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Bahraini Hunger Striker’s Life in Peril as U.S.-Backed Forces Continue Anti-Democracy Crackdown

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The U.S.-backed monarchy in Bahrain continues the crackdown on protesters, with reports of many injuries and at least one death over the weekend. We speak to Zainab Alkhawaja, the daughter of jailed human rights leader Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is now on the 54th day of his hunger strike. Doctors say her father could go into a coma at any point, and she has called on President Obama to pressure the government Bahrain, its strategic ally in the region, to secure his release. “With one word from the American government, my father would be released. I am sure of that,” Alkhawaja says. “But right now, Americans are more — the American administration, not Americans, is more concerned with their interests than they are with human rights and the lives of Bahrainis and democracy in Bahrain.” Zainab herself is an activist and has been detained in the past for protesting, most recently in February on the anniversary of the country’s pro-democracy movement. She reads a poem she wrote about her father while she was in jail called, “The Sultan Digs My Father’s Grave.” We’re also joined by Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was just released from detention. A police statement said Rajab was detained on charges linked to “illegal” demonstrations. His lawyer says he may stand trial in the future. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 30, 2012Jailed Bahraini Activists Get Appeal, But U.S.-Backed Regime’s Abuses Continue Unabated
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Bahrain, where security forces continued the crackdown on protesters across the country over the weekend. According to a statement issued by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights on Saturday, quote, “Security forces have spent the day attacking protests in different parts of the country. Many serious injuries were reported, including a 15-year-old boy who was hit directly in the arm with a teargas canister.” A 22-year-old protester died early Saturday after a shooting that the main Shia opposition party blamed on neighborhood militias loyal to the Bahraini regime.

Also Saturday, prominent human rights activist and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested during the protests. A police statement said Rajab was detained on charges linked to, quote, “illegal” demonstrations. The case was referred to the public prosecutor, and Rajab was later released. His lawyer says he may stand trial in the future.

In the past year, Bahraini security forces have killed dozens of demonstrators. Hundreds more have been arrested or fired from their jobs. The island nation of Bahrain is a key strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Meanwhile, jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is on the 54th day of his hunger strike. With concerns about his health increasing, Amnesty International demanded Friday his release, quote, “immediately and unconditionally.” Alkhawaja was arrested last April during a government crackdown on protests by the country’s Shia majority that has been demanding greater rights from Sunni rulers. He has been refusing food since February 8th to protest the life sentence he received in June for allegedly plotting against the state. His lawyers announced today they are appealing his conviction.

For more, we go directly to the capital of Bahrain, Manama. We are joined by Alkhawaja’s daughter, Zainab. She, herself, is a pro-democracy activist and has been detained in the past for protesting, most recently in February on the anniversary of the country’s pro-democracy movement. We’re also joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was just released from detention.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Nabeel Rajab, you were held, and then you were released. Talk about the condition of Mr. Alkhawaja, who’s in the 54th day of his hunger strike.

NABEEL RAJAB: Well, first of all, I thank you, Amy, for covering Bahrain. And I really look at your Democracy Now! station as a hope that we want to raise our voice to the United States people, especially at a time where the news of Bahrain are marginalized by TV station, by news agency, by international community, due to their interested view that Bahrain is an exporter of oil and it’s a market of arms. So that’s why we were marginalized. Thanks again, and I really hope that you keep covering Bahrain, as we really need you and need those stations who respect human rights to look into the crimes happening in this country.

Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, as you know, in his 54th day of hunger strike, and he is—his health is deteriorating. He was in hospital 'til today morning or ’til yesterday, and we are afraid that he might lose his life or lose part of his body at any time. And I'm afraid that government of Bahrain are waiting for that moment. And I’m sure they will release him before he die, but they want to release him that he lose something of his body, like his eye or his kidney or something, then releasing him.

We have a very aggressive ruling regime. We have a regime that violated—committed a lot of crimes in the past one year. Last year at this time, I spoke to you, Amy, and I told you we have around 20 people died; now I’m telling you more than 80 people were killed, thousands of people were detained, thousands of people were targeted in their work and fired from work, mosques being demolished, people’s houses being robbed by mercenaries brought by the government. Unfortunately, you don’t hear that quite really in the international media, but this is what’s happening in Bahrain. And we seek international help. We seek international intervention on Bahrain, politically, economically, to pressure the government to stop the crime committed against the people and against all the prisoners, including my colleague and my teacher, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Zainab, the daughter of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, what you have heard about your father’s condition right now. He was in jail, then we heard hospital, then back in jail. What do you know, Zainab?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: We don’t know much. We’re not always told what exactly is happening. Sometimes we hear the news from other detainees who call their families. My father right now is between prison and hospital. His blood sugar keeps getting very low, and he has to be transferred to hospital. What we also know is that the prison doctor has told my father, in front of his lawyer, that he might go into a coma in any minute, and if he sleeps, he might not wake up.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is he being held? Why was he arrested, Zainab?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: My father has been arrested—actually, in a few days, it’s going to be for one year now, and sentenced to life in prison, because he’s a human rights activist, because he has been educating people about their rights and reporting human rights abuses in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the day of his arrest. We have been following this story very closely with you, Zainab, who have been telling us what was happening. You were there when he was arrested?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes, I was there when they arrested my father very brutally. They beat him up in front of us, and they left his blood on our steps, on our stairs, before taking him away. He was arrested so brutally that he had to be taken straight to hospital and be under surgery for four hours, because they had fractured his jaw in four different places.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, yourself, have been arrested, as well, in this past year and have gone on hunger strike as you protest your father’s detention.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes, I have. I have been arrested a few times, and I have been on hunger strike. And that’s why I can’t understand how my father is able to continue until now. I know how painful it is to go on hunger strike, even though I was only on hunger strike for 10 days.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab, when you were held in detention, when you were arrested and jailed, you wrote a poem about your father. Can you read it for us?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes, for sure. This last time when I was arrested, my father had already started his hunger strike, and that’s why I wrote this poem. And I titled the poem “The Sultan Digs My Father’s Grave.”

I watch in horror as, the sultan digs my father’s grave.
He digs it deep and makes it narrow,
smiling that one day he shall live in a towering castle
surrounded by the deafening silence of miserable obedient slaves.

I watch in horror, and I call to him:
“Gravedigger, dig! But make the grave a little bigger.
Dig for two and not for one.
Make it so it fits us both,
for I could never step on the ground,
if my father is buried under.”

I hear the sultan cursing,
his face all red with fury.
He has found another seed he knows my father planted.
He crushes the life right out of it,
and into the grave he throws it.
Yet as he digs a home for death,
he’s blind to the seeds of life growing all around him.

As tears of anger burn my cheeks,
I feel a hand around my shoulder.
I look into my father’s sad eyes.
I see him smile, a sunrise.
“Don’t despair,” my father whispers.
“You witness victory. Celebrate.”

As the sultan sits in the dirt,
tired of all the digging,
he sees around him bones and bones,
of sultans, emperors, kings and queens.
He sees with fear skulls and skulls,
but no more crowns.
A question arises:
how to crawl out of a hole
that he had dug and dug and dug so deep?

From in his grave he looks up high and in the sky.
The sultan sees a vision.
With giant wings rising to the heavens,
a man who is only skin and bones
and big dark eyes and a tranquil smile.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab Alkhawaja, reading the poem she wrote for her father while she was in detention, while he, too, is in detention. He’s jailed, on hunger strike. Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is on his 54th day of his hunger strike. He was in prison, then brought to hospital, now back in prison, Zainab?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes. Actually, we were told when we went for a visit. The police there told us that he wasn’t there. And when we asked where he was, they said that he had already been in hospital for a whole day. And we hadn’t known or hadn’t been told about that. We did go to the hospital and were not allowed to see him. But yesterday he was brought back to prison, and we saw him yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about your father’s condition. Were you able to talk to him?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: We were able to talk to him. He is very, very weak. I came out of the visit feeling that my father is dying. Unfortunately, I don’t have—what Nabeel Rajab said, that he does not think they would let him die, just lose a part of his body, I’m not sure of that. And I know our government, and I have been seeing their crimes for a whole year and writing about their crimes. And I’m not sure if they care if my father dies in prison or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab Alkhawaja, what about what the United States can do? Bahrain is a key strategic ally. The Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based right there in your country.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: The American administration has a lot of power in Bahrain. The Bahraini government listens to the American administration. With one word from the American government, my father would be released. I am sure of that. But right now, Americans are more—the American administration, not Americans, is more concerned with their interests than they are with human rights and the lives of Bahrainis and democracy in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s very significant to say, “with one word from the U.S. government.” The U.S. government has weighed in in other countries where there have been pro-democracy movements, the Arab Spring, if you will. What about Bahrain? What do you see is the difference? Have you spoken with U.S. officials there?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: I have not spoken with U.S. officials. I have written letters, and I have tried to speak to them through the media and through other means. However, not hear anything—not hearing anything back. We have felt that we’ve been isolated here in Bahrain. Our revolution for democracy, which is just like the other revolutions in the Arab Spring, has been isolated, because—because it’s not in the interest of many countries and many governments to support the movement here. And in fact, they think it is in their interest to support the dictators.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel Rajab, can you weigh in here, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights? You were interrogated this weekend. You were held, but you were released. Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is near death, in the 54th day of his hunger strike. The role the U.S. could play?

NABEEL RAJAB: Well, as Zainab said, the U.S. could play a lot of role here. They could really pressure Bahrain government. But so far, what is very clear to our human rights movement in Bahrain and those people fighting for democracy, it’s very clear that the U.S. government is standing behind the dictators and supporting the dictators. And I think, although they don’t say it, there is this wide belief here that the American—the American administration thinks the democracy in this part of the world does not help their interests. That’s why you see hardly they talk about human rights violation in Bahrain. Hardly they talk about human rights violation in Saudi, although, for example, Saudi is the most violator for human rights in the region, but it’s hardly been covered by United States or been said or criticized by United States. Unfortunately, we’re in a region ruined by dictators, families, like their own companies, human rights violators, but you will never hear a criticism by United States government. It’s very sad.

Thanks God there are an organization, civil society, TV station and channels in United States like yours, that they are working hard to bring the attention to United States to pressure the United States administration. So far, the position of United States is very negative. There is—as you see now, they have two different packages for two different revolution, in Bahrain and in Syria. They have two different language. They have two different ceiling to put for, or both language to a different revolution. Very disappointing. But when the—with day we started, we counted in our own people, we counted in our own beliefs on the cause that we’re fighting for. That’s why I’m very much confident that we’re going to win the battle. We’re going to gain the democracy that we are fighting for. Now it’s up to—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds. The doctors and nurses who have been put on trial for treating injured protesters? And we just have five seconds.

NABEEL RAJAB: Yes, they are still on trial. And we are afraid that many of them will face sentence. And that’s due to their humanitarian work, to the work they have done to let the international community to know what’s happening—

AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel Rajab, we’re going to have to leave it there, president of the Bahrain Human Rights Center, and thank you very much to Zainab Alkhawaja.

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Jailed Bahraini Activists Get Appeal, But U.S.-Backed Regime’s Abuses Continue Unabated

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