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

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Bahrain has granted appeals for 21 people accused of trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed monarchy after the Arab Spring protests began last last year. The prisoners include human rights leader Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is on the 82nd day of his hunger strike. “We’ve seen this before, where if there’s enough international pressure, they’ll send the case back to court and then try to buy as much time as possible … until the international community, to some extent, loses interest in following up with the case,” says Alkhawaja’s daugher, Maryam Alkhawaja. “These are people that should have never been arrested or imprisoned, to begin with, and they should have been released.” She notes much of the evidence used in the military courts was gained from confessions extracted under torture. We also speak with Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork, editor of a new report that finds Bahrain’s police continue to beat and torture detainees, including minors. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 02, 2012Bahraini Hunger Striker’s Life in Peril as U.S.-Backed Forces Continue Anti-Democracy Crackdown
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bahrain has announced a retrial for 21 people accused of trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed monarchy after the Arab Spring protests last year, including human rights leader Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who’s in the 82nd day of his hunger strike. The news comes as a new report from Human Rights Watch finds Bahrain’s police continue to beat and torture detainees, including minors. An independent inquiry six months ago forced the Bahraini government to promise reforms. But according to pro-democracy activists interviewed for the report, police beat them while taking them to a police station. A government spokesperson denied the findings, saying, quote, “The allegations are absurd, and unfortunately, we ask for human rights organizations not to rely on unreliable sources.”

Human rights leader Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was arrested last April during a government crackdown on protests by the country’s Shia majority that has been demanding greater rights from its 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. Bahrain said today Alkhawaja is one of the political activists who will be given a retrial, this time in a civilian court rather than a military court as before.

Alkhawaja’s daughter, Zainab Alkhawaja, also a pro-democracy activist, was arrested last week for protesting her father’s imprisonment and is reportedly still detained.

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 is a key strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

For more, we’re joined by Alkhawaja’s daughter, Maryam, via Democracy Now! audio stream from Beirut, Lebanon, where she’s attending a conference organized by the Gulf Center for Human Rights. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, who was last in Bahrain in March 2011, now banned by the government from returning.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to Beirut. Maryam, can you tell us your reaction to the latest news? The Bahraini government has announced it will retry 21 protesters, including your father, who was sentenced to life last year and is in the 82nd day of his hunger strike.


Well, I think the first several issues at hand—first of all, it’s not a retrial, but an appeal. It’s going back to the appeals court, and so not a retrial. The second question has to be: what evidence are they relying on? I mean, if they’re taking someone back to court, it must mean that they have some kind of evidence. And as far as we know, the only evidence they had in the trial that they did in the military court was confessions that were taken under torture.

I think that this is just buying time from the Bahraini government. We’ve seen this before, where if there’s enough international pressure, they’ll, you know, send the case back to court and then try to buy as much time as possible, as they did with the medics, until the international community, to some extent, loses—you know, loses interest in following up with the case. And I think that’s what we’re seeing here. These are people that should have never been arrested or imprisoned, to begin with, and they should have been released, not being taken to an appeals court.

AMY GOODMAN: Maryam, what has happened to your sister Zainab, who we have frequently spoken to on Democracy Now!, who is protesting your father’s imprisonment? She is now in jail?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Yes, she was—she has been arrested at least three or four times in just this month. She was arrested three times when she went to the hospital where my father was being kept, trying to see him when his health deteriorated. And she was arrested at those times. And then she was arrested again in front of the Financial Harbour, where she sat in the middle of the highway, you know, in protest of his continued arrest and his deteriorating health. And she was—according to my family, who were able to see her yesterday for the first time in a week, she told them that she was continuously kicked and beaten, and one of the female officers held a baton against her neck trying to choke her. And now she’s being charged with assaulting an officer.

AMY GOODMAN: She was also protesting the Grand Prix being held in Bahrain at this time?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, yes, of course. I mean, everyone was out on the streets protesting the Grand Prix. And, of course, another thing that really is making people very angry in Bahrain, my father’s case is one of them, but we have to remember that at a time when my father may have a few days left, Salah Abbas, who was killed, doesn’t have any days left. He left behind him five children, and he was also supporting his dead brother’s children, as well. And he was killed by the security forces after he was beaten severely and then shot with a pellet shotgun.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain when that happened.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: That happened on the first day of racing for the Formula One. He was found on the roof of one of the houses in a farm. And the people who were with him had been found the night before. Many of them had fractures in either their legs or their arms. When he was found, then doctors were able to look at his body. They informed me that he had fractures in his neck. He had hits, blows to the head, to the skull, which they think was caused by a gun. And he had, of course, many, many injuries from pellets.

AMY GOODMAN: Back to your father, Maryam, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is in the 82nd day of his hunger strike, we’re getting conflicting reports of him being force-fed, the government denying this. Can you tell us about his health, his physical condition now?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, I mean, he stopped drinking water. That was last week on Thursday, so a week—not this Thursday, but the one before it. And we knew that he was going to go into critical condition very, very soon, if not a coma. And so, when he went missing for several days, we were very worried about what that meant. When my family was finally able to see him yesterday, he informed my mother that he had been drugged, tied to the bed, and then force-fed by—they had put a tube down his nose into his stomach. Now, of course, this is dangerous on many levels. First of all, my father told my mother that he considered this torture, given that he was force-fed and made—or put in solitary confinement. But then also the fact that they’re force-feeding him, this could cause health complications as infections and other things, which could further deteriorate his health. So this is very, very problematic. And, of course, my father said that he holds the doctor, the hospital and the minister of the interior responsible for this force-feeding.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by a close friend of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. That is Joe Stork. He is deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. Joe, Human Rights Watch has just put out yet another report on Bahrain. Talk about what you have found.

JOE STORK: Well, one of the big issues in Bahrain for many years now has been torture. We’ve documented torture over the last several years on several occasions, including torture that people complained about during the crackdown last year. The Bassiouni commission report that you referred to documented torture specifically in the case of Abdulhadi Khawaja. The government has made a big show of saying, “OK, this has been a problem. We’re going to turn the page on this. It’s not going to happen anymore.” One of the commission’s recommendations was to put TV cameras, for instance, in police stations. OK, no one would say that’s a bad idea. But what they’re doing is simply displacing the venue of—changing the venue of where the torture is taking place. I mean, we documented numerous cases, where people, young people, some of them children, were severely beaten, were badly beaten, threatened with rape, threatened with death, in order to confess to one thing or another, before they were ever taken into a police station. So, clearly, the sort of instinctual response of Bahraini police—and, it seems, officials—is to torture, as just a mode of policing.

Could I make just one point about the trial of Abdulhadi and the other protest leaders, too? I mean, it’s not just a fair trial issue, although it’s that. It’s not just the fact that they relied on confessions that were coerced—it’s that, too. But if you look at the trial record, which we did in a report that we published just six weeks ago, where we analyzed Abdulhadi’s trial in particular—if you read the trial verdict, for instance, it’s simply breathtaking. All the crimes, so-called crimes, that are alluded to are things they said, meetings they attended, documents that were found on their computers, their call for peaceful protest. They even quote the leaders as calling for peaceful protest. And it’s for these crimes of speech, essentially, crimes of participating in peaceful assembly. That’s the basis for that conviction. So I agree with Maryam completely: the issue shouldn’t be an appeal; the issue should be freedom for all these people, for all 21.

AMY GOODMAN: You, Joe Stork, yourself, have been banned from returning to Bahrain?

JOE STORK: Yes, that’s right.


JOE STORK: The government says that I am not impartial, that I only report on one side of the problem. I mean, it’s complete, complete nonsense. And I should point out that it’s not—I’ve been banned, but my organization—in fact, all human rights organizations have been highly restricted in terms of getting into Bahrain, as has international media, in fact. I mean, it’s a very, very unfriendly place these days for human rights groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Stork, you’re an American citizen. What about the role of the United States? I mean, this is clearly an extremely important place for the United States, works very closely with the Bahraini monarchy, the home of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

JOE STORK: Right, right. And I think the United States government, the Obama administration, is actually quite spooked about what’s going on in Bahrain. They’re quite nervous. They see that none of the—none of the things that they’ve pushed for so far, such as the Bassiouni commission report and so forth—I mean, it’s a good report, it has good recommendations and so forth, but the government simply hasn’t used it as a platform to turn things around. And that’s clearly—you know, the United States is interested in a stable partner there, and stability is certainly not on the horizon.

But at the same time, the United States has, I’d say, found it very difficult to raise its voice on these issues, unlike in some other countries. And I think the main reason for that is, yes, it’s the basing—it’s the basing for the Fifth Fleet, but it’s also Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is very deferential when it comes to talking about human rights in Saudi Arabia or in a country that Saudi Arabia—as one Saudi diplomat here in Washington put it, he said, “It’s our Cuba. Don’t even think about meddling.”

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment from Maryam in Beirut. You’re at a major human rights conference taking place in Beirut, Lebanon. When do you return to Bahrain? What are you calling for, for your father and for your sister Zainab?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, of course, I mean, I haven’t been back to Bahrain in over a year now, and I don’t think—I don’t see myself going back anytime soon, either, because of the situation there, and because of the kind of work that I’m doing, which could be very limited if I was inside Bahrain.

As for what are we calling for, I mean, I don’t think that the spotlight should be only on my father’s case, on my sister’s case, as there are currently, according to our estimations, around 700 political prisoners. And so, what we’re calling for is just the same response that the West gives to other countries. We want the same in Bahrain. When it comes to human rights violations, one person’s life is not more important than the other. And so, just like there have been special sessions on the other countries in the Human Rights Council, we should be able to see the same, as well. And, I mean, it’s very unfortunate that the U.S. and the U.K. and France and other countries are selling arms to Bahrain today, and they’ve become to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria. And so, what we would like to see is a discussion of economic sanctions, since the human rights violations are still continuing on a daily basis.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Maryam Alkhawaja, joining us from Beirut, speaking up for her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who’s on the 82nd day of his hunger strike, and her sister, Zainab, who is currently in prison in Bahrain, as well. And thank you to Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. We’ll link to Human Rights Watch’s report on Beirut—on Bahrain that has just come out.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. Stay with us.

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