Maryam al Khawaja's Perilous Journey Home


Does your father believe that he's getting out soon? Does he think there will be some kind of change or reform in the near future that will get him out of prison?

No. He's said this several times that their case specifically is being used as a bargaining chip between the government and the opposition, because they're so high profile and important for both the opposition and the government .

"When I left Bahrain two years ago it was a completely different country."

And also we have to remember that the Bassiouni report, which was initiated and accepted fully by the king himself [see here], recommended that confessions taken under torture in their case specifically be thrown out. Their sentences and verdicts were all upheld without throwing out the torture confessions. The fact that all of this is happening shows that the government was never really serious about reform, or about actually implementing the recommendations of the [Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry] report. [see here].


What did you see on the ground in Bahrain when you were there? What was the atmosphere like?

When I left Bahrain two years ago it was a completely different country. I left at a time when people were still gathering at Pearl Square [The Pearl Roundabout monument, a Tahrir Square-like focal point for anti-regime demonstrations during the early days of the protest movement, was demolished in March of 2011]. There were mass protests, and the situation was very different from what it was when I went back.

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.]

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

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