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On 8th Day of Hunger Strike, Bahraini Activist Zainab Alkhawaja Urges U.S. to Press for Family’s Release

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As the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters continues in the Gulf state of Bahrain, we speak with Zainab Alkhawaja, whose father, husband and brother-in-law were detained last Saturday following a late night raid at their home. Zainab is on the eighth day of a hunger strike that she vows to continue until her family members are released. We also speak with Human Rights Watch researcher, Faraz Sanei, who just spent six weeks in Bahrain. “What we’re seeing in Bahrain today is a full-scale crackdown on any sort of dissent in the country,” Sanei says. “We are now seeing an absolute slide into a police state and dictatorship in Bahrain.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters is continuing in the Gulf state of Bahrain. Last month, the tiny island Gulf nation that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet imposed martial law in an attempt to crush the uprising there.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than two dozen Bahraini security personnel stormed prominent defense lawyer Mohammed Tajer’s home on Friday night and detained him. Tajer had defended opposition figures and rights activists arrested during recent protests.

Hundreds of demonstrators, political figures, human rights activists and Shiite professionals have been detained in security sweeps since the Bahraini authorities crushed the pro-democracy movement in mid-March. Bahrain imposed martial law in the country March 15th. The United States has continued to back the regime despite repeated appeals from protesters.

Last Tuesday, we spoke to Zainab Alkhawaja, daughter of the detained human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja.

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?

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab’s father, husband and brother-in-law were detained last Saturday following a late night raid on their house. Zainab started a hunger strike in protest. Today is the eighth day of her fast, which she vows to continue 'til her family members are released. She was hospitalized briefly yesterday. She's very weak. She’s joining us on the phone from Bahrain, along with her sister Batool. In the studio, we’re joined by Faraz Sanei, Human Rights Watch Bahrain and Iran researcher, who just returned after six weeks in Bahrain.

Zainab, let’s go to you first. How are you feeling? This is the eighth day of your strike. You also have a one-year-old baby.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: I’m feeling very weak. I have a very hard time even sitting up. I spend most of my day lying down. But on the most part, I still have faith that I will soon see my family members who are detained.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke to you last week when you described your father being dragged out of your house, the blood on the stairs, when you were forced back into the house, as you were protesting his being taken. Have you gotten any word from him?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: We haven’t gotten any word whatsoever, not at all. We haven’t gotten any response. No phone calls. We don’t even know where they’re being held.

AMY GOODMAN: How long are you willing to be on this strike, if you are already very weak after eight days?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: As I said from the beginning, that I will continue the strike until the release of my father, my uncle, my husband and my brother-in-law.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been in contact with any other government leaders? Bahraini government leaders, the U.S. — the Fifth Naval Fleet is there — anyone?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Nobody at all. As always, the Bahraini government and the U.S. administration are proving to us, once again, that they do not care about the Bahraini people and what we’re going through. And all they care about is what they think is their own interests.

AMY GOODMAN: When they were dragging your father out of the house, did they say why they were taking him?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: They did not give any reasons at all. They did not have any arrest warrant. All they were doing was cursing and beating and threatening my father and saying they were going to kill him.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he responding to them? Was he speaking?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: The only thing my father said, from the moment that he saw them and they started beating him until they took him away unconscious, was that he couldn’t breathe. He never said one other word, and he never raised his hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father was head of the Human Rights Association of Bahrain?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: My father was head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. And the past two years, he’s been working with the Front Line Defenders based in Ireland.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time that they took your father, they took your husband, as well?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yeah, my husband and my brother-in-law, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did they take your husband?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: They took them because they were in the same place as my father. They did not know who they were. As they beat them, they asked them for their identification and their names. But beforehand, they did not know who they were. And afterwards, they decided to take them, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And your uncle was taken before that?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: My uncle was taken about three weeks before they arrested my father and husband and brother-in-law.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he also a human rights activist?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Maybe not a human rights activist. He was just — he would speak up his mind, and he would write messages to people he knew and ask them to stand up for justice and against what the regime was doing in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, your aunt has been called — is that right? — to bring clothes for your uncle, so at least there’s some thought that he is still alive.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes, all they — all they asked was for some clothes, but we never — she was not allowed to speak to him, and she was not allowed to see him. And that’s also very worrying, because sometimes they would let detainees talk to their family members, and he wasn’t even allowed to talk to his wife. And when she asked to see him, they did not let her see him. So, on the one hand, we were happy that this might mean that he’s alive, but on the other hand, how badly tortured is he that they don’t want anyone to even lay eyes on him or speak to him on the phone?

AMY GOODMAN: Batool, your fiancé was also taken with Zainab’s husband and with your father. Have you heard from him at all? I think we just lost Batool. Zainab, are you still there? We just lost both of them. Zainab, are you still there?

BATOOL ALKHAWAJA: I’m Batool. I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Batool?


AMY GOODMAN: Batool, your fiancé was also taken that night, along with your father and Zainab’s husband?


AMY GOODMAN: Was he a human rights activist?

BATOOL ALKHAWAJA: No, actually, he’s still a student in university. He’s an engineering student.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is — what is your sense of why he was taken? And have you heard anything from him since?

BATOOL ALKHAWAJA: Well, from what I saw, the only reason he was taken was that he was unfortunate enough to be in the building when they came for my father. And we didn’t get any news from him. His father even went to police stations to ask about him. And the only response he would get was that they didn’t have him and they didn’t know where he was. So, it’s been eight days now, and we have no clue where he is or anything about him.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about Zainab, your sister’s health, in this eighth day of a hunger strike?

BATOOL ALKHAWAJA: Yes, definitely, because, actually, I just graduated nursing school, so I’ve been monitoring her blood pressure and her blood sugar, and they’re both borderline. And her pulse is usually very weak. And she also has a rapid heartbeat. So, of course, I’m worried about her. But at the same time, I know why she’s doing this, and I respect her for it.

AMY GOODMAN: You are 21. Your sister Zainab, she is 26?

BATOOL ALKHAWAJA: Twenty-seven, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-seven.


AMY GOODMAN: Has this gotten any attention in Bahrain?

BATOOL ALKHAWAJA: Yeah, definitely. From the people, yes, because here everyone is very close-knit, so we’ve gotten a lot of calls from people showing their support. But when it comes to the government, we have gotten no response whatsoever. Nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m hoping we could also get Zainab back on the phone to talk about her demands. But while we try to reach her, Faraz Sanei is also with us, Human Rights Watch researcher in Bahrain — he’s just returned from — also does his research in Iran. Can you talk about the overall situation in Bahrain right now?

FARAZ SANEI: Thank you for having me, Amy.

The situation in Bahrain is as bad as it has been for a very long time. What we’re seeing in Bahrain today is a full-scale crackdown on any sort of dissent in the country. As, you know, you’ve just spoken to the Alkhawaja family, you have more than 500 people who have been arrested and detained since March the 15th. You have full-scale security sweeps on Shia villages, both in the capital and outside the capital, throughout the country. You have massive dismissals; hundreds of individuals, perhaps more than a thousand, have been dismissed from their jobs, many of them state enterprise jobs, during the past month, month and a half.

I mean, this has gone well beyond trying to reestablish security, which is the main message that the Bahraini government has been sending to the international community, that “we are trying to reestablish security,” that there was chaos for the month, month and a half or so, that Bahrain was experiencing protests. This has gone well beyond that. They are now — this is a retribution campaign. Everyone who was associated with the protests, who spoke out when journalists were there, who spoke to international media, and who aired their grievances against the al-Khalifa family is now being targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: The power of the United States here, and the difference between what the U.S. is doing and what European countries are doing in Bahrain? We hear very little about Bahrain, and yet this is a crucial interest area of the United States, with the Navy Fifth Fleet there.

FARAZ SANEI: Absolutely. I mean, we at Human Rights Watch — and I know other human rights organizations who we’ve worked closely with for the past month, two months or so — have been extremely disappointed. The response from the U.S. government, there have been very, very few public statements. We believe that the public statements that they have issued have been wholly inadequate, given what is actually happening on the ground in Bahrain today.

And you mentioned the European Union. The European Union has been a little better, but there have been very disappointing statements that have come out of High Representative Ashton’s office, as well. And I actually spent about a week or so traveling throughout Europe, about two weeks ago, meeting with European Parliament members, meeting with the E.U. Council, going to Paris, meeting with French officials to try to essentially push them to come out with more public statements on what is happening there and also to seriously consider breaking off any sort of military and security ties with the government of Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: The Guardian writes a piece contrasting the Europe — Europe’s response and the United States, talking about in a meeting with the Bahraini interior minister, the British ambassador, Jamie Bowden, raised concerns over the deaths of four dissident prisoners in the last week. Catherine Ashton, the E.U., the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, speaking through a spokesman also called on the Bahrain regime to immediately release all those who have been detained for peacefully expressing themselves. Ashton announced she’s visiting Bahrain next week. And yet, you contrast that with the minimal censure from the United States.

FARAZ SANEI: That’s right. I mean, you know, we — you know, all human rights organizations understand that, you know, the relationship that the United States has with Bahrain, the relationship that the United States has with with Saudi Arabia is very sensitive. But as a human rights advocate, we just cannot understand why the United States has been so silent. I mean, there have been, as I mentioned before, two or three statements that they’ve come out with.

But what we are seeing today in Bahrain is extremely troubling. We have around 30 individuals who have been killed, some in detention, some in custody; as I mentioned, hundreds of individuals in nighttime raids, including Mr. Alkhawaja, who was taken away. You mentioned Mohammed al-Tajer. He’s the first lawyer, we believe, in more than a decade to have been arrested in Bahrain. And every time we think that there’s a red line that the government is not going to cross, we witness that they cross it. And we are now seeing an absolute slide into a police state and dictatorship in Bahrain, and yet we see really no adequate response from the U.S. administration as to what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, in the crackdown?

FARAZ SANEI: Absolutely. The Saudis — you know, there’s so much talk about the Iranians being involved in what’s happening in Bahrain. Everyone is fearful of, you know, calling out the Bahraini government for what’s actually happening. But what are the troops that are actually on the ground in Bahrain? GCC troops, it’s Saudi troops, it’s UAE troops, that are on the ground in Bahrain, not Iranian troops. And they are playing a key role in what is going on there, and yet we again see absolutely no public statement against the Saudi government. Now there’s a $60 billion arms agreement, essentially, that we believe is going to be agreed to in the next several weeks, if not several months, between the U.S. and the Saudis. And all of this is going on in Bahrain. It’s absolutely unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. just recently sealed the biggest arms deal in U.S. history with Saudi Arabia.

FARAZ SANEI: That’s right, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: $60 billion worth of weapons.

FARAZ SANEI: That’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the trial that Bahrain has just announced for seven activists, military trials?

FARAZ SANEI: That’s right. Right now, Bahrain is under martial law. And what we see is that some individuals who have been arrested since March the 17th have gone in front of the public prosecutor. And often, the public prosecutor is a military public prosecutor. And essentially, the Bahraini government’s position is that we are under martial law, and they will be tried by the military, which of course is extremely troubling both to lawyers inside Bahrain and also to human rights activists, because we don’t have the ability to monitor these trials, as far as we know. There’s not going to be international monitoring of the trials. And as you know, military trials often are much more worrying, and the rights that detainees have are much less.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to Mohammed al-Tajer, the human rights attorney representing some of these human rights activists?

FARAZ SANEI: He is in detention at the moment. We don’t have any word as to where he’s being detained. He was detained during a nighttime raid. This has essentially been the way that the Bahraini government has gone after individuals who it’s targeted. They have gone after them at 11:00, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00 in the morning, when they are often asleep with their families. And masked men, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in plainclothes, rush in and take these individuals away.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s see if we’ve gotten Zainab back on the phone. Zainab, your final comment on your demands right now, as you are in the eighth day of your hunger fast?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Well, my demand is, one, the release of my family, but of course I can’t only think of my family members when there are so many Bahrainis going through what I’m going through and much worse than what I’m going through. It’s about time that the world realizes what’s happening in my country and takes a stand against what our government and what the U.S. administration are doing and hold them responsible for the crimes that are happening here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. We will keep in touch with you, Zainab Alkhawaja. Her father, her husband, her brother-in-law, her uncle: all imprisoned right now. Batool, thank you, as well, her younger sister. Thank you, as well, to Faraz Sanei, who is the Human Rights Watch researcher in Bahrain. He has just returned from there.

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