Maryam al-Khawaja, the 24-year-old director of foreign relations for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is one of the few Bahraini activists able to speak about the uprising outside the borders of the tiny, oil-rich island nation. Many of the others, al-Khawaja says, were slapped with travel bans or have already been arrested.
National Journal caught up with al-Khawaja on Capitol Hill, in between her meetings with lawmakers’ offices, State Department staff, and nongovernmental organizations to make the case for the United States to step up efforts to convince Bahrain to stop human-rights violations. Last month, she received word that her father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja—one of Bahrain’s most prominent activists and BCHR's founder—was sentenced to life in jail by a military tribunal on charges of anti-government propaganda. New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report Monday calling on Bahrain to end its "systematic attacks on medical providers for the opposition," illustrated by a “campaign of arrests” of medical professionals and attacks on injured patients linked to recent anti-government protests. According to the report, 70 medical professionals have been arrested since mid-March-- many of them charged with plots to overthrow the regime by a special military court-- and more than 150 medical workers were suspended or fired.
(RELATED: The Bahrain Stalemate)
In efforts to stem the protests wracking the streets of Bahrain, the Sunni rulers announced a "national dialogue" with the opposition largely comprised of Shi'ites, who make up about 70 percent of the population. (Click for more background on protests in Bahrain. Edited excerpts follow.)
NJ: Delegates of the main opposition party in Bahrain, al-Wefaq, are now threatening to pull out of this so-called National Dialogue. Why is this, and what would it mean for the protests? [Update since interview: al-Wefaq announced Sunday it was officially pulling out of the dialogue, in which it only had five seats out of 300].
MK: Although it seems like a great idea, unfortunately, the way the dialogue is set up means people on the ground in Bahrain were saying it was a failure before it even began. If you log onto Twitter, there’s even a hash tag for “Joke of a Dialogue.” You have 300 people invited to this dialogue to discuss demands with the opposition – who are representing the people on the streets – only representing 25 of the seats. It was an attempt to buy some time and get some positive media attention to what they’re doing. If [opposition parties] withdraw… that would automatically mean that the dialogue was over, and much larger numbers of people on the streets again.
NJ: Is the opposition unified over this decision?
MK: Before February 14, the political parties were the main forces that could [effect change]… But that changed when the youth called for and organized the protests. They put out statements, they use Twitter, Facebook. The reason these youth haven’t been flushed out yet is because the government doesn’t know who they are. Even today it’s still the youth that are in control, who are calling for protests. When Al Wefaq decided to go into the dialogue, they suffered a lot of heavy criticism, and they lost a lot of supporters-- especially by the youth who felt they were being betrayed.
NJ: So what’s the end game for the protesters?
MK: The protests to begin with were calling for a new constitution written by the people for the people. People are asking for… a real parliament with legislative power, authority to hold the government accountable for what they’re doing. The protesters had a very serious discussion on the ground about whether they wanted the royal family to step down completely, or whether they wanted a constitutional monarchy. I would always ask the question, ‘Do you really think the government’s going to give you that choice?’
NJ: What makes you think that?
MK: If anything, they’re going to do the exact same thing as they did in 2001, which is make promises of reform [for political freedoms for the Sh’ites], initiate some reforms, but then never institutionalize it. Which basically means in a couple of years we’ll be right back where we are now. This has been the way of the regime since the royal family took over Bahrain, which was [more than 200] years ago.
NJ: Would that work this time?
MK: The regime is going to try and play a very smart game-- cracking down as severely as possible, and then suddenly making very artificial progress, which is what they’re doing right now by releasing a few prisoners, stopping the torture, allowing family visitations. But the youth are not buying into it this time. They remember what happened in 2001 – it’s not that long ago. They say, ‘You know what? Even if you’re going to make these artificial changes, we’re still going to protest and demand our rights.’
NJ: What is your message to the U.S. now?
MK: I think it was great they made statements by telling Bahrain that using violence is bad-- but it’s now time for something more to stop human rights violations. In no way would I ever endorse any kind of military action in Bahrain now or in the future. But I think that threatening to cut off diplomatic ties, bringing up the issue at the United Nations Security Council, making a referral to the International Criminal Court or International Court of Justice would have a big [impact]. With Bahrain, even the threat of that would be enough for the government to make real changes because the Bahraini government really cares about its international image.
NJ: What about the historically good—and strategic-- relationship between Washington and Bahrain's government?
MK: One of the main concerns for the US is the Fifth Fleet. But if they don’t help stabilize the situation in Bahrain right now, the way the situation is going, it’s being pushed towards sectarian violence. If that happens… it’s not going to be good for people with interests in the region. We already have it happening in Iraq; Iran is going to get involved. It’s basically going to be a regional problem. You do have a group of people in Bahrain who [want to see the Khalifa family go] but there’s a difference of opinion. I do think that if we wait too long it could turn into a situation which is a lot more difficult to resolve.
NJ: [al-Khawaja left the country September 2010 because she was under threat of arrest. She returned in February for the start of the protests—then later left to make the case for Bahrain's opposition in the West.] It can’t be easy making this kind of circuit.
MK: There’s always going to be a defamation campaign... against anyone who speaks out against the regime. I’ve been called a CIA agent, a Mossad agent, an Iranian agent-- by people who randomly show up on Twitter and start publishing these ‘reports’ where they try to say [I'm] not credible. There were quite a few instances where the [government] did sent people to events I was speaking at. The last time I saw one of them was at my hearing in Congress in May but I don’t know all of them. There’s also more aggressive threats of attacks – rape, killing, beating-- mostly on Twitter. And they told my father during the time he was in prison, ‘Don’t think that just because your daughter is in the West she’s safe, we’re going to find her and rape her.’ This is the type of psychological torture they use on prisoners, especially those who are cut off completely from the outside world so they have no way of verifying if what they’re saying is true or not.
NJ: Will you be able to get back there in the near future?
MK: One of the most difficult moments was [this week, seeing] videos of when they were releasing some of the prisoners... I felt I had to be there. I do think about returning to Bahrain. I told my friends, who told my mother, who told me: 'Don’t even think about it.'
This article appears in the July 18, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.