Interview with Bahraini activist Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

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Interview with Bahraini activist Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Cristiana Moisescu talks to the Bahraini activist. She smiles at the difficulties.


© Rafto Foundation

Two frogs fall into a bucket of milk and can’t jump out again; one stops swimming and dies by drowning; the second one keeps swimming until the milk turns into cream and it can get out.

This is a story Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has heard many times from her father, also an activist in Bahrain, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. It’s a story about resistance and fighting. It’s a story about hope.

‘You’re always so close before you stop fighting,’ 27-year-old Maryam says. She is the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and, because she is an important activist, she was arrested in September 2014 when she arrived at Bahrain’s Manama airport.

‘Four policewomen stopped me at the airport. They did not let me speak to anyone for more than 10 hours. They put me into a freezing room – the temperature was so cold that even the policewoman didn’t want to sit in the same room with me. I was not allowed to pray or go to the bathroom for hours. I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone.’

She was released, but not allowed to travel. When she was finally allowed to travel, she left the country. Eventually, the police charged her with attacking a police officer and sentenced to a year in prison, even though she was not in the country.

There have been many arrests in her family. They have always protested against the authoritarian control of the al-Khalifa monarchy. Her father is now in prison for life because he ‘planned to overthrow the king’ during the Bahraini uprising of 2011; her sister Zeynab was sentenced to four years in prison and the police could arrest her at any time. Her brother-in-law has also been arrested and tortured, and her uncle is in prison for five years.

Not allowed to disagree

There are arrests every day in Bahrain. Since the 2011 uprising (which the government stopped with the help of Saudi Arabia’s military) the country has tried to stop all forms of disagreement with them. There is a lot of abuse of human rights – and often the foreign allies (Saudi Arabia, Britain and the US)know about this.

‘It takes 24 hours a day to follow all the arrests,’ says Maryam. ‘In a country as small as Bahrain, [there were] 89 people arrested in one week, which is a very high percentage. And that includes children many times.’

The arrested people disappear for a while – sometimes hours, sometimes weeks – and most of them say they are tortured (as the GCHR has reported). Maryam’s father has also spoken publicly about sexual abuse in prison, telling people about the terrible control of the government.

‘I’ve never talked to my father about the torture he’s experienced,’ says Maryam. ‘He’s still happy when I talk to him, he jokes, he laughs and seems himself. I’ve talked to my brothers a lot. They were arrested at the same time as my father, and I’ve spoken to them about the torture. But with my father... I don’t know how he’s survived. [The torture] is a part of the experience that many of us don’t like to talk about.’

Bahrainis know what’s happening. ‘People are very educated, they follow the news. Most people know what’s going on, but they might not know specific cases. You could stop people on the street and ask them and they probably would know.’

But the control of the government usually works. There are many night attacks with teargas in the countryside, where many Shi’a are. Because Bahrain is so small, the gas can sometimes reach the important diplomatic or financial districts.

There is a lot of censorship in Bahrain, and people use Twitter to show how frustrated they are with the government.

‘Twitter is now the way Bahrainis record what happens, organize and communicate – you put everything on Twitter. When someone is shot, you take a picture, you put it on Twitter – you can get updates every minute of what’s happening.

‘It’s not always a good thing: one of the problems we have, as activists, is convincing people not to [immediately] tweet pictures of people who have been severely injured. This could mean they get arrested – the government can identify them when they go to hospital for treatment.’

Spyware and threats

Because Twitter is so popular and not controlled by the state, the government is always trying to fight it.

‘The government quickly learned that it’s not good to close down the internet – it’s better to use it for what they want. There are [government] people working on Twitter, saying bad things about activists, finding who is speaking about Bahrain or saying negative things about the state.’

The Bahraini government also uses expensive spyware - they usually buy it from EU-based companies - to identify users that cause trouble, find them and arrest them.

Are people afraid? ‘I don’t know that I would call it fear. I feel like people have no feelings at all. This has been happening for such a long time – the fear has gone and people now feel more angry and frustrated.’

Maryam herself has had many violent threats. Now she takes these threats seriously. The government can see what she is doing in London or Copenhagen, where she spends a lot of her time fighting for Bahraini human rights.

She knows that people are probably watching her. Now she sees this as part of the job.

‘One of the things you do as an activist is cut yourself off from everything emotionally. If you don’t, you can’t do the work. Especially in a place like Bahrain, where so many people that you report on are people you know personally. The emotional side of the work is very difficult. It’s like Pandora’s box – once it’s open, I won’t be able to control it.’

And the work is important. Maryam and the GCHR are fighting to tell everyone about how the West helps Bahrain in abuse of human rights; about the country’s domestic policies which divide the population; and about how the government takes no responsibility.

‘These [foreign] governments look at how important Bahrain is geopolitically. It is more important to them to support a government which continues every day to commit human rights abuses, than to fight for human rights. We’re asking for a very simple thing: a special session at the Human Rights Council in Geneva; to stop the arms trade – the state uses arms to kill protesters. These very simple things should have happened in 2011 - we’re still asking for them in 2015.’

This will not happen soon. Bahrain’s relationship with its Western allies seems stronger than ever. Britain recently signed an agreement with Bahrain to build a permanent UK naval base there. And now the power of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling minority and the country’s religious extremism together have made it a good centre for ISIS ideology to grow.

‘It has to get to that point where people break down that wall of fear, like in 2011, when people just said “enough is enough”. And often, it’s not just the poverty that brings people to that point, it’s the negative way of treating people, when you take people’s dignity and humanity. When you push people so much that they need to fight back.’

‘Part of the resistance is staying positive, optimistic,’ Maryam says. ‘We have to show them they can’t destroy us. If we stop smiling, if we stop fighting, they will win.’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).