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“I Am Willing to Give My Life”: Bahraini Human Rights Activists Risk Lives to Protest U.S./Saudi-Backed Repression

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The Gulf nation of Bahrain is intensifying its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. On Saturday, masked police offers broke into the home of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist. He was beaten and detained. We speak to his daughter, Zainab Alkhawaja, who witnessed the attack and is now on a hunger strike. Her husband and brother-in-law were also beaten and arrested in the pre-dawn raid. We also speak to Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. He is facing a possible military trial for publishing the photograph of Ali Sager, a protester who died while in Bahraini custody. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.


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 to 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 is 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, that 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 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 website, 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 place where people seek information, among the journalists, among the human rights organizations. And I wrote those pictures, and that upset government, because 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.

As you know, the situation in Bahrain is very critical now. As I told you, many people were arrested — among them, doctors, teachers, unionists, human right defenders, politicians, nurses, all kind of professional bloggers. Yesterday, we have buried one blogger, who was tortured to death also. You have at least three people were killed, were tortured to death in the past 10 days. Situation inside the prisons is very critical. And as you know, torture is a culture here in Bahrain prisons, and many human rights organizations were talking about it before — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and all — FIDH and the OMCT were always talking about torture in Bahrain. And they have raised their concern. I’ve seen many letters to the King of Bahrain to open an investigation on those allegations. But unfortunately, none of these concerns, letter or report, were even taken seriously by our government. So, that is worrying us, and we believe that many of those in detention now are facing torture. At least we have strong — a strong report that the leaders, people in old age, 60, 65 years of age, they were tortured.

Besides that, you have hundreds, if it is not thousands, of people were terminated from work based on sectarian background in the past one week. And we have hundreds of people’s scholarship, and they were stopped. So, they brought — they came back, they could not continue their school, as Bahrain government stopped their scholarship because they protested against the government and demanded democracy and respect for human right. Hundreds of people in jail for practicing their freedom of expression. People are tortured for expressing their freedom of expression. Thousands of people sacked from their jobs. And you have the crisis is getting deeper and deeper as many people lose their job. And all that as a revenge, because one day, a month ago, almost half of the Bahraini population came out in the street demanding for democracy and respect for human right. And that was disturbing the government.

Government of Bahrain have invited other troops, besides their own army, to crack down the peaceful protests. It seems that they had the green signal from the United States government. And the silence of United States government also strengthened the opinion that we have that they had the green signal from Obama administration. And you have four, five armies now, are facing peaceful protests that were demanding for democracy and respect for human right. A lot of casualties, a lot of dead people, a lot of injured people.

You know that the hospital were occupied by the military, since a month time now. And we cannot take any injured people, wounded people, to the hospital; we treat them at home. We try to get as much medicine and spread it to the houses and stitching material for people’s wounds and injuries to be treated at home, because once you take them to hospital, they will be treated bad, they will be tortured, they will be beaten, they will be arrested. Or they will be disappeared.

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, crack down 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, 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 — they will guarantee their interests, and they will guarantee their military presence. And that’s why 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, it lies with those dictators and the repressive regime in the region, but not with any democratic. But this is not good for Obama administration, not good for United States government. They are losing the heart and mind of people here. And I don’t think it is a positive thing that they lose the heart and mind of people here.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel, we have 10 seconds. Why do you continue to speak out, when so many of your fellow activists have been arrested and disappeared?

NABEEL RAJAB: Well, I mean, this is the cost of the job we are doing, and I’m going to continue speaking 'til I'm — as far as I’m breathing, as far as I’m alive, I am going to continue doing. I believe in change. I believe in democracy. I believe in human rights. And I’m going to — I’m willing to give my life. I’m willing to give anything to achieve this goal.


NABEEL RAJAB: And this is very costly, and I’m going to pay that cost, whatever it costs.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel Rajab, I thank you for being with us, president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights. Please stay safe, as well as Zainab Alkhawaja, pro-democracy activist. Her father, her husband, her brother-in-law all have been taken, and she has begun a hunger strike.

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