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With Father and Sister Imprisoned, Exiled Bahraini Activist Maryam Alkhawaja Condemns Ongoing Abuses

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The Bahraini government continues its crackdown on opposition protesters, with demonstrations repressed and scores of dissidents held behind bars. We’re joined by Maryam Alkhawaja, a leading Bahraini human rights activist. Her family has been highly critical of the U.S.-backed monarchy, and they have paid a heavy price. Maryam’s father, human rights attorney Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, is serving a life sentence in prison. He has already spent two years in jail. Her sister, Zainab Alkhawaja, is also imprisoned. A close friend of the family, Nabeel Rajab, is also in jail. Rajab had been the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “There has hardly been any real accountability of the Bahraini government of the human rights violations that have been going on in Bahrain for more than two years now,” says Alkhawaja, who is now the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Bahrain, where the government continues its crackdown on opposition protesters, with demonstrations repressed and scores of dissidents held behind bars. Some of those imprisoned are now being denied visits from their lawyers or families. At least 87 people have died at the hands of security forces since the 2011 uprising began. Thousands more have been injured.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed monarchy last month blocked the visit of U.N. Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, who was seeking to assess conditions on the ground. The move came a little over a year after the regime also blocked a visit by Méndez and Amnesty International.

Bahrain is a key U.S. government ally, hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest, Maryam Alkhawaja, is a leading Bahraini human rights activist. Her family has been highly critical of the U.S.-backed monarchy. They have paid a heavy price. Maryam’s father is the well-known human rights attorney Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. He’s serving a life sentence in prison in Bahrain. He’s already spent two years in jail. And Maryam’s sister, Zainab, who we have often interviewed on Democracy Now!, is also in prison now. A close family friend of the Alkhawajas, Nabeel Rajab, is also in jail. Rajab had been the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Our guest, Maryam Alkhawaja, is now the group’s acting president.

Maryam, welcome to Democracy Now! But you don’t live in Bahrain.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: No, I don’t. I’m in self-imposed exile in Copenhagen currently, for safety reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: What would happen if you went back?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, I did go back a few months ago, in January, for a very short trip, but I went on my Danish passport, and I chose the right timing to try and make sure that they wouldn’t arrest me. But that’s not necessarily going to be the case if I decide to go back again. So I’m being very careful about the timing that I choose to go back, so as not to end up in prison like my colleagues and family.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And were you able to see your father and sister in jail at the time?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Yes, I was, and my uncle, as well. My sister was not in prison at the time, but my father and uncle were.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how were, especially in terms of your father, the conditions for him?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, according to the last time I’ve seen him, which was in March 2011, of course he looked very different physically. I could see the marks on his face from where his jaw had been broken during torture. But—and then he also looked much thinner to me. But to my family, of course, he looked better than what they had seen during the time of his imprisonment in earlier visits that they had done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Because he had been on hunger strike for awhile, hadn’t he?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Yes, the longest hunger strike he went on was 110 days. And then he and my sister Zainab also had staged a hunger strike about a month or month and a half ago, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: What is happening with your sister right now?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, Zainab—just yesterday, they passed—they upheld another verdict against her, which gave her an extra three months. She had already been sentenced to three months and 22 days in two other cases.

AMY GOODMAN: For what?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: The first case was entering an illegal area, which is the—which was known as the Pearl Square, which is now more of a military barracks. And so she received 22 days for that. And then the other verdict, I believe, was the one on—I believe it was insulting or beating a police officer, where she received another verdict. And so, in total, she had three months and 22 days. And then yesterday they passed another verdict, which was about the sit-in at Abu Saiba Roundabout. There’s a very clear video of her being beaten and dragged by handcuffs on the roundabout. And she received a three-month sentence on that one, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So how much longer does she have to serve? And what is her response to these charges?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, so far, right now she has up until September being imprisoned. And, of course, it’s very concerning because of the way she’s being treated in prison. She hasn’t been outside for more than two months now. She hasn’t seen her three-year-old daughter or the rest of the family for more than two months now. And the other concern is that she has more prison—she might have more prison sentences made against her because of further court cases that she has coming up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s the situation with the press in Bahrain now in terms of being able to get out any kind of information or news about what’s going on with the continuing government repression?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, we’ve seen a systematic targeting of the press in Bahrain, whether it’s international media or local media. Of course, with the local media, it’s worse. It’s come to the extent of where we’ve seen photojournalists actually killed. For example, there was a young man who was shot and killed for carrying a camera during a protest. But we’ve also seen cases where journalists have been arrested and tortured. For example, Nazeha Saeed, who was last year—sorry, in 2011, arrested and tortured, and then filed a lawsuit against her torturers—she could identify five of them. Only one of them was actually brought to court, and then found innocent, despite the—there was very well-documented evidence that Nazeha’s statements about the torture that she had been subjected to were true. And, of course, she’s not the only journalist who has been subjected to this. We have Ahmed Radhi and other journalists, as well.

But then we’re also seeing a constant targeting of journalists in which, when they go to report on protests that are happening on the ground, they usually get briefly arrested, where, you know, by the time they’re released again, they’re not able to cover the protest because it’s finished. Nazeha, for example, has had her ID card, her press ID card, taken away. And other journalists also receive this kind of harassment during their coverage of protests on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the role of the Obama administration and the U.S. government, which clearly has spoken out against abuses of governments against democracy now protesters—democracy protesters in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria? What’s been the role of the U.S. government in terms of Bahrain?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, I know President Obama in 2011 made that speech that everyone remembers, of course, where he said that anywhere where people come out to demand democracy and freedom, they’ll find a friend in the United States of America. But I think a lot of people, especially in places like Bahrain, believe there was a disclaimer that nobody really paid attention to, which is, if you’re from the Gulf, then our friend is the regime and not the people. And I think that’s the thing that we’ve seen so far, is that, even in the beginning, we saw statements, albeit they were not consistent and there was not much follow-up on these statements, but there has hardly been any real accountability for the Bahraini government due to the human rights violations that have been ongoing in Bahrain for more than two years now.

What we’ve been seeing is from—you know, all kinds of violations, like systematic torture, like extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests. We’re still seeing house raids at dawn happening in Bahrain right now. Our colleague, Naji Fateel, who is an administrative member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was arrested—or, rather, abducted from his home. He had disappeared for three days. And now we have credible reports that he’s been subjected to severe torture, like electric shocks to the genital area or, you know, inducing drowning techniques, and things like this. And so, we’re seeing the exact—exact same things that we saw two years ago; but even more so, we’re seeing a deterioration of the human rights situation. And the lack of international accountability to the Bahraini government and this culture of having international impunity for governments like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries really plays into the fact of why we’re seeing a continued deterioration to the human rights situation.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of your sister Zainab. We interviewed her a number of times. This clip is from 2011. She was not in jail at the time.

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: That’s Zainab Alkhawaja. She is in jail right now. How old is your older sister Zainab?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: She’s 29 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: And how old are you, Maryam?


AMY GOODMAN: The protests in Bahrain continued this year as Bahrain staged the annual Formula One Grand Prix auto race last month. Speaking to Al Jazeera, the minister for information, Sameera Rajab, accused terrorists of trying to tarnish Bahrain’s image.

SAMEERA RAJAB: [translated] The images you get and the information you receive are from terrorists. How can you know if these villages are Shia or non-Shia? These pieces of information are coming from the terrorists, who are attempting to smear the image of Bahrain. There is no problem at all in terms of security; only a number of trained terrorists, trained by Hezbollah, who want to destabilize the country. The problem of Bahrain can easily be resolved at the negotiating table.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Bahraini minister for information, Sameera Rajab, on Al Jazeera. Your response to that, Maryam?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, I mean, I think that’s—I’m not going to go into the whole political issue of whether the opposition, you know, is terrorists or not and all of that, but I think it’s always worth mentioning that Sameera Rajab is a public and outspoken supporter of Saddam Hussein. And for someone who continuously talks about terrorism, I think that’s something that needs to be mentioned when talking about who Sameera Rajab is and the kind of viewpoint that she represents.

But I think, you know, speaking about human rights violations—even if, in her opinion, you know, the opposition doesn’t have any grounds to stand on—as long as there are human rights violations happening in Bahrain, the government has a responsibility. They have a responsibility to stop the human rights violations, and they have a responsibility to hold those who commit these human rights violations accountable. Sameera Rajab needs to be held accountable for a lot of these statements that she’s making that are either false or fabricated, and also, of course, add to the situation, the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you just explain the origin of this conflict? And then explain the forces that are contributing, talking about outside forces, from Saudi Arabia—I mean, Bahrain is extremely important to the United States. The Fifth Fleet is there.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Of course. I mean, the civil rights movement in Bahrain is one of the oldest in the region. It started back in the 1920s. And almost every single 10 years since the 1920s, we’ve seen some form of uprising happening in Bahrain. And despite that, the regime in Bahrain, the government in Bahrain, has been able to put down these protests almost every time they happened in the past. Of course, when people came out in 2011 demanding a new constitution, demanding that the king deliver on the promises that he made in 2001, they weren’t demanding the stepping down of the entire monarchy. They were just demanding reforms. It was after the government decided to use excessive force, to start killing people on the streets, that the demand changed of the protesters on the streets. And so, this is a bit of the background of what’s happening.

But I think the other thing that’s very important is the role that is played from the outside forces. Bahrain is geopolitically very important. And I always like to call it the “inconvenient revolution.” Where else in the Middle East and North Africa region have you seen a foreign military step into another country and help the government put down a popular uprising? You know, how would it be ever acceptable in the international context, for example, to see France and Germany step into the U.K. to put up a popular uprising?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in this case, you’re talking about Saudi Arabia’s troops coming in.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Of course, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the form of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, troops. And not only that, to take this a step further, that the United States administration came out and justified the entrance of these troops into Bahrain to help the government, to me, you know, is something that I cannot even begin to fathom. How can, in an international context, we ever justify the presence of foreign troops in a country to put down a popular uprising? So, just looking at the geopolitical situation and seeing how the international response to the human rights situation in Bahrain has been, the lack of any kind of real accountability, really gets you to understand how geopolitics plays a role in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t the former police chief of Philadelphia and Miami, John Timoney, now a consultant for the Bahraini regime?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Yes, according to what we know, John Timoney from the U.S. and John Yates from the U.K. have been brought on to bring about “police reform,” quote-unquote, inside Bahrain. Now, what we’ve seen is, like I said, a deterioration to the human rights situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the repression been diminished during their consultancy?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. What we’ve seen is the use of excessive force. Just past—last February, we saw two youth being killed by being shot directly by police forces. And we continue to see this. The methods used of excessive force, arbitrary arrests, house raids in the middle of night, targeting of children, continues almost on a daily basis in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what do you believe—you’re here in the United States. So, we asked your sister Zainab in 2011, does she have a message for President Obama? The Navy’s Fifth Fleet is there. What do you believe the U.S. can do?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: I believe that the United States—there’s much that the United States can do. And I think the very least minimum is for them to uphold their position towards human rights. When you want to judge a country in their foreign policy on whether they’re doing the right thing when it comes to human rights accountability internationally, you don’t judge them on whether they’re holding their enemies accountable; you judge them on whether they hold their allies accountable for human rights abuses. And when the United States fails to hold their allies, like Bahrain and like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, accountable for human rights violations, this really harms the credibility of the United States’ work in other countries when it comes to human rights abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Maryam, very much for being with us. Maryam Alkhawaja is acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Her father was the original head of this center, then Nabeel Rajab, who we’ve interviewed on Democracy Now! By the way, how is he?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Nabeel Rajab is suffering from some health issues inside prison. Most of the political prisoners have—they don’t have access to adequate medical care. And Nabeel Rajab already has a back problem. And so, he’s been appealing to the government to allow him to receive adequate medical care while in prison, which has not been realized, unfortunately, for most of the political prisoners in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: For our interviews with Zainab, with Nabeel Rajab and others, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. They are in prison now in Bahrain. Maryam, thanks for joining us.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, is the FBI reading your email? Well, we’ll find out. We’ll speak with the ACLU. Stay with us.

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