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Out of Jail, Bahraini Activists Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Alkhawaja Urge End to U.S.-Backed Crackdown

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We go to Bahrain to speak with two recently released political prisoners, Zainab Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab, both jailed for protesting the U.S.-backed monarchy. Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was released on bail after being held for nearly a month. “We always thought the American base here, the American-Bahraini good relation will benefit our fight for freedom and democracy in our region, but it turned out to be … absolutely opposite,” he says. “They are supporting the dictators here, the repressive regime. … We are victims for being a rich region.” Alkhawaja, who was jailed in April after protesting the detention of her father, Abdulhadi, vows: “We are going to carry on protesting. … It doesn’t matter if we get arrested five, six, 10 times. It’s not going to stop, because in the end, we have sacrificed a lot for democracy and for freedom.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain, where the pro-democracy activist Zainab Alkhawaja has been released from prison after a month behind bars. She was jailed in April after protesting the detention of her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. Her release comes one day after he ended his more than three-month hunger strike. Abdulhadi’s wife, Khadija Mousawi, said her imprisoned husband will keep fighting for democracy in Bahrain.

KHADIJA MOUSAWI: I know that my husband will never stop protesting, by going on hunger strike or otherwise. I know that now he will be thinking, what’s next? And very soon maybe we’ll hear something else he’s going to do. But he is not a quitter.

AMY GOODMAN: Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and seven other activists were sentenced to life in prison last year by a military-run court as part of government crackdowns on demonstrations calling for more democratic rule under the U.S.-backed regime. They’re among a 21-member group whose cases are being reexamined by a civilian court.

As Alkhawaja remains locked up, his colleague Nabeel Rajab was released on bail after being held for nearly a month. Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. We’re going now to Bahrain, where we’re joined by Nabeel Rajab by Democracy Now! video stream, as well as by phone by Zainab Alkhawaja.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Nabeel, let’s begin with you. Talk about why you were imprisoned and what happened while you were there.

NABEEL RAJAB: In fact, according to the accusation, that they accused me of tweeting and insulting the security institution and calling for unpermitted gathering, and all about my freedom of expression, about my opinion, about my criticism to the action of the police, about my work on human right, about my activity as a human right defender, calling people to protest peacefully together, to march. And I think this comes as a punishment for my work in the past few years. And now, again, I’m released on bail temporarily ’til the verdict, which should be out anytime next month.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell me, Zainab, what happened to you, why you were arrested, why you were held, and what happened to you in jail?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yeah, hi. This is the fifth time I’m arrested, actually. And even now, after I have been released, I don’t know how many cases I have in court. At least three, and could be up to seven or eight cases. Every time they arrest me, it’s not really for any good reason. They don’t have any evidence against me. Usually they accuse me of participating in illegal gathering or verbally assaulting riot police, and these are usually what the court accuses me of. However, just like Nabeel Rajab and just like my father and many other activists, the reason is that they’re trying to punish us, they’re trying to silence us, for writing and documenting the abuses that are happening in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Grand Prix, why you chose that moment to protest, Zainab?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: I think the Grand Prix really made many people upset in Bahrain, because we’re going through a very difficult time, where people are being tortured, protesters are being killed and injured. And the government announced that the Formula One was going to be a celebration for all Bahrainis, at a time when we were suffering. And I think this really made many people upset, made many people go out protesting. And I’m one of those people who were very upset by what was happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel Rajab, what about the role of the United States? The United States now speaks out against violence against people, for example, in Syria. But what about in Bahrain?

NABEEL RAJAB: Well, so far—so far, the American government played only negative role on Bahrain. We’ve seen double-standard foreign policy of United States. If you compare Bahrain and with Libya and Syria, we see hypocrisy. We see how they’re selling arms to Bahrain at the time where they’re killing their own people, and at the time they’re asking the Russian not to sell arms to Syria or to Libya at that time. We always thought the American base here, the American-Bahraini good relation will benefit our fight for freedom and democracy in our region, but it turned out to be absolutely wrong. We turned out to be absolutely opposite. They are supporting the dictators here, the repressive regime. And they are not—I mean, when they speak also about the protests in Bahrain, they ask both party to stop violence, when we are protesting very peacefully. None of our people carry any arm. None of our people carry anything. So far, many people among our people were killed. At least 90 people so far were killed. At least thousands of people were wounded, where they will never go back to their life. At least thousands of people were detained or fired from work. But still, we made sure—we are very committed to peaceful struggle, because we believe we could change, we could have our democracy with peaceful change. But when you see American government talking, always they ask both party to stop violence. So they want to present us as a people using violence.

We are very upset about United States’ position with Bahrain. We are very upset about United States trying to hide the crimes and trying to hide the violation happening in all the Gulf country. Because the Gulf country are a rich region, because it’s a big arm market, because it’s a big oil exporter, we have to suffer for that. We are victims for being a rich region. We are a victim of being a region that have an interest with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States—and the West, as well, comes after United States—have ignored completely the crime what’s happening here. They are calling for economic sanction here and there, against Russia, against Iran, against Libya, for the human right record, and they are ignoring all the crimes committed over here in Bahrain. Thanks God United States have channels like you, Democracy Now!, and many human right organizations that shows the other bright side of United States. [inaudible] United States government are building very bad image in here because of their support to dictators and repressive regimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab Alkhawaja, can you talk about the condition of your father, who went on a hunger strike of—how many days, ultimately? He just ended that strike.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: My father was on a hunger strike for 110 days. On the last day of his hunger strike, he was only 49 kilos. Now he is better. We have spoken to him. I spoke to him after I was released. He sounded much stronger, and he has gained already two kilos. And I’m very glad. We’re all very glad that he decided to finally end his hunger strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been able to speak to him—were you able to speak to him when you, too, were in jail, as he was on his hunger strike?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: He was allowed to speak to me once when I was in jail, when I went on hunger strike for six days. To convince me to end my strike, they allowed me to have a call and speak to my father.

AMY GOODMAN: On May 9th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa in Washington. Zainab, I believe you were in jail. Your father was on hunger strike. The significance of this meeting? At the time, also solidified was the continuation of weapons to Bahrain from the United States.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes. I mean, this is one thing that really upsets the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. This is something that is really surprising and shocking, that a government like the American administration, that’s called for democracy and for freedom, is showing so much support for dictators in our country. And, I mean, it’s very ironic that while I was in prison, I read headlines in the newspaper saying that Bahrain, our country, is turning a new page, where activists have the freedom to speak and to move around. And at the same time, I’m in prison, my father is in prison, Nabeel Rajab is in prison, and all the prominent activists that I know were imprisoned or in hiding. So, really, and here on the ground in Bahrain, we’re seeing all the crimes that are happening, all the violations that are happening. Nobody feels safe. Many people here have been arrested several times.

And this is—in the end, it’s not really about me or my father or Nabeel. This is about the hundreds of people who are suffering, the thousands of people who are suffering in Bahrain. And, I mean, while I have been released and Nabeel has been released, there are children in Bahraini prisons right now who have not. Ahmed Aoun, who is only 16 years old, is in prison right now. He is also injured. He was shot with birdshot in his eye. He is not—he has not been allowed to go for surgery. We are afraid that he might lose his eye while in prison. And he is only 16 years old. Mansour is another activist who was working in human rights and documenting violations. He is only a high school student, and he has also been imprisoned. The only time I spoke to him while he was in prison, he was telling me to please pray for him that he does not get taken back to the interrogation room, where he was beaten severely. And there are other people, you know, like Jaffar Salman, who lost both his eyes because of birdshot, who was sentenced to two years in prison in a trial that lasted less than 15 minutes, where he had no lawyer, where he had no family present. And he is still in that prison. And these people have become nameless and faceless. Nobody knows about them. Nobody speaks about them. And these are the people we really fear for.

You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them, and we hope that some changes will happen. Until then, we are going to carry on protesting. We are going to carry on going out. It doesn’t matter if we get arrested five, six, 10 times. It’s not going to stop, because in the end, we have sacrificed a lot for democracy and for freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Nabeel, we have just 30 seconds. The day before the Crown Prince met with Hillary Clinton and she held a news conference, a Bahraini spokesperson said, “We are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print, broadcast [and] social media to encourage illegal protest and violence around the country. If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it.” And the U.S. resumed military weapons. Are these weapons used against you, against the people of Bahrain?

NABEEL RAJAB: I mean, all people were killed by—at least half of the people were killed in Bahrain by tear gas made in United States. Here, the silence of United States are being seen as a green signal to go ahead with more repression, more violation. This is how the Bahrain government see it. Unfortunately, we ask you, we urge human rights groups to pressure the United States government to change its position in supporting dictators and repressive regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab and Nabeel, I want to thank you both for being with us. Nabeel Rajab is president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights, just released Sunday, after days of interrogation and imprisonment, joining us from the capital of Manama. And thank you very much to Zainab Alkhawaja, who has also just been released. Her father has just ended his hunger strike after 110 days, but remains imprisoned. This is Democracy Now! Back in 30 seconds.

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