By Jessica Elgot:
Posted: 17/05/2014 09:52 BST | Updated: 17/05/2014 09:59 BST
Maryam al-Khawaja has fled her home, to live in a country where she has no family or community. Her father is serving a life sentence behind bars, her uncle serving five years, and her sister, newly freed from prison, is likely to be jailed again in September. On Twitter, she tells me, trolls threaten to rape and assault her.
But if this is taking a toll on the Bahraini activist, it doesn’t show.
“The amount I get on daily basis is quite amazing, about the way I look, about raping me, trying to buy me for a certain amount of money,” she says when we meet in London. “And it’s not just directed at me, it’s at my sisters, my mother, my dad. And when they talk about me, I can accept it, but threatening my mother?
The 27-year-old daughter of the prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is now one of the leading lights of the country’s pro-democracy movement in her own right – but is forced to live in exile in Denmark.
Her feet, however, barely touch Danish soil. She flits between continents on a near-weekly basis, appearing on talk shows, at universities and conference across the globe, making sure her voice is heard. And this weekend, she is in Britain, to protest the visit of Bahrain’s monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and his son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad, who captains the Bahraini team at Royal Windsor Horse Show.
The al-Khalifa royal dynasty has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years – and launched a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters back in February 2011, when the Arab Spring arrived in the country’s capital of Manama. Over the past three years, the Bahraini military and police, with the assistance of Saudi security forces, have harassed, arrested, detained and tortured members of the opposition, according to groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty.
Energetic and animated, with a pair of aviators perched on top of her hijab, al-Khawaja does not look like a woman who is easily cowed.
She is, by nature, an optimist. But there is one stand-out moment when she felt she was losing. That was a meeting at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) last year.
As acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, while its current president is in jail, al-Khawaja went to a meeting at the FCO only to discover that no ministers were present.
“William Hague has never sat down with the Bahraini opposition,” she says. “In the US, I’ve met with the Department of Defence, the Assistant Secretary of State and staff in the White House. Not here.”
In her entire campaigning life, al-Khawaja tells me, she never felt as frustrated as she did that day in London. “It felt like [the UK government] was doing a better job of defending and praising the Bahraini government.. [than even] the Bahraini government themselves and their professional PR company.”
Like the United States, the UK has long enjoyed close links with Bahrain, both in terms of security and commerce. Tony Blair‘s trade minister once referred to the relationship between Britain and Bahrain as “special”.
These days, the constant refrain that al-Khawaja and her colleagues hear repeatedly from officials is how ‘Bahrain is on a path of reform and we are supporting them’. It doesn’t impress her. “Every international human rights organisation and every part of civil society on the ground will tell you that it’s not,” she says.
“It does hurt, personally,” she adds. “I am an EU citizen and I expect more from these countries where we learnt a lot about humanity and human rights. We only ask for the West to do the very bare minimum.”
It was the imprisonment of her family members on trumped-up charges that first politicised her, she says. “In 2010, I wasn’t even involved in any of this and I couldn’t get a job because of my father’s name, so I began doing human rights activism. The smears don’t just target the individuals, they target the entire family. And in doing that they actually create more and more activists.”
Despite the rhetoric from FCO ministers about the need to protect human rights, the UK government hasn’t offered any practical support to her family. “[Former Foreign Office Minister] Alistair Burt was asked about my father’s case and he said to his knowledge all the political charges had been dropped and now he was [being] held on criminal charges,” she recalls.
“My father’s torture case was medically documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, accepted by the Bahraini government. In any court in the world, if all evidence has been obtained under torture, the charges would be dropped. So for the FCO to make that claim about ‘evidence’ is just ridiculous.”
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was commissioned in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, which also swept through the oil-rich Gulf island state of Bahrain. For a brief period back then, Bahrain had attracted the attention of the international press, with 50% of its 600,000-strong Bahraini population on the streets protesting, and widespread reports of torture and repression embarrassing the country’s allies in the West.
Over the past three years, Bahraini ministers and foreign envoys have proudly proclaimed how reforms have been adopted and changes to the political and policing systems have been made.
But, Al-Khawaja alleges, for all these supposed changes, “there are two or three times as many political prisoners now as there were in 2011.”
While Al-Khawaja and Bahrain’s exiled pro-democracy activists are keen to portray their revolt as a grassroots uprising involving united communities, the government describes it as a rebellion by the country’s Shia Muslim majority against the Sunni Arab monarchy, encouraged by Shia-majority, non-Arab Iran.
According to Al-Khawaja, this is a myth: no Shia and Sunnis fight among themselves in Bahrain, she says, they only protest the unelected regime. But she does point to the growing disenfranchisement of those anti-regime activists who happen to be Sunni and says the constant talk of a sectarian conflict could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“When a Sunni person in Bahrain reads article after article about a ‘Shia uprising’, eventually he will get the idea that this is Shia vs Sunni. To some extent this is already happening, they are succeeding,” she says.
It can be hard for her to be positive about the future of her cause, she tells me, given the glaring lack of interest both from western politicians and the international media. “I thought three years into the revolution we’d be able to get better responses not worse. I thought working this hard, I would have something to show for it now,” she admits, looking momentarily downcast for the first time in our interview.
But, Al-Khawaja says, she is playing the long game. She has to. “How long did the French revolution take? How many regimes they got democracy? We live in the age of speed, where we want everything fast. I think Bahrain will get worse but then it will get better. But maybe not in our lifetime. But it will get better.”
BAHRAIN: A TIMELINE
Authorities declare martial law and ban demonstrations, but protests continue. Two of the main Shia political parties are banned, and remaining Shia MPs quit parliament. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Bahrain’s leading activist is jailed him for life for “plotting against the state”, as well as 12 others – known as the ‘Bahrain 13’ by Amnesty International.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, is established by the King of Bahrain in June to look into the incidents. It releases a 500-page with 9,000 testimonies in November, saying there were “force and firearms were used in an excessive manner that was, on many occasions, unnecessary, disproportionate, and indiscriminate.”
The report also confirmed the Bahraini government’s use of systematic torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse on detainees.
The government concedes that “excessive force” was used by security personnel and begins reform.
Police bar protesters from marking the anniversary of the crackdown and prevent a gathering at the now demolished Pearl Square. Anti-government protests mar the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Long jail sentences on 20 medical staff for taking part in anti-government protests are lifted, with nine are acquitted entirely. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights is jailed for three years for being part of “illegal gatherings”.
Angry protests surround the funeral of jailed activist Ali Ahmed Mushaima, who died in prison. And protests again surround the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
King Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa issues new decrees giving authorities more powers to strip citizenship and block funding channels. The country sees 745 protests in December alone.
Situation of human rights in Bahrain: here.
Britain probes validity of immunity for Bahraini prince accused of torture. As a court allows a Bahraini refugee to challenge Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s immunity from prosecution, DW asks if the arm of British law is long enough to prevent torture in the tiny Gulf kingdom: here.
UK-Bahrain relations to come under scrutiny as Gulf state’s king visits UK. Democracy activists hope to exploit King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa’s visit as human rights violations continue in island nation: here.
This video is called Undercover Kingdom – Bahrain.