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Things Are Still Going Terribly in Bahrain

To find out about the country's mostly ignored human rights crisis and the actions the government has been taking against its own people, I spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who told me people...

It’s been 21 months since the small desert island nation of Bahrain began its Arab Spring-inspired uprising. Since declaring its independence in 1971, Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy has had one prime minister, Khalidah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah, who is also the uncle of the current king and the brother of the last one. Unlike states which have been transformed by protests and revolution like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Bahrain government—which is controlled by a Sunni minority and often accused of oppressing Shiites—hasn’t come close to toppling. Demonstrations in Bahrain petered out quickly last year after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations lent the regime some troops to use in a violent crackdown against dissidents. The turmoil in other Middle Eastern countries has taken international media attention away from the human rights violations in Bahrain, but that doesn’t make the situation there any less appalling.


Last November, the Bahraini government admitted to “instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees.” A few days after that admission, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry—which was led by human rights expert M. Cherif Bassiouni and commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the violence—released 26 reform recommendations that the king promised to implement.

One year later and only three of those recommendations have been carried out, according to a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy. Just last month, Bahrain completely banned protesting, and a few weeks ago 31 people connected to the opposition had their citizenships revoked. To find out more about this mostly ignored crisis, I spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the cofounder of the organization who was sentenced to life in prison by a military court in June 2011.

VICE: Hi Maryam. How do you think human rights have changed one year after the BICI report?
Maryam al-Khawaja: It’s gotten worse. There have been five cases of people getting arrested for tweeting. Someone was imprisoned for two months for defaming the king on Twitter. There are constant attacks against people who speak out and criticize the government.

Haven’t there been some cases where the police were put on trial for using excessive force against protestors?
The very few cases that have been brought to court were all lower rank police officers. There were several cases where police officers were acquitted or found innocent in cases where they were charged in extrajudicial killings. There was only one case where an officer was found guilty—he shot someone at point-blank range and only received seven years in prison. He hasn’t been arrested or served the time despite being sentenced. If you look at the higher-level officials who should have been held accountable, most of them have held their positions or even been promoted.

Although protesting was recently banned, it seems like small demonstrations happen everyday. Unfortunately, they often end in a clash with the police. Has police interaction with protestors changed at all since the BICI report?
According to the cases we have been able to document since the report was released, the security forces have continued to use excessive force against peaceful protesters. A lot of injuries documented were people being hit in their backs with pellets, which indicates that they were shot at while running away. We are still looking at cases of torture and arbitrary arrests. In some cases, it has gotten worse: Right after the BICI reports came out, we documented cases where riot police started carrying knives and would cut up protesters when they caught them. Kids would be caught and cut up and told to tell their friends that’s what happens if they participate in protests or hang out in the streets. This is something that didn’t happen before the BICI, so there's been an escalation.

Do you know why those people had their citizenships revoked earlier this month?
First of all, this isn’t the first time the Bahraini regime has revoked people’s citizenships. They did this in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. This time, there were people on that list who hadn’t spoken out publically against the government since the revolution started. It seems very strange that the people who are known for being part of the opposition were more or less left off the list. I think that there were two messages the government was trying to send. First, because a large number of people on the list are Ajam [of Persian descent], this is a message to the Ajam that if you criticize the government, they can revoke your citizenship. I think the other thing is that they wanted to create a situation where everyone in Bahrain thinks they could be on the next list. Immediately after the list came out, people in the government took to their Twitters and started spreading rumors that there will be a second and a third list. They sent direct threats to certain people, for example my colleagues, my sister, and myself. They created a situation where suddenly everyone felt like they were targeted. If they had just targeted people well known for their opposition then other people would feel like, “Well I’m not in that specific group,” or “I’m not well known so I’m not going to be targeted.”

At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year you said, “Anyone who speaks out, defends human rights, and says that we want human rights or freedom is seen as a terrorist or having a pro-Iranian agenda.” Could you explain what you meant?
What the Bahraini regime does really well is play the labeling game. They’ll take whatever is perceived as being an international threat at that point, and then give the opposition in Bahrain that label because they feel that’s one way to get international support or at least not get criticized for the crackdown. They used to say that everyone who was in the opposition was a communist, and after that they were all Iranian agents and now they are all terrorists and Iranian agents. So by splitting the Sunni and Shiites in Bahrain—making it seem like they are split and this is a sectarian strike and not a demand for democracy and human rights, it’s easier to frame the situation as being a result of Iranian influence. It is much easier in the international media to frame a “Shiite uprising,” as they like to call it, than a Bahraini uprising.

The treatment towards Shiite people in Bahrain has been described as “apartheid-like,” would you agree with that?
There are some unwritten laws—there are areas in Bahrain where Shiites are not allowed to live. There are certain jobs Shiites aren’t allowed to work. All Bahrainis have to take a mandatory religion class in school where they are taught that if you are a Shiite, you aren’t a real Muslim and that you are going to hell for it—you even have to write this in exams sometimes. There is definitely discrimination against the Shiites. The reason we don’t use the term apartheid is because we will get discredited by the international community, but if you look at the situation on the ground that’s definitely something that can be said.