Maryam al Khawaja's Perilous Journey Home

An interview with the exiled Bahraini activist, who recently visited the restive island nation for the first time in two years.

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Smoke rises as forces from Gulf Cooperation Council countries move in to Pearl Square to evacuate anti-government protesters in the Bahraini capital of Manama on March 16, 2011. (Hamad al Mohammed/Reuters)

The protest movements that have swept the Arab world since December of 2010 have posed a series of big-picture dilemmas for the U.S. and the West, chief among them the conflict between strategic self-interest, and the abstract principles that can give shape and meaning to self-interest while sometimes running totally counter to it. In no place has the strategy-versus-principle trade-off been so stark or transparent as in Bahrain, where a still-ongoing anti-regime uprising began in February of 2011.

The protest movement, which has called for both "national self-determination" and regime change at various points, threatens a government that the U.S. believes to be indispensable to its regional interests. Relations between the Sunni monarchy and the island nation's Shiite majority have always been tense in Bahrain -- but it's also home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Even as tanks rolled through the streets of Manama, the U.S. carefully refrained from doing anything to jeopardize its relationship with the ruling Khalifa family -- and with it, perhaps, American naval superiority in the Persian Gulf.

The Bahrain uprising was even more worrying for the island's fellow Gulf monarchies, a traditionally Western-aligned and oil-rich rock of stability in an unpredictable Middle East. Some believed the uprising threatened to upend the Persian Gulf's fragile sectarian balance, turning a stable, pro-West Sunni state into a more radical, Iran-allied Shiite one, a position most famously and controversially articulated in a New York Times column by Council on Foreign Relations contributor Ed Husain. And while it was one thing for Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to watch nationalist tyrants like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi fall from power, losing one of "their own" was a step too far. On March 14th, 2011, a coalition of soldiers from Gulf militaries entered Bahrain, quelling the bulk of the trouble. The Khalifa family, in a show of confidence, reinstated the island's annual Formula One race in April of 2012, after being cancelled the year before.

The Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian protest movements have earned both rhetorical and material encouragement from the outside world. In contrast, the aspirations of the Bahraini people are still conditioned on the hard realities of regional power politics.

But the uprising never went away. And it certainly never ended for Maryam al Khawaja, the 25-year old acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (she became de facto head of the organization when Nabeel Rajab, the permanent president, was arrested in April of 2012). She is the daughter of Dr. Abdulhadi al Khawaja and sister of Zainab al Khawaja, who each played an important role in catalyzing the protest movement. Maryam's dual Bahrain-Danish citizenship allowed her to leave the country and continue her family's work, enabling her to likely remain the most prominent Bahraini human rights activist living outside the country.

Three weeks ago, al Khawaja returned to Bahrain at great personal risk. On February 8th, I spoke with her via Skype, from her home base in Copenhagen, about what she saw in her home country -- about whether recent attempts at dialogue between the Palace and the protest movement are working, and whether she believes the island is on the brink of even greater violence and instability. And we talked about why she would want to return to Bahrain, where a long prison sentence -- or worse -- could have been waiting for her. (note: the interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Why did you go back, knowing everything that could happen to you as soon as you stepped off the plane?

When I made the decision to go back I knew that there was a possibility I would be denied entry. I also knew there was a possibility I would be arrested at the airport. And there was chance that I would just be taken for interrogation. But I knew that because it would be such good PR for the Bahraini government to let me go in and out without any problems--I knew that was a possibility as well.

What made the risk worthwhile?

I think it was several things. I needed to coordinate our work on the ground, especially given that my two colleagues were in prison at the time I made the decision to go. But also because I wanted to see my family, which I had not been able to do during the two years that I was abroad, as well as my father and uncle, who are in prison.

Are your father and uncle being held under humane or legal conditions, from what you could see?

Right now specifically they've just started a hunger strike. My father's been on hunger strike since Saturday. It was a bit strange seeing them because both my father and uncle have been subjected to torture since their arrest, and both of their arrests were very violent. I didn't really know what to expect. But despite seeing some physical changes in them -- for example with my father you can see the mark on his face where his jaw was broken -- their spirits were actually the same as the people I'd left behind two years ago. And it was very uplifting to see that they may have had their bodies broken, but the government has not been able to break their spirits.

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 .

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.

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.

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.

You know, this is one of the reasons why calls for dialogue are never taken seriously in Bahrain. The government calls for dialogue and then they start arresting people arbitrarily during peaceful protests. They attack people with pellets and tear gas and so on.

When I was driving in Bahrain I had my window open, and I got hit with this whiff of tear gas. And it felt like I was dying. I had to close my window; I had to leave really quickly.

And the first thing that came to my mind is that I was sitting in a car. I didn't even see the tear gas -- this was just the aftermath; you can't even see it in the air. And I still felt like it still had such a strong effect. For a second all I could think about was how do the families deal with this? When tear gas is shot inside their homes and they have little children -- and it's not like it's something you can protect them from -- what do they do?

This is something that is still happening in Bahrain. Just yesterday my colleague was documenting a case where two tear gas canisters were shot inside someone's house. And that's why people don't take the government seriously when they say "dialogue."

Do you think it would be more dangerous for you to go back to Bahrain now, after having gone back once before?

I know that just because they let me in this time and I wasn't subjected to harassment or arrest, it is in no way an indication that that is going to be the situation if I go again. I believe that the fact that I was not subjected to anything was a political decision that made by the government. All it takes is for them to make another political decision -- of arresting me.