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Advocacy, Uprising, and Authoritarianism in Bahrain: An Interview With Ahmed Al-Haddad

[Ahmed al-Haddad.] [Ahmed al-Haddad.]

Almost two years after the beginning of the February 14 uprising, the Bahraini regime is still struggling to crush the ongoing political and civil rights movement, all the while working to rehabilitate Bahrain’s “tainted” image. Media blackouts, relentless surveillance and scare tactics, arbitrary detentions, anti-protester violence, and expensive Public Relations campaigns have become daily occurrences. Yet on 20 January 2013, Bahraini authorities met with Amnesty International in order to showcase alleged human rights “strides” in Bahrain, and to show the regime’s (alleged) continuous efforts “to consolidate a legislative framework for human rights and promote its culture in the Bahraini society.” Having jailed the majority of Bahrain’s prominent political opposition leaders and outspoken human rights advocates, the Bahraini king then called for the resumption of "national dialogue" with the country’s political community. How does the Bahraini community of political and human rights advocates sustain their struggle amidst this reality of state oppression, well-funded pro-regime propaganda, and international complacency? In this interview, International Relations Officer at the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (EBOHR) as well as the Bahrain Center For Human Rights (BCHR) Ahmed al-Haddad speaks about the local and global challenges of advocating for the Bahraini uprising, as well as exposing the political and humanitarian violations of the Bahraini regime. Al-Haddad also stresses the importance of the political and civil rights aspects of the uprising, and the ways in which the Bahraini regime and the international community have undermined them.

Rosie Bsheer (RB): What is unique about the work that the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (EBOHR) does and what are its main accomplishments so far?

Ahmed Al-Haddad (AAH): We advocate within the European Union (EU) governments, the EU parliament and the European Union itself. What we try to do is distribute information to these governments that work in affiliation with the EU, to push the EU to, for example, place an embargo on teargas—as you know the UK sends teargas to Bahrain—or to implement a ban on granting visas to officials accused of torture and to hold them accountable. So basically, we do the same work that the BCHR does but we are more concentrated within Europe itself, and we work closely with the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). In terms of what we have done so far, we established EBOHR only seven months ago, so we focused on building up a good database and good connections with people within the EU. We had several good meetings with EU officials and the EU team that was going to Bahrain and they did a really good job there. We had some meetings with two officials who were working with EU Foreign Affairs and they issued a report regarding Bahrain, human rights violations there, and the EU policies towards it. I think these are our main accomplishments so far, in addition to several reports that we released after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. 

RB: Are there major differences in the ways that European countries and the United States have dealt with the Bahraini uprising and the regime’s violent response to it—keeping in mind their ongoing, lucrative arms deals with Bahrain?

AAH: I think the European Union is more inclined to act with respect to the humanitarian cause in Bahrain. They want to push for some sort of solution in Bahrain. Officials there are trying really hard to do something, to find a solution, in terms of political and human rights violations in Bahrain. As you know the Danish minister of foreign affairs and the Danish ambassador to Bahrain have [both] been working closely with the Bahraini regime in regards to Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s case. They have been visiting Bahrain regularly and observing the trials there. They have also sent several ambassadors to monitor and observe the trial of Nabil Rajab and Sayyed Youssef al-Muhafdha [who was released on bail on 17 January 2013.] So I think the European Union is seriously trying to do something, but it is complicated by the fact that such decisions have to go through the different EU member states, governments, and officials. Approval of individual governments must be secured because as you know EU member states all have to agree and decide on the course of action. It is not like in the Unites States where you have one government with its state officials and human rights observers, and foreign policy directives…

In regards to the European Union, since we started working with them, they have pushed for more solutions, and the services of the EU’s External Relations Section are becoming part and parcel of the EU system. Now that there is a human rights department within the European Union, they have been monitoring very closely the Bahraini uprising and the regime response to it. Regarding the timeline, the European Union has been more active and influential, especially compared to the actions of the United States in the last two years. Most recently, the European Parliament called for EU sanctions against Bahrain and released a third resolution calling on the Bahraini regime to respect human rights and implement the BICI recommendations. The US government claims to support human rights around the world, but then they have this double standard towards Bahrain, especially when compared to their role in places like Syria for example. So in the end, it is all about US interests and as such the United States has not acted, symbolically or materially, when it comes to Bahrain, one of its strongest allies in the region. While we understand that the continued presence of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is the US government’s top priority, we deplore their complete disregard for the ongoing human rights and political violations in Bahrain. This is why we are trying to lobby and advocate, in order to get them to act.

As to the latest arms deal between the United States and Bahrain, US officials say that the deal does not include teargas or other weapons that can be used against protestors. But according to Al Jazeera, the arms deal includes anti-riot weapons that are of course going to be used against protesters. The US government still has a long way to go in terms of its policy vis-à-vis Bahrain, as does the UK government. There is so much they can and should do about political and humanitarian violations in Bahrain. For example, a ban on teargas would be tremendously helpful. One of the things were are trying to do at the moment within our advocacy efforts in the European Union, United States, and United Kingdom is to push for a UN monitoring team inside Bahrain to observe the implementation of the BICI and the UPR [Universal Periodic Review] recommendations. This UN team can then issue a serious report about whether the Bahraini regime implemented the recommendations or not. It makes no sense that the Bahraini regime established the BICI commission for human rights recommendations and then they established another monitoring team led by the Minister of Justice [Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa] who is himself identified by the BICI report to be violating human rights violations—I do not think he is going to arrest himself at the end of the day. The monitoring team would be a really good thing. We are also trying to advocate for Bahrain to be considered “a country of concern” under Article 10 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at the meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee this coming March. We hope to convince the United Nations to act in the case of Bahrain’s grave human rights violations, unless we do not get the [necessary] votes of UN member states. Things are going well so far, but we still have to work very closely with the United States, where colleagues are working hard and doing a great job.

RB: Have you had any success in preventing the sales of teargas to Bahrain, at least within the European Union?

AAH: UK officials say they have stopped the sale of teargas to Bahrain, but we still need them to issue an official statement. It is not enough to claim that they do. We need them to issue a statement clearly declaring that the United Kingdom has stopped the sale of teargas to Bahrain. We still have a major issue now with shotgun pellets. We have documentation and material evidence indicating that Cyprus' G&L Calbers Ltd. has been selling Victory Starlight cartridges—the animal hunting ammunition—to the Bahraini regime. Bahraini security forces regularly use these against protestors. Bill Marczack from Bahrain Watch was also able to identify that Italy has been selling pellets and the pellet gun Benelli M4 to the Bahraini regime. We are currently trying to find out if other guns that are being used against protesters actually originated from the United States. We are also working on forcing the government of Cyprus to prohibit its companies from selling animal hunting pellets and guns to the Bahraini regime. If we get confirmation that the Bahraini regime is using other “crowd-control” weapons as lethal weapons, we are going to push source countries to stop selling them to Bahrain. While more research needs to be done, we believe the pellet shotgun should be considered a prohibited weapon as per the Protocol of Non-Detectable Fragments. Not only are these being used from close range against peaceful protesters in Bahrain, but we were also able to document, in several cases, that pellets cannot be detected by X-rays, contrary to claims by the Bahraini regime, and as such, should fall under this convention.

RB: Given the failure of implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations and the increasing culture of impunity in Bahrain today, coupled with continued threats to and imprisonment of the Bahraini regime’s fiercest critics, how does the community of activists in Bahrain plan to move forward to address these great challenges?

AAH: The culture of impunity is a serious issue. Indeed one of the biggest problems we face today in Bahrain is international impunity. Foreign governments are not holding Bahraini officials accused of political and humanitarian violations responsible for their actions. On the contrary, they are actually welcoming them into their countries, like Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the King’s son, who has been accused of torturing regime critics and yet was welcomed as a VIP at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. We are now in the process of filing a lawsuit against these officials in various courts, including in Germany, with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a German NGO. We are working on filing official complaints on the torture of two Bahraini European citizens—Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Mohammed Habib Almuqdad—at the European Court of Human Rights.

We are also trying to do something about spyware that the United Kingdom and the European Union are selling to the Bahraini regime to monitor and track down human rights and political activists. In that regard, I do not think the culture of impunity in Bahrain is going to end, unless these recommendations and reforms are implemented, especially since the whole judicial system in Bahrain is a mess. According to the Bahraini constitution, the king is the person who is in charge of the judiciary, so if the king cannot be held accountable, the international community should hold these accused officials who are proven to have committed political and human rights violations and prevented fair trials accountable for their crimes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) should be intervening as well, and we have been advocating for that, but it has been very difficult to get any results there. In the case of Germany, the ECCHR has been doing a really great job.

RB: How do Bahraini activists continue to build solidarity networks within Bahrain and with the rest of the world under this atmosphere of state surveillance, censorship, and repression?

AAH: As human rights defenders, a large number of Bahrainis, including myself and my colleagues, have gone on many IT trainings, so the good thing is that Bahrainis on the ground and abroad are very competitive when it comes to computer technology and we know how to navigate the digital world in a way that the Bahraini regime cannot monitor and track everybody down. This is how we get in touch with activists on the ground but of course there’s always the possibility that the regime knows who is working with whom. The good thing is that the Bahraini youth have built great solidarity networks with international youth organizations who have supported their two-year peaceful uprising and speak out against the many violations that the Bahraini regime commits. A lot of countries and youth around the world have been influenced by the Bahraini revolution too. At the same time we have a lot of people working on international advocacy in the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union. Over the last two years we have worked hard to build this connection among the international community and people on the ground.

RB: Have you tried to build solidarity networks with people and activists in other Gulf states?

AAH: As you know, Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja established the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) because they were concerned about human rights violations in the GCC states. We have good connections with human rights defenders in GCC countries. However, maintaining these networks is really hard because, even if you have a safe Internet connection whereby GCC regimes cannot track you down, we cannot do much with our communication right now beyond building these networks. It is not like we can publish online or on social media. What little we have published so far has been through anonymous sources; but yes, we have good networks within the United Arab Emirates, the bedoon activists in Kuwait, in Oman, and also now in Saudi Arabia. We also have close ties with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) that publishes a lot of statements in regards to these human rights activists.

We have tried to co-organize actions and plan events with activists throughout the GCC states. But this has been made more difficult with the latest GCC security amendment, which allows all GCC states to track down any human rights defenders. Say you are blacklisted in Bahrain and you are at the border of any GCC state: that is it, you are in the system, they have the right to detain you. It is really hard to form a strong solidarity network because within the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, there are very few human rights defenders. So if these handful of activists take to the street or try to organize an event, they might get arrested. It is also for their own safety: it is not good to act in a visible way at this moment in time, but we are planning a lot of things for the future. Building solidarity networks is a great idea and we have been trying to do this for a long time. We started forming a coalition of human rights defenders inside the GCC, to start something within their own governments as well. So it is not only about Bahrain. We are in solidarity with the Saudi people, we have strong ties with Saudi women activists. So this is definitely one of our goals but it needs a lot of planning, a lot of time, and it is really hard to publish the results of these efforts anywhere.

RB: Despite local and regional efforts to silence the Bahraini uprising, the activist community managed to keep Bahrain in the limelight for short periods of time. This is no longer the case. What has changed and why?

AAH: I would not say that the media has covered Bahrain since the 2011 uprising. They have halfheartedly tried to cover Bahrain. They claim they want to cover it, but they do not. The media is extremely politicized. As soon as the uprising began in Syria, the media shifted their exclusive attention there almost immediately and forgot about Bahrain. I am in no way undermining the importance of the Syrian uprising and the Syrian regime’s brutal response to it. But the media should cover state oppression everywhere and expose human rights violations in both Syria and Bahrain to the world. This is clearly part of the political game taking place today.

Generally though, Bahrain simply does not interest the media, because the media these days simply work within the constraints of their governments, they parallel their own governments’ foreign policies. US channels, for example, do not usually go against or challenge US foreign policy in the end. What the Bahrainis try to do is take advantage of YouTube. Social media is the only source for Bahrainis to make their voices heard, for the Bahraini youths to publish videos, statements, and anything that is taking place on the ground. They try of course to push mainstream media channels to publish these videos, articles, and human rights violations in Bahrain, but it is also the fact that the Bahraini regime has blocked a lot of media journalists from entering Bahrain. Bahrain Watch documented more than two hundred journalists and personnel who were not allowed to enter Bahrain for media reasons, to prevent them from seeing and covering what’s going on in Bahrain. This really is one of the main things that is happening in Bahrain. But I think the Bahraini revolutionaries and the activists in general have broken the PR system, the state’s PR machines that try to send the wrong message about the Bahrain revolution. We continue to fight against this media blackout on Bahrain, and the protests of course are also ongoing.

RB: Maryam al-Khawaja arrived in Bahrain on 11 January 2013. How was she received?  

AAH: When Maryam arrived in Manama there was a huge security alert in the airport. As soon as she left the plane, she saw a lot of female officers standing by. She entered with her Danish passport, went to passport control, and filled out the visa forms and waited in line. She entered on a two-week visa because she asked for a two-week visa. She went to Bahrain not only to visit her family, but also to observe and document human rights violations as part of her job as well. But now she is with her family and everything is fine. She is very happy to be there. We still have to wait and see what happens in the remaining part of her trip, what the Bahraini regime intends to do. Are they going to hold her and ban her from traveling or something of the sort? We wish her the best, but we are also prepared for the worst-case scenario and BCHR and EBOHR will continue its work regardless. As they always say, even if they arrest us all, they cannot arrest the idea, they cannot arrest the revolution, they cannot arrest the uprising. They arrested Nabil, they arrested her father Abdulhadi, they arrested her sister Zainab, they arrested thirteen activists, but more activists keep popping up to take their place to fight such oppressive regimes.

RB: Is Maryam al-Khawaja’s return to Bahrain an attempt to bring worldwide attention back to Bahrain and the ongoing struggles that people continue to face on a daily basis under the Al Khalifa regime?

AAH: Maryam refuses to make this about her. She does not want to have the media focus on her personally. Her risky trip was her attempt to assert her right to return to her country, to see her family, especially her father who is in prison, and to express her freedom to go out whenever and wherever she wanted. This is not the key issue that she wants the media to focus on. She issued a statement just for safety reasons, in case something did happen to her while she was there, to show the world how human rights defenders are being treated in Bahrain. She wants the media to pay more attention to the ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain. People are being tear-gassed everyday, people are being shot on a daily basis. So she does not want it to be about her, but rather about the cause itself, about Bahrain, human rights violations there, about what the Bahraini people are facing at the moment.  

I have taken over Maryam’s duties at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights as International Relations Officer until she returns from Bahrain. I will be in charge of international advocacy, which is what I do with EBOHR, so there are a lot of similarities between the two jobs. We will focus on pushing the international community to put real pressure on the Bahraini regime. We do not want to hear any more simple condemnations; we have heard too many statements of “concern” and “condemnations,” with government officials making these empty statements over and over again. We will try to push Bahrain’s close allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to put more pressure on the regime and to start taking action against violations in Bahrain because their statements alone are useless. The Bahrain regime is not even respecting the UN UPR human rights recommendations, why would they respect these statements? And when Maryam returns, we will continue to work together and we will divide the work between the two of us so we can be more efficient and influential.

RB: Does EBOHR have any direct contacts with the Bahraini regime in its attempts to advocate for the release of political prisoners or do you work solely through advocacy groups?

AAH: EBOHR has a monitoring team inside Bahrain and we have Bahrainis who work with us on the ground actually. As human right organizations, we do not negotiate directly with regimes because we are not a political society or institution that should engage the regime. We think that the regime should respect and implement the recommendations that were issued. That is our main goal. We leave negotiating to Bahraini political societies in Bahrain. At EBOHR we have the chairman of the organization whose father Mohammad Jawad Barweez has also been imprisoned, he is one of the thirteen Bahraini activists who were recently sentenced. What EBOHR tries to focus on is call for the release of prisoners in Bahrain, support the peaceful civil resistance movement, to implement various human rights recommendations and stop violations inside Bahrain, but we are certainly not into negotiating with the regime. And actually the regime does not even want to see us.

RB: What are the Bahraini regime’s biggest fears today, and what would you say are the biggest successes accomplished during this ongoing uprising?

The Bahraini regime fears anyone who speaks out against it in public and reaches out to the media. It fears anyone who has a nationalist background or any national agenda. The regime plays on the sectarian issue, saying that the Bahraini uprising and conflict is one between Sunnis and Shiis, which is not the case. We have a lot of people in the movement who are not religious. I myself am not religious, and I come from a mixed religious background. So religion and sectarianism have nothing to do with that. The regime especially fears those who speak out and say that their main concern is the country, its future, and its people, and that they are Sunnis and they want serious reforms. The regime fears human rights defenders.

What took place in Bahrain was a political and civil rights movements—the Bahraini people took to the streets and called for their political and civil rights. Then it escalated more into a human rights violations uprising, so to speak, because of the level of killing and ongoing human rights violations. So the regime really fears human rights defenders because they are especially plugged into the international community—they fear Maryam al-Khawaja, which is why we suspect they may not let her leave the country. They fear that she is professional and outspoken, that she is representing the uprising in the international community, and that she is providing foreign governments with tangible evidence of Bahrain’s human rights violations and the lack of implementation of any political or other reforms. This is why they do not want human rights defenders, Bahrainis and others, to enter the country or even leave it. So the regime’s solution is to impose a media blackout and arrest human rights defenders. They want the Bahrain Center for Human Rights to vanish and they do not want all this “fuss” about the Bahraini uprising. Simply put, the regime fears us all. They fear every individual who does not fear them.

Since 1920, Bahrain has experienced uprisings in almost every decade. But past uprisings were quickly crushed or cooled down within a year or so. What has been happening now since February 2011 is different. People are extremely fed up with the situation and they want change. They are done with the regime’s empty promises, so the activist movements, and the youth specifically, have made several strides despite the massive media blackout and the arrest of human rights defenders, the ongoing attacks against protesters, and the continuous silencing of human rights defenders by the regime and the mainstream media. We are able to continue this revolution and it is not going to stop unless concrete change takes place. This is one of our biggest successes. A small percentage of the already few Bahraini citizens living outside of Bahrain try to turn to their advantage international concern towards Bahrain. Many Bahrainis may not be aware of these international advocacy attempts and their encouraging results given that most of our meetings are off the record. But they certainly make a huge difference and influence change. Many individual governmental officials have invested much of their personal time and effort to help the Bahraini cause. We think there is still much more that needs to be done.

The international community and foreign governments should stand with the Bahraini people and take action against regime oppression. We are fed up with the double standard towards Bahrain and people in other countries facing the same kind of oppression. In the end, we are human beings and it is really sad that we start measuring deaths simply in numbers. It is really sad to reduce human life to numbers: we should have regard for the inherent value of human life. They are people, they have families, and they should not simply be counted as statistics in the so-called reform process. If we were to do that, to play into this reduction, then comparing the ratio of the Egyptian population to that in Bahrain, more Bahrainis today are in prison than in Egypt, not to mention how many of the only one million Bahraini population have been killed. Human life should not be measured by statistics.

Now, even if the Bahraini regime implements the human rights recommendations, we still have a civil and political rights issue. Human rights defenders work within this framework of civil and political rights, despite the fact that many of us do not highlight that. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we have the right to govern ourselves. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders clearly states that it is the duty of such individuals to promote and educate others about their political and civil rights. We are simply reiterating what the United Nations calls for and the very conventions of civil and political rights that the Bahraini regime has signed on to. We think it is all connected. We tell the international community that ours is not simply a human rights issue, it is a civil and political rights conflict. We have Nabil Rajab and other human rights defenders who use the language of political and civil rights and who should be protected as human rights defenders. We also have Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has made it his life mission to fight for political and civil rights, not just for human rights. This is a major task we have taken upon ourselves: to remind everyone that this is a political conflict and not simply a human rights-based one.

RB: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AAH: I want to stress the importance of the political and civil rights aspects of the ongoing uprising. It is part of the missions of both the BCHR and the EOBHR that regardless of the outcome of the human rights cause—assuming the Bahraini regime stops its war against activists, allows Bahrainis to practice their “human rights,” and implements freedom of press, none of which are likely to happen—there remains the political struggle itself. It is very important to address the political and civil rights aspects of the current conflict and uprising within the international community, who has ignored the political aspect lately because of the grave human rights violations. We obviously have to address human rights violations, but we also need to push foreign governments to call on the Bahraini regime to respect the demands for political and civil rights of Bahraini citizens. 

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