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VIDEO: Bahraini Human Rights Activist Zainab Alkhawaja Freed from Prison, Father Still Behind Bars

Web ExclusiveFebruary 19, 2014
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On Monday, Democracy Now! spoke to human rights activist Zainab Alkhawaja upon her release from prison by the Bahraini government after nearly a year behind bars. At that time she faced a return to prison pending her appearance in court today on charges of damaging police property, defacing a picture of the king and insulting a police officer. But her sister, Maryam Alkhawaja tweeted today that Zainab’s case had been postponed until March 3. Alkhawaja’s father, longtime activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, remains behind bars, serving a life sentence.

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. Alkhawaja’s release came on the heels of rallies marking the third anniversary of the pro-democracy protests that began on February 14, 2011. Protests against the Sunni regime have been crushed by martial law and a U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian forces. Scores of people were arrested ahead of protests on Friday, when police fired bird shot and tear gas at demonstrators. Tens of thousands of people defied the crackdown to march on Saturday.

Watch all of Democracy Now!’s coverage of Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Bahrain, human rights activist Zainab Alkhawaja has been released after nearly a year behind bars. Her release came on the heels of rallies marking the third anniversary of the pro-democracy protests that began on February 14th, 2011. Protests against the Sunni regime have been crushed by martial law and a U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian forces. Scores of people were arrested ahead of protests on Friday, when police fired bird shot and tear gas at demonstrators. Tens of thousands of people defied the crackdown to march on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Bahrain, where we’re joined by Zainab Alkhawaja. She’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream. Her father, longtime activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, remains behind bars, serving a life sentence. Zainab has a large following on Twitter. Her account was silenced since her arrest until her release Sunday, still featuring a hashtag that calls for the release of her father.

Zainab, it’s great to have you back. First of all, how does it—

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: It’s great to be back.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it—how does it feel to be free?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Wow! It feels like a dream. I keep expecting to wake up and see myself inside my cell.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your time in prison. You’ve been in prison for almost a year.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Mm-hmm. Well, what I feel about prison is that it’s a place where they try to break a person. It’s a place where you feel like you can be humiliated at any minute and on any given day. So, it can be a very stressful situation if you don’t look at the bigger picture and the cause that you’re sacrificing for.

My time in prison was a little bit difficult. The prison in Bahrain is a very, very dirty, filthy place. Seeing cockroaches and bed bugs and all kinds of insects is a daily thing. The number of prisoners inside the prison is way too many. We have people sleeping on the ground. There’s not enough beds. The rooms are very small. We cannot move in and out of our cells a lot. And also, we had a very difficult time convincing them to let us go out and get some air and get some sunlight. So, actually, for the first six months in prison, I was not let out of the prison. So sometimes it does feel like a grave.

But when I came out, the first thing I did say was, one year in prison is nothing. And I say that because it’s nothing compared to what we’re willing to sacrifice for our goals, for democracy in our country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Zainab Alkhawaja, you’ve described the conditions in the prison. Now, the prison you were in only housed political prisoners, is that correct?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Oh, no, there are a lot of prisoners. We’re a minority. And I’m separated, actually, from the other political prisoners. So, the prisoners that share a cell with me and share the same ward with me are actually not political prisoners.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Zainab, what do you expect will happen on Wednesday? There’s some concern that you might return to prison? And could you outline what precisely you’ve been charged with?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Well, what happened since I was imprisoned is because they have very small cases against me. I keep getting new cases, two- to three-month sentence, two to three months. And I think this time I got out basically just on a technicality, on a glitch. And they’re just preparing the new cases against me. Tomorrow, I do have court, and my lawyer has told me that I might get arrested from court and taken back to prison. And that’s why, actually, I’ve left all my things in my cell in prison, and I’m expecting that I might have to go back tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are your feelings about that?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Well, my feelings are—I mean, even coming out, I have very mixed feelings, coming out from prison. I miss my daughter a lot. This year has been very difficult being away from her. I always dream about just the smallest things—reading her a bedtime story, taking her to kindergarten, giving her a hug. You know, it’s not the same when you have to meet her once a week with police sitting next to you, watching you, hearing every word you say. But at the same time, when I came out from prison, I realized that I left a lot of people back in prison. I left half my family back in prison—my brothers, my uncles, my father, all the revolutionaries who are sacrificing for all of us before they’re sacrificing for themselves. So, we’re willing to make these sacrifices, and I’m willing to go back. And I want the government in Bahrain to realize that their prisons don’t scare us. I’m going to go to court tomorrow, and if they arrest me, that’s fine. I’ll go back to my prison cell. And we’re going to continue on this path. We started on a path, and we’re determined to continue on it until we reach our goal.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your goal? What are you calling for?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: We’re calling for a country where every Bahraini is respected, every Bahraini is treated equally. We’re calling for a country where we feel we have rights, where we feel we have dignity, where people can’t step all over us, can’t torture and kill and get away with these things. We’re living in a country, basically, where the criminals are the most powerful people in the country, and where a lot of us actually feel proud when we’re in jail, because we know that in Bahrain, when you go to jail, it means you did something right and not wrong. It should be the other way around. It should be that people who are activists, people who are calling for rights, they should be the ones who are on the outside and working, and criminals, people who are killing, people who are torturing, they’re the ones who should be in jail. But it’s all the other way around. But at the same time, I say that in Bahrain I do not feel pity for all those people who are in prison, all the injured protesters. I feel proud when I see them. I feel pity for our oppressors, because what they do is breaking them inside. We’re not broken. We sacrifice, but we feel proud, and we hold our heads up high.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Zainab, how do you respond to criticism of the anti-government movement that claims that it’s being funded exclusively by Iran in an attempt to make the region more Shia-sympathetic? Just today in The New York Times there’s an op-ed by someone called Sarah Bin Ashoor titled “Bahrain’s Hijacked Reform Efforts,” which makes exactly that claim. Do you see this struggle as a sectarian one?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Definitely, definitely not. I mean, in Bahrain, Sunnis and Shias have lived side by side for generations. There’s intermarriage. We have—like, all friends are Sunnis and Shia, and we usually can’t even tell each other apart. The people who are trying to make it into a sectarian thing is the government. They’re the ones who are really trying, putting all their effort into making it a sectarian thing. Another thing is that Bahrainis are very proud Arabs. We have nothing to do with Iran. We started this revolution calling for our rights. I mean, we’ve lived under the same monarchy for more than 200 years. It’s actually—it’s really strange that nothing has happened before. This revolution is long overdue. People are supposed to stand up and call for their rights. It’s the 21st century. Everywhere we go, we see democracy, we see freedom, in other countries. We see civil liberties. And over here, we’re supposed to keep quiet just so that nobody accuses us of doing something just because we’re Shia. I think it makes a whole lot of sense what’s happening in Bahrain. We’re inspired by—we were inspired by what happened in Egypt, and we consider our Egyptian brothers our brothers. And they started this, and the Tunisians, and we’re doing the exact same thing. We’re calling for our rights. We’re calling for a country where we can live freely and with our dignity. This has nothing to do with Shia and Sunni. We want these rights for all Bahrainis, whether they are Shia or Sunni.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab, I want to ask you about Bahrain practice of jailing some of the children who have been at protests. Last month, Bahrain’s juvenile court ordered the release of 10-year-old Jehad Nabeel AlSameea and 13-year-old Abdulla Yusuf AlBahrani, who were arrested for throwing stones at police during a demonstration outside the capital. Zainab, your sister, Maryam Alkhawaja, tweeted a photo of two more young boys, Hussain Jameel and Mohammed Alshofa, who were arrested Saturday in Salmabad.

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: The government in Bahrain is actually trying to punish everybody for this revolution that has happened, this uprising that has happened in Bahrain. They do not differentiate between children and grown-ups, men and women, activists and otherwise. To them, everyone just needs to be controlled and to be put in a state of fear. Throughout these three years, we’ve seen a lot of this. We’ve seen a lot of children being beaten, being tortured, being imprisoned. We’ve seen children in courts who did not even understand what their crime was, who did not even understand what the judge was saying. This is one of the things that actually really hurts us when we see that. We don’t want the children to suffer. We, as human rights activists, want there to be some kind of protection. But as you know, in countries like ours, in dictatorships, sometimes there’s no differentiation at all. I mean, if even doctors get punished for treating people, children get punished for going on the street. And, I mean, it’s only—a lot of these children who are going on the streets are children of detainees, are children of martyrs, people who were killed during clashes. And you can understand why they would be angry. But I could never understand why the government would target children in their—in trying to just achieve this crackdown on the people of Bahrain.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Zainab, what do you see is the role of Saudi Arabia in this conflict? And what do you think the U.S. should be doing?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Well, one of our biggest problems here in Bahrain is Saudi Arabia, because sometimes it feels like we’re not just trying to rise up against the al-Khalifa regime here, but the small population of Bahrain is trying to rise up against the Gulf states with all their dictators. And this is what makes it very difficult. Even though the Bahraini people are united, even though they’re rising in very big numbers, but the Saudis are standing very strong behind the al-Khalifa regime, supporting them in all they do. And, actually, the Americans are doing the same thing. The American government is doing the same thing and supporting the Bahraini regime, despite all what’s happening, despite all the evidence that’s going out on a daily basis from Bahrain about the mistreatment, about the human rights conditions, about the, I think, now almost 3,000 political prisoners in Bahraini prisons. And still, the American administration are standing beside the Bahraini government and supporting them and considering them allies.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab, talk about your father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is in prison. He has a life sentence now?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Yes. My father is sentenced to life in prison. He has now been in prison for almost three years. My father is my rock. He’s one of the strongest persons I have ever known. I have never seen him weak. After three years in prison, he’s as strong as ever. And my father has always been my role model. He’s been a human rights activist for almost all his life. He has been trying to do something not only for our country, but for the region, as well. He had been, before the revolution, been going from country to country throughout the Arab world training people on human rights, on how to write reports about human rights abuses. My father tries to put seeds in the ground, so that some day those seeds would grow into something that would benefit our region and our world. And I really believe in his work. He has been working very hard for the past maybe—more than 20 years. It’s not something that he started doing today and yesterday.

And this is why he’s one of the people that the government has been targeting for a long time and has used this situation now to just give him a life sentence, put him behind bars, so they could silence him. My father is one of the most outspoken people in the country talking about what’s happening here, about conditions here. So, putting him behind bars, I think the only reason for that is to silence him, like they’ve done with other activists, like Nabeel Rajab, for example. They’re behind bars so that there’s no one to represent the people of Bahrain.

But I think what makes us proud is, even though almost all human rights activists are either out of the country or in jail, even though a lot of the civil society leaders are in prison, a lot of the activists are in prison, still the Bahraini people go out, and they protest, and they demand their rights, which is very difficult. When you’re standing there with activists, you know that there’s someone covering what you’re doing, someone there who might try to protect you. But even without this protection, on this past February 14, we saw very, very big numbers of people go into the streets, still making the same demands, showing that they’re not backing down.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are the prospects, Zainab, for any kind of change in Bahrain? What is the state of negotiations between opposition groups and the government? And what prospects do these political prisoners—3,000, you said, including many of your family members—have of being released or having their jail sentences diminished?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Well, here’s the thing. Prison can be difficult. Actually, it is very difficult. And a lot of people, they want to get out of prison. They want to go to their families. But this is not the end goal. We don’t just want to get out of the small prison into the bigger prison we call Bahrain. Bahrain is a big prison for us. A lot of Bahrainis don’t feel safe until they’re on a plane heading outside of their country, because here in this country you might be arrested on any day. You might get beaten up on any day. So, as a Bahraini, you do not feel safe. So, our end goal—a lot of prisoners say this. They say, “We don’t want to just get out of prison. After three years of suffering, of giving, of doing as much as we can, we want real results. We want democracy. We want to be represented. We want rights.”

And I think that’s why if the government tries to solve the situation just by releasing some political prisoners, that’s not going to be the real solution. The government must give up some of the power and control that they have. And, I mean, the people of Bahrain, they want ultimately to have a full democracy. They want a country where they can vote for a president. The al-Khalifa regime is a regime that has been forced on the people of Bahrain. The al-Khalifa regime is just—is a hereditary regime, and we have no choice in who’s ruling this country. And I think this is one of the biggest problems. This is not something that the people here accept.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab, we’ve talked about Iran, about Saudi Arabia, about, you know, Bahrain itself. What about the United States, a major force? It has the Fifth Fleet there. What is the role of the United States with the Bahraini monarchy?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: I mean, my sister Maryam has been going to the States, meeting with officials, trying to speak to them about the situation here, about what the people of Bahrain are going through. And I think the conclusion she reached is she’s lost a lot of hope in them. She says, “I haven’t lost hope in humanity, but I have lost hope in the foreign governments, who tend to speak a lot about human rights and about democracy, but when you come on the ground, you see them taking the side of the dictators, especially in Bahrain.” And they do that for self-interest. They have to make a choice. I’ve been saying that since the beginning of the revolution. You either stand with the people who want democracy, who want freedom, and you try to protect them, or at least you stop supporting the dictators and the oppressors who are torturing them, who are killing them, just so that they can remain in power.

America, unfortunately, in Bahrain has a very, very bad name. They have a very bad reputation. They stand by the regime. They sell them weapons. They stand aside and watch what’s happening to the people of Bahrain. And I think maybe a lot of people here did have hope in the beginning that the Americans would stand with freedom and justice and human rights and all those things that they talk about a lot, that the American presidents always talk about, but unfortunately now I think that no one has that hope anymore. They see that America only acts upon their—what they think is their interest in Bahrain.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what interests of the U.S. are served by supporting the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Of course, as you said, the Fifth Fleet is a big part of this. And the relationship between the U.S. and the al-Saud regime, they want to be on their good side, I guess. So, a lot of things together just, they—I guess they don’t see how supporting human rights in Bahrain is going to do them any good. And that’s not how the government of America should be thinking. If they feel like they represent freedom and democracy, they should be thinking first about the people and about the freedom that they’re demanding, about the democracy that they’re demanding, not thinking first about how their interest in the region is served by supporting dictators.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab, if you are not sent back to prison, will you stay in Bahrain or leave?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: I will stay in Bahrain. I was born in exile. I lived in exile most of my life. The first time I saw my country, I was a 17-year-old. And I love my country so dearly. I prefer prison to exile. I prefer, you know, living with a daily risk of injury, of getting arrested, all those things, rather than leaving my country. I’m staying here alongside my people, and I’m going to fight with them for as long as it takes. And I’m going to risk—I’m going to take the risk just as they do. I don’t think that I can leave my country. It’s very difficult.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Zainab, very quickly, before we conclude, could you talk about the significance of the terrorism law in Bahrain, when it was introduced and how it’s been used to prosecute protesters and those involved in the demonstrations?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Well, in a lot of countries in the region, not just Bahrain, the terrorism law and the terrorism, just the word itself, has been used so much to punish people who are justly calling for their rights. And a lot of times—and there’s obviously no proof. And as you know, the justice system here in Bahrain—I mean, there’s no real courts. They just keep using the courts and the justice system to just punish activists. So this word “terrorism” is being thrown all over the place, even though the revolution in Bahrain is one of the most peaceful revolutions. People go out on a daily basis with nothing in their hands. All they do is shout slogans. And yet, they are being sent to prison. One of those people is my father and the rest of the leaders who are with him in prison right now. They call for human rights. They teach people how to go out and demand those rights. And then suddenly they’re in prison for charges that have to do with terrorism or trying to overthrow the regime, which they consider as terrorism. In this day and age, everybody should know that trying to change a regime is a people’s right. It’s not considered terrorism. But I guess they’re using what’s happening in the world—fear, the fear that people have of terrorism—they’re using that word to—as an excuse to punish people who are calling for their just demands.

AMY GOODMAN: Zainab, how many members of your family are in prison?

ZAINAB ALKHAWAJA: Right now, my father and my uncle are in prison.

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