to stifle dissent?

MA: Other than the arbitrary arrests, torture, killing, and other violations, one of the things the Bahraini regime does best is playing the labeling game. Early on, the Bahraini regime labeled the entire opposition as being Nasser socialist. The regime then labeled them as being communists, then Iranian agents, and terrorists. And now, they are both terrorists and Iranian agents. The reason for this is that the Bahraini regime tries to understand what the threat du jour is in the international stage, and then applies that label to the opposition. 

The other similarity is the use of trumped-up charges and fabricated cases against dissidents. For example, if you take a picture out of a newspaper from the 1950s, the headlines and images are almost entirely the same today, except in color.

SE: What are the conditions of the political prisoners currently held in Bahrain and in what ways have the prisoners remained active, such as in the Dry Dock Prison? 

MA: The political prisoners formed a coalition in the prison and they wrote a statement saying, in sum, if you are going to lock up all the revolutionaries, then you will get a revolution from within your prisons. They were attacked inside their prison cells, beaten, and some of them were taken into solitary confinement on the basis that they were suspected of leading this coalition.

Systematic torture still exists (physical, psychological, and sexual). After the release of the BICI report, torture moved from official torture centers to unofficial centers. For example, a few days ago, security forces took a young man to a youth hostel where he was beaten severely, had his money and mobile stolen, and was then dumped on the streets in Jidhafs. 

The judicial system in Bahrain is neither independent nor fair. It is used as a tool to go after and punish dissidents. Within the last two years, Bahrain has witnessed thousands of political cases based on trumped-up charges. During the summer, political prisoners were denied air conditioning despite the unbearable heat of Bahrain. At some points, they were not allowed to shower. Sometimes they were not allowed to pray or even use the bathroom. Many of the political prisoners still suffer due to severe torture and are prevented from adequate medical care. We continue to have cases of minors under eighteen who are imprisoned and at times, tried under the internationally condemned terrorism law. 

SE: How do you respond to the claims that the uprising is rooted in a sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shia’s? 

MA: For several decades, the Bahraini regime has implemented systematic marginalization and discrimination of the Shia majority in Bahrain. There are certain areas in Bahrain where Shia are not allowed to live. There are jobs that Shia Bahrainis are not allowed to hold. There is a mandatory religion class from the elementary to university level, where students are taught that anyone who is Shia is going to hell. 

In 2006, the Al Bander Report revealed the sustenance of sectarian division and the regime’s penetration of NGO's in an effort to dismantle them. This report revealed demographic engineering in Bahrain and mechanisms of exclusion. The Bahraini regime was actively working on creating a system that excluded the majority of the Bahraini population, which is Shia. One of the ways this is done is by the ongoing political naturalization of non-Bahrainis. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, and Jordanians have been politically naturalized for two reasons. First, so that they serve in the security forces, intelligence services, and the army, while most Bahraini citizens, both Shias and Sunnis, are not allowed to work there. Second, to demographically change Bahrain from a Shia majority to a Sunni majority, since all those who were being politically naturalized are Sunnis.

Despite all this, when people took to the streets on 14 February 2011, their demands were not related to the systematic marginalization and discrimination against the Shia majority in Bahrain. The demands were rooted in political and civil rights activists calling on the king to implement the promises that he made ten years ago. It was only after the use of excessive force and the killing of peaceful protesters that people started demanding the fall of the regime. The regime initiated a very sectarian crackdown. They knew that if they were able to label the movement in Bahrain as being a “Shia Uprising,” it would be easier to connect them to Iran. This would also make the uprising seem as if it were not rooted in grassroots grievances, and also to justify the violent crackdown. They did this by targeting people for merely being Shia. They demolished more than thirty mosques belonging to the Shia sect, some with very important historical importance. During arrests, house raids, interrogations, and torture, security forces and intelligence services would also use derogatory sectarian language. This was all documented in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Looking at the demands and the makeup of the protest movement, it is obvious that this is a simple case of an oppressive regime versus an oppressed population. At the end of the day, what really matters in Bahrain is not whether you are Sunni or Shia; it is whether you are a loyalist or not. Today in Bahrain, there are Shias who are ministers and who are the biggest supporters of the regime, like Samira Rajab. You also have Sunnis like Ebrahim Sharif, who is sitting in a jail cell today after being tortured and sentenced by military court because he criticized the regime. This is the reality.

SE: How has Bahrain Center Human Rights (BCHR) continued working despite being banned from Bahrain? 

MA: The majority of the people who work with BCHR do so on a volunteer basis. They are people who believe in pushing Bahrain forward toward a better country for all, even if it comes with consequences—and the consequences have been very real. Board members and members of the BCHR have been subjected to harassment, defamation campaigns, arrests, imprisonment, severe torture, unfair trials, and travel bans; the list goes on. What these oppressive regimes do not understand is that the culture of human rights has been embedded, and every time they arrest a prominent human rights activist, they are creating the pathway for hundreds of new activists to emerge. The BCHR continues to run and will continue to run despite all the tools and mechanisms used by the regime to put a stop to the work. 

The BCHR has two main teams. We have a documentation unit in Bahrain, run by Sayed Yousif AlMuhafdhah, who is currently imprisoned, and an international team. The people on the ground are responsible for documenting and following up on cases and human rights violations; afterwards, they send it abroad to the international team, which helps write the statements and reports. These statements and reports are sent to international human rights organizations, institutions, and governments. They are then used as a tool to try and advocate for a better international response towards the human rights situation in Bahrain. Twitter is also one of the main tools used to document violations, to communicate among us, and to make sure people outside of Bahrain know what is happening on the ground.

If you prefer, email your comments to info@jadaliyya.com.

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