Maryam al Khawaja's Perilous Journey Home

When I went back I could tell the entire country had changed. It looked so much like a police state. Everywhere you go there were riot police and armored vehicles on the side of the streets.

I spent most of my time in Bahrain documenting cases of human rights violations. The things that I documented went completely against this idea that the government was trying to promote abroad -- the idea that they were on the slow path of reform, which they definitely are not. There is no such thing as a slow path of reform when people are still being shot and tortured and beaten on the streets. That's not a slow path of reform. This is the complete opposite direction of reform...

...The entire situation -- you could tell that it's gotten worse. But also every person that I met with, when I was documenting the situation and human rights violations -- everyone was in the mindset of, "we have to continue. We have to keep going. We have to keep protesting."

I met a 17 year old boy who lost sight in his left eye after he was shot directly in the face by riot police. One of the things he said to me that stuck with me was: I still go to the protest every night. That's how you know that people are not willing to give up.

Another thing that that struck me: I had a meeting at the Gulf Hotel. The Gulf Hotel is pretty accessible. It's not that difficult to get inside. As I was sitting there talking to someone about the human rights situation in Bahrain, I noticed that the minister of justice was sitting across the room. And you know, being abroad for two years I couldn't help but become affected to some extent by the PR propaganda that the Bahraini government had been pushing in the media, and especially this idea that there's terrorism in Bahrain.

"There is no such thing as a slow path of reform when people are still being shot and tortured and beaten on the streets."

And for the justice minister, someone who is heavily implicated in a lot of cases that have taken place, someone who you would think would be one of the main or priority targets for a group of terrorists who had a problem with the government of Bahrain, for him to be in such an open place that people have access to, without any kind of -- I didn't notice any bodyguards, I didn't notice anyone that was protecting him. It's so crazy how the government has been able to promote this idea abroad, but then when you come here and see it for what it is, you can tell that they even know they are lying.

Could the protest movement Bahrain take an uglier or more violent turn? Do you think there is the possibility of a low-level civil war, or something more violent than what we're seeing right now?

Civil war -- not possible, because the problem is not between two different groups in the country. Nor do people in Bahrain have the capacity to use guns, nor do I think to a certain extent that they would actually use them even if they had them.

For two years I've been having meetings with governments, the US government, the UK government, the EU and other places. And I've been saying that if there isn't real pressure to stop human rights violations in Bahrain, if the Bahrainis feel that there's a situation of complete international immunity for the regime, and that they are able to get away with anything they do, then this would be the outcome. You will see more and more people resorting to violence as a means of what they think is self-defense.

I said this two years ago and nobody listened. We are still looking at a situation where the Bahraini regime is not being held accountable internationally for their ongoing human rights violations. If anything, to some extent they feel they're being rewarded. They've been rewarded with arms sales and economic deals... [The U.S. announced it would resume arms sales to Bahrain in May of 2012. The economic picture in the kingdom was decidedly mixed in 2012, but not entirely negative.]

I still think that the people who are using Molotov cocktails or stones are a minority. The majority of the people in Bahrain are not violent. But the approach to this situation is: you don't condemn the victim. You condemn the act that made the victim react this way. As human right defenders we're not violent; we don't support the use of violence for any reason. But we know this is coming as a result of and as a response to the systematic state use of excessive force and violence.

"The government calls for dialogue and then they start arresting people arbitrarily during peaceful protests."

Now what we saw in the 1990s during that uprising [see here] was that when the state-run systematic violence stopped, street violence stopped almost immediately with it. One of them was the result of the other. The way to stop violence in Bahrain isn't through condemning the protestors. It's through holding the Bahraini government accountable. Once the violence on the part of the Bahraini government stops the violence on the streets will stop. We've seen this before.

I've also been saying during these two years is that as human right defenders who are promoting nonviolence, and who are speaking out against the use of violence in all forms, we lose our footing when there is no international reaction to the situation. A year ago when I came out and said to people in Bahrain don't use violence for all these reasons: one because it's wrong to begin with, two because it's not good for your cause, three, four, five, you know -- people listened.

Now when I say that, the responses I get sometimes are things like, what have you been able to do for us for the last past two years? What have you been able to do for us at the time we were completely peaceful and we were being shot on the streets? What has anyone done for us?

That's a huge part of the problem. When people like Abulhadi al Khawajah [see here] and Zainab [al Khawaja. See here.] and others who are some of the most avid supporters of nonviolence, and who can actually influence people on the streets, are put in prison, how are they supposed to keep promoting nonviolence? And I don't think it's a coincidence. I think that the government does this on purpose. They put away people who promote nonviolence because they can feed off of the violence. They can use it to excuse what they are doing. And that is a huge part of the problem.

When you were in Bahrain a few weeks ago, how frequent were protests?

There are protests almost every single night. It varies from one area to another. In certain areas you'll have 20 to 30 to 50 people coming out, and in other areas you might see up to 500 or 600 people coming out. The last morning I was in Bahrain there was a massive protest in Manama and 45 people were arrested. And this was after the government called for dialogue.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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