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Interview with Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Human Rights
Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

© Rafto Foundation

Two frogs fall into a bucket of milk and can’t jump out again; one gives up paddling and drowns; the second one refuses to do so and keeps paddling until the milk turns into cream and it is able to get out.

This is a story Bahraini activist Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has heard many times from her father, activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. It’s a story about resistance, fighting the fight, keeping your chin up. Ultimately though, it’s a story about hope.

‘You’re always so close before you give up,’ 27-year-old Maryam says. She is the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and, because of her prominence as an activist, she was arrested in September 2014 upon her arrival at Bahrain’s Manama airport.

‘When I was stopped at the airport, I was assaulted by four policewomen, held incommunicado for more than 10 hours, and put into a freezing room – the temperature was turned down to such a degree 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 under a travel ban and, when it was lifted, she left the country. Eventually, she was charged with assaulting a police officer and sentenced in absentia to a year in prison.

Arrests are commonplace in her family, who have always been staunch protesters against the al-Khalifa monarchy’s authoritarian rule. Her father is currently serving a life-term for ‘plotting to overthrow the king’ during the Bahraini uprising of 2011; her sister Zeynab was sentenced to four years in prison and could be arrested at any time. Her brother-in-law has also been arrested and tortured, and her uncle is serving five years in prison.

Crackdown on dissent

Indeed, arrests are everyday occurrences throughout Bahrain. Ever since the 2011 uprising, which was quashed by the government (with Saudi Arabia’s military help), the country has waged a systematic crackdown on all forms of dissent, and human rights abuse is rampant, often perpetrated with the silent approval of its foreign allies – Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the US.

‘Keeping up with the day-to-day arrests, the new cases, is a 24-hour job,’ says Maryam. ‘In a country as small as Bahrain, [there were] 89 people arrested in one week, which is a very high per-capita percentage. And that includes children a lot of times.’

The newly arrested disappear for a while – sometimes hours, sometimes weeks – and most of them report being tortured, as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has documented. Maryam’s father has also spoken publicly of the sexual abuse he was subjected to in prison, trying to raise awareness of the regime’s brutality.

‘There’s a sense of numbness. This has been happening for such a long time – the sense of fear has been replaced with numbness and anger and frustration’

‘I've never talked to my father about the torture he’s endured,’ says Maryam. ‘He’s still in high spirits when I talk to him, he jokes, he laughs, seems quite himself. I’ve talked to my brother-in-law a lot, who was arrested at the same time as my father, and I’ve spoken to him about the torture he endured. But with my father… I don’t know how he’s coped with it. [The torture] is a part of the experience that many of us are very hesitant to visit – not a subject we would necessarily open up unless the other party does so.’

Bahrainis aren’t oblivious to what’s happening, either. ‘People are very highly educated, they follow the news. Most know what’s going on, even though they might not know specific cases. You could stop people on the street and ask them and they probably would know.’

The government’s intimidation tactics work for the most part, though. In the rural, Shi’a-dominated areas, teargas nighttime raids are a common occurrence and, because Bahrain is so small, the gas can sometimes reach the high-powered diplomatic or financial districts.

There is severe state-level censorship in Bahrain, and people have taken to Twitter to show just how frustrated they are with the regime.

‘Twitter has become the platform for Bahrainis to document, organize, communicate – you put everything on Twitter. As soon as someone gets shot, you take a picture, you put it on Twitter – you can get minute-by-minute updates of what’s happening on the ground, as it’s happening.

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

Spyware and threats

Because Twitter is so popular and out of the state’s control, the government is continually trying to undermine it.

‘The government quickly learned that you don’t shut off the internet – you use it, you make it your own tool. There are [government] people operating on Twitter, defaming activists, going after anyone and everyone who speaks about Bahrain or criticizes the state.’

The Bahraini government also uses expensive spyware programs, usually bought from EU-based companies, in order to identify troublesome users, track them down and arrest them.

In these circumstances, are people not afraid? ‘I don’t know that I would call it fear. I feel like there’s a sense of numbness. This has been happening for such a long time – the sense of fear has been replaced with numbness and anger and frustration.’

Maryam herself has received countless violent threats, and has learned in time to take them seriously – the government’s eyes can reach all the way to London or Copenhagen, where she spends a lot of her time doing advocacy work for Bahraini human rights.

She knows that she’s probably being watched, and has come to see it as something to be expected, part of the job.

‘One of the things you do as an activist is you detach yourself from everything emotionally, because if you don’t, you can’t do the work that you do. Especially in a place like Bahrain, where so many people that you report on are people you know personally. Even the idea of having to deal with the emotional aspect of the work that we do is very difficult in itself. I feel like it’s Pandora’s box – once it’s open, I won’t be able to control it.’

And the work is important. The West’s collusion with Bahrain’s human rights abuse, the country’s domestic policies, which only serve to push a sectarian agenda, further dividing the population, the complete lack of accountability of the regime – they’re all issues about which Maryam and the GCHR are fighting to raise awareness.

‘These [foreign] governments look at Bahrain geopolitically, and to them it makes more sense to continue enabling a government which continues to commit human rights abuses on a daily basis, than to uphold it to these very basic principles. We’re asking for a very simple thing: a special session at the Human Rights Council in Geneva; a resolution, a stop on the arms trade, which have been used to kill protesters. These very simple things that should have happened in 2011, we’re still asking for in 2015.’

There’s a long way ahead, as Bahrain’s relationship with its Western allies seems stronger than ever – indeed, Britain recently signed an agreement with the kingdom to build a permanent UK naval base there. Meanwhile, the combined power of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling minority and the country’s religious extremism have turned it into the perfect ‘incubator’ for ISIS ideology.

‘It has to get to that point where people break down that wall of fear, like it happened in 2011, when people just said “enough is enough”. And a lot of times, it’s not just the poverty that brings people to that point, it’s the undignified way of treating people, when you rob people of their dignity, of their basic humanity, when you push them to a point where they feel like they need to fight back.’

‘Part of the resistance is staying positive, optimistic,’ Maryam says in her matter-of-fact tone. ‘It’s showing them that they can’t break you. The day you stop smiling, the day that you stop fighting, that’s the day they win.’

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