NEW YORK — More than two years since pro-democracy protests began in Bahrain in February 2011, more than 80 people have been killed and thousands have been subjected to severe violence. Riot police continue to put down demonstrations, which are led mostly by the country's Shia Muslim majority. The opposition protestors, in turn, are resorting to increasingly militant tactics to demand rights from the ruling Sunni minority, headed by the ruling family of King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.
Last Friday, Bahrain’s sectarian tug-of-war returned to international headlines when Ali Abdulemam, a pro-democracy blogger, escaped the island kingdom after spending nearly two years in hiding. The Atlantic broke the news of his newfound freedom on the same day that thousands took to the streets near Manama to protest the alleged torture of jailed regime dissidents.
Abdulemam now joins dozens of exiled Bahraini activists overseas, who are working ‘from the outside’ to garner international attention for the opposition movement on the ground.
GlobalPost spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Center for Human Rights in Bahrain, who went into self-imposed exile in 2011. Maryam is the daughter of prominent human rights attorney Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who was arrested in 2011 and is now serving a life sentence in prison. Maryam’s uncle and sister are also imprisoned for participating in “illegal gathering” and defaming the ruling al Khalifa family.
The pro-democracy efforts of the Khawaja family were recognized with a joint Nobel Peace Prize nomination in February.
This conversation has been slightly edited for length.
Cora Engelbrecht: What prompted your decision to leave the country in 2011?
Maryam Al-Kahwaja: In the beginning of March 2011, I received an invitation to go to Geneva and testify about the riot police raids in the Pearl Roundabout at the start of the uprising in February. I had been on the ground, and spent most of my time at hospitals and witnessed many of the deaths and injuries of protestors on the streets, at the hands of the police. I absolutely had no desire to leave the movement and my family. But my father urged me to go; he told me the government crackdown was coming, and that we needed someone on the outside talking about the uprising on the inside. In the end, as much as I didn’t want to leave, I knew he was right.
CE: And where do you live currently?
MK: I am currently living in self-imposed exile in Copenhagen. This past January I had my first trip back to Bahrain since I left in two years ago.
CE: How have conditions for your family changed since you left in 2011?
MK: My father and uncle are both imprisoned, and have been subjected to violent arrests, interrogations and torture. I was able to visit with them in January. My father, who has always been a preacher of nonviolent resistance, has gone on several hunger strikes in prison — the longest lasting 110 days. He looked different to me, but still spirited.
My sister has received close to nine sentences now for demonstrations of civil disobedience. We are concerned about her current situation; she has not been outside for two months and has been denied any family, or legal consultations. She is also forbidden access to sanitary items.
CE: How do you compare increasing reports of violence from the side of the opposition to your experience of peaceful protest on the ground in 2011?
MK: The violence has certainly evolved from a movement of nonviolent protesting. What made this uprising different from previous movements in Bahrain was that it was driven by youth, not religious leaders, not political leaders. And we made clear from the beginning that this was a secular, non-political movement. We were fighting for human rights, peacefully.
I remember on the second day of the resistance, people camping out in Pearl Square — the Bahraini version of Egypt’s Tahrir Square. It was the largest protest in Bahraini history; the largest protest of the so-called Arab Spring. Almost 50 percent of the population, nearly 300,000 people, came out demanding political change: Sunnis and Shias, the liberals and religious, rich and poor, professionals and the farmers, workers standing side by side. The turnout was completely widespread throughout the community. It was amazing, watching people roll up in Lamborghinis and BMW convertibles, on donkeys, bikes, in carts. This was truly a movement for the people, for everyone.
On February 17th, the regime attacked people while they were sleeping in the square. Four were killed and hundreds were injured.
CE: What was different about the demonstrations when you visited in January? Are protesters becoming disenchanted with the idea of civil disobedience?
MK: This has been most frustrating for me, watching the progression of violence from the side of the opposition. Over time nonviolent activists have lost footing due to the inaction of the international community.
A year ago, my family would urge people to use only nonviolent protest, and they would listen. When I visited in February, a more common response to this request was “what have you been able to do for us over the past two years?” Honestly, I didn’t have an answer for them. There has been no accountability for the Bahraini regime abroad.
I cannot blame people for becoming disenchanted with this idea of civil disobedience and nonviolence, because it has garnered absolutely no support from international governments.
I hear people talk about protestors carrying guns on the ground in Libya, and receiving NATO and media support. In Bahrain, we demanded rights peacefully and nobody responded. And so people are resorting to violence. I fear the situation is becoming radicalized and very quickly.
CE: You mentioned earlier that this began as a movement ‘for everyone’ — Sunnis and Shias alike. What has been the regime’s role in creating a widening rift between these two sects?
MK: Systematic sectarianism did not start with this revolution. The Bahraini regime for more than 10 years has been discriminating and marginalizing the Shia community with unwritten laws that dictate where Shias live and work. But this wasn’t felt as dramatically socially before the 2011 crackdown, because people were so interactive. They were best friends, lovers — we used to call the intermarriages ‘sushis.’
In March 2011, there was a formal military intervention in Bahrain, in which the Saudis and United Arab Emirates troops came in under the name of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the peninsula shield, and embarked on a very systematic sectarian crackdown to help end the protests. Basically, no matter what class or profession you were, if you are Shia you were a target. Thousands were arrested, beaten, harassed during house raids, at checkpoints, on the streets. Around 6,000 people were sacked from their jobs for participating in protests. To this day this continues. I have friends who have been arrested for ‘liking’ a photo on Facebook. That simple.
By dressing this as a sectarian uprising, or ‘Shia uprising’ — which is what this movement is relentlessly referred to as — the government is wrongly tying it to religious movements in Hezbollah and Iran. The strategy is working. This is no longer known as the ‘Bahraini uprising.’ It is misinterpreted as the ‘Shia uprising in Bahrain.’
CE: In the past, you have referred to the Bahrain uprising as the “inconvenient movement.”
MK: I call it the inconvenient revolution because it is inconvenient to everyone: the Arabs because of Gulf money and influence; the West because of their security, geopolitical and economic interests with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Nobody is jumping to support our efforts to democratize the region. But this is the reality in the Gulf: we are still living in a world where a barrel of oil from Saudi Arabia is worth the lives of Bahrainis.
CE: How has your message to foreign governments changed, as you’ve noticed increased radicalization on the ground?
MK: There is still a window of opportunity to act, to do the right thing. Nobody is asking for military intervention, no boots on the ground. Our only demand is that countries like the US and UK — countries that say they hold human rights and freedom and democracy as cornerstones to their foreign policy — act upon their commitment, and hold the Bahraini regime accountable.
CE: Do you see the movement becoming more violent before you see real change?
MK: The humanitarian situation is deteriorating. I always say, if you want to know the human rights situation of any country, look at where the human rights defenders are. In Bahrain the most prominent are all imprisoned. Almost every day there are protests where people continue to take to the streets, demanding change. And the police continue to use violent means to hamper the movement. We’re also seeing a constant targeting of journalists. Children are being detained every week. There is also a shortage of specialized surgeons; many remain imprisoned after they were arrested for treating protestors in 2011.
The problem here is not that the Bahraini regime believes they have international impunity; it is the fact that they are right in their belief. They have absolutely no incentive to curtail human rights violations. As long as this continues, the situation will continue to deteriorate. People will become more radicalized, the violence — the detaining of activists, the systematic torture, the discrimination will only increase and get out of hand if the Bahraini government isn’t held accountable.
CE: Do you anticipate a response from the US?
MK: I sat with the US administration back in 2011 and told them that live ammunition was being fired at my people who were raising flowers in protest. The US has done nothing. I don’t anticipate the US or UK changing their international policies anytime soon due to the geopolitical interest they have with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. Recently we [the Center for Human Rights in Bahrain] have shifted gears, and are pushing to achieve something closer to what happened during the South African apartheid regime. One of the first political groups to actually boycott the South African regime was the Nordic Council — the idea that smaller countries that don’t have many political security affiliations with the Gulf can come together and make a difference, is giving us hope.