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We Are the Giant: Bahrain’s Top Family of Activists Pays Heavy Price for Challenging US-Backed Gov’t

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Reconciliation talks between Bahrain’s ruling monarchy and opposition groups have resumed amidst a continued crackdown on dissidents. The Bahraini government has waged a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters since an uprising broke out in February 2011. The U.S.-backed monarchy is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is responsible for all naval forces in the Gulf. Bahrain is a key strategic asset in the region because it directly faces Iran. “We are the Giant,” a new documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, looks at the situation in Bahrain through the lens of a prominent family of activists, the Alkhawajas. The well-known human rights attorney Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is serving a life sentence, while his outspoken daughter, Zainab, is also behind bars. We are joined by Maryam Alkhawaja, who currently serves as acting president the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, while living in forced exile.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as we turn now to Bahrain, where reconciliation talks between the ruling monarchy and opposition groups have resumed amidst a continued crackdown on dissidents. On Tuesday, Shiite opposition groups reportedly met with a Royal Court minister and expressed hope for a new start to a stalled national dialogue. The Bahraini government has waged a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters since an uprising broke out in February of 2011. The U.S.-backed monarchy is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for all naval forces in the Gulf. Bahrain is a key strategic asset in the region because it directly faces Iran.

Well, a new documentary here at Sundance looks at the situation in Bahrain through the lens of a prominent family of activists. Directed by Greg Barker, the documentary is called We are the Giant. In this clip, we hear from Zainab Alkhawaja, followed by her sister Maryam.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: For centuries, a lot of Arabs have been feeling that no matter what I do, this is not going to change, nothing is going to change in this country. Without hope, you’re not going to get anywhere, because you have to actually believe that this is going somewhere. And that’s why I can’t quit, I can’t give up.

Where are our rights? Do our lives not matter unless there are cameras here? This is my question.

I’ve been arrested maybe seven times, I think. I’ve been beaten, and I’ve been injured. And I have more than 13 cases against me in court. I do feel guilty when I leave my daughter for a long while, when she wakes up in the middle of the night worried that I’m going to prison. Just last night, she woke up, and she woke me up to tell me, “Please don’t go to jail.” And I never told her that I went to jail, but she hears stuff. You know, kids are so smart. And she wakes me up, and she tells me, “Don’t go to prison.”

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: A lot of people ask, “Isn’t it wrong? Shouldn’t she be at home with her kid?” No, that’s exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing. It’s for her kid.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Maryam Alkhawaja and her sister Zainab in the new film, We are the Giant, premiering here at Sundance. Their family has paid a heavy price for speaking out against the Bahraini government. Maryam’s father is the well-known human rights attorney, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. He’s serving a life sentence in prison in Bahrain. He has 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 friend of the Alkhawajas, Nabeel Rajab, is also in jail. He was previously head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Earlier this week, I sat down with Maryam Alkhawaja here in Park City, Utah. She’s now the group’s acting president. I asked her to describe the situation in Bahrain now.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, we’re still seeing a deteriorating situation when it comes to the human rights violations. The Bahraini government, so far, has no incentive to stop the human rights violations, and that’s mainly because they feel that they have international immunity when it comes to being held accountable for all of the violations that they’ve been committing over the past three years. And so, even though there is talk right now about a dialogue, it doesn’t seem that the dialogue has any effect on the ongoing violations, whether we’re talking about house raids or arrests, beatings or systematic torture.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your own family in prison.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: So, my father, of course, went through all of the legal action that there possibly could be, but of course we all know that the judiciary system in Bahrain is not a judiciary system that works. And so, it’s all about a political decision. If we can get enough international pressure for his release, then that’s probably the only way we can get him out. As for Zainab, she has a court date coming up in the next two weeks. She still has about six pending cases in courts. And she’s supposed to be released in February after serving one year, but I’m guessing, without the right amount of international pressure and international attention to her case, that they’re probably going to sentence her to further prison time.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what she did.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, Zainab has been very influential in the protest movement, because at a time when everyone was used to running away when being tear-gassed, Zainab decided to stand against the riot police peacefully, but not run away. And so, she became instrumental in that kind of—building that kind of civil disobedience, where instead of running away when you’re getting shot at, you defy the fear, you defy the way that they think you’re supposed to react, by reacting in a completely different way, and then also, of course, continuously speaking out about what’s going on, documenting the situation on the ground, sitting with families of victims of extrajudicial killings or torture, and documenting their stories and then making sure the world knows about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Maryam Alkhawaja, what about the multinational corporation role in Bahrain and in supporting the monarchy, and also specifically the United States?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, we always talk about two types of human rights violators. So there’s the people who actually commit the crimes, which would be the Bahraini regime in this instance. And then talk about the human rights enablers—or the violations enablers. And those are people who do business as usual with these regimes while they’re committing the crimes that they’re committing. And because of that business as usual, because they continue to do business the way they do, this enables the government to continue the crackdown that they’re doing. And so, whether we’re talking about the air show or we’re talking about the Formula One coming up in April or—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the car race.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Yes, the car race. Or if we’re talking about the visit from Prince Andrew from the United Kingdom just a few days ago to celebrate 200 years of cooperation with the Bahraini government by the United Kingdom—all of these things enable the Bahraini government to continue doing what they’re doing. And like I said earlier, it puts them in a situation where they have absolutely no incentive to stop the human rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet? Clearly, the U.S. and Bahrain have a great deal of cooperation going on.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Oh, definitely. I mean, I’ve personally met with people from the Department of Defense. I’ve met with people from the State Department, from Congress and so on, and I’ve been told over and over again that moving the Fifth Fleet is just not on the table, so it’s not something that we’re necessarily demanding at the moment. But I think what is really frustrating and what is very shameful, to put it that way, is the fact that not only are they not thinking about moving the Fifth Fleet; just a few months ago, the head of the Navy came out in a public statement and said that they’re expanding the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. And everyone saw this as being an appeasement to Saudi after the Iran deal, but why is it that the Bahraini population is being thrown under the bus because they wanted to appease the Saudis? And I think, you know, especially at a time when the Bahraini government has offered absolutely no reforms, have offered absolutely no stopping of the human rights violations that are ongoing right now, it really is sending the wrong message when they tell the Bahraini government, “Well, we’re going to expand our Fifth Fleet operations in the country.”

AMY GOODMAN: Whether or not the Fifth Fleet expands, it means that the U.S. has a great deal of say in Bahrain over policy.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Oh, definitely. I mean, the United States, if they wanted, have huge leverage when it comes to Bahrain—the United States and the United Kingdom. And if they decided that they wanted to take a stand for human rights, you know, or, for example, just follow up on what President Obama said in 2011, which is, if you want to have a national dialogue, you need the peaceful opposition, who should be at the table, released from prison. Today the case is, is that those peaceful opposition who President Obama spoke about in 2011 are still in prison today. And yet, there has been absolutely no follow-up. And so, we’re looking at a situation where the United States and the United Kingdom and these countries who say that human rights and democracy are the cornerstone of their foreign policy are actually turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the human rights situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father is in prison, Maryam. Your sister is in prison. [Nabeel Rajab] the human rights activist, a close family friend, is in prison, among many other people. Have you been imprisoned?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: I have not personally been in prison, but that’s because I left Bahrain right before the Saudi tanks rolled in over the bridge. And I have only been back once in 2013 for a very short time to see my family. And then, the last time I attempted to go back to Bahrain, which was last August, I was denied boarding by British Airways, as they said, by the request of the Bahraini government.

AMY GOODMAN: British Airways said no?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Yes, British Airways said no. Although I told them that I’m a Bahraini citizen and I showed them my ID card, they said there’s a request from the Bahraini government not to allow you to board the plane.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, overall, if you can talk about what your demands are of the Bahraini monarchy?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Well, I mean, I work in a human rights organization, so our demands, of course, are very much related to human rights. It’s basically to stop the human rights violations and then to initiate a—you know, a situation where you have accountability. Without accountability, you cannot move forward. When people and police officers, when ministers, when the people in charge feel like they can get away with violations, they will commit the violations. And so, I think if we want to move forward at all, first of all, it has to start with stopping the crackdown, and then initiating a period of accountability. In my opinion as a human rights defender, and I know that many see this as unrealistic because of the standing of the Bahraini monarchy, but I believe that the Bahraini king, the crown prince and the prime minister should all be given a fair trial, where if they are found—are found responsible for the violations that have taken place and the crimes that have taken place over the past three years, then they should be held accountable for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you account—can you talk about what those violations are?

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: The violations would include, not limited to, the use of unnecessary force against unarmed protesters, the extrajudicial killings of a number of people, systematic torture, a policy of systematic torture. You know, in 2010, the king could claim that he didn’t know about it. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented how it was happening, so he has absolutely no excuse of saying he does not know. He does know. So, you have all these different crimes and human rights violations that have been ongoing that the very top of the leadership in Bahrain, being the king, the prime minister and the crown prince are very well aware of. And we even have a video clip of the prime minister meeting up with someone who has been implicated in torturing doctors who treated patients, who was acquitted by the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctors treating patients who were hurt during protests.

MARYAM ALKHAWAJA: Protesters, exactly, so doctors treating protesters. The prime minister went and visited him and told him, “You are above the law. You will not be held accountable.” And this is on video. So, if they’re comfortable enough saying that to people on video, that you will not be held accountable by our laws, you can see how high up this systematic policy of impunity goes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Maryam Alkhawaja. She’s the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. I spoke with her this week here in Park City, Utah. She and her sister Zainab are featured in the new film, We are the Giant, which premiered here at Sundance. Their father is the well-known human rights activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. Both he and Zainab are currently in prison in Bahrain.

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