“Human rights abuses happen in the Gulf when allies stay silent”

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Maryam Al-Khawaja is the daughter of the Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and the acting president for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. A dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, she was arrested and imprisoned by the Bahraini regime, and still faces several years in prison on trumped-up charges of assault. She speaks to Equal Times about the long and hard fight for human rights in Bahrain.

What can be done to create pressure on the Bahraini government to free your father, your sister and Najeel Rajab [who is currently free on bail until 20 January 2015]?

Creating pressure it is always important. The Bahraini government tend to do what they want first and then deal with the consequences after. When they arrested me they were hoping that there was not going to be that kind of reaction. They arrested me first, saw the consequences, realised that it was not something they wanted at this point in time – and then released me. But we have to do it not just for my sister, or for Najeel Rajab, or for my father, or for [the human rights activist] Naji Fateel, but for all of the human rights defenders. We have more than 3,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, some of them are children. Our main goal is to have a country that respects all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or background. There should be no political prisoners and there must be accountability for any human rights violations.


What can you tell us about sectarianism in Bahrain and the connection between the Bahraini security forces and IS [Islamic State]?

The presence of extremist ideologies in Bahrain is the result of the government’s systematic crackdown. They have created an entire system where extremist thought, where being very sectarian and spreading hate speech is suddenly something that is not only allowed, but to some extent, is also protected by the government. It is going to be very difficult to fight back against the platform the government of Bahrain has created; we have already seen members of the military defecting and joining the ranks of IS. What is interesting is that many officials of the military and police in Bahrain are trained by the US and the UK. I think one of the first steps that needs to be taken is to de-sectarianise the military and the police.


What role do foreign players having in influencing the situation in Bahrain?

There are countries that actually entered Bahrain with a military presence, helped the protest crackdown and continue to have a presence in Bahrain. Now we have a new GCC agreement that allows police officers from any Gulf country to go serve in another. We know for a fact that there are Emirati police officers serving in Bahrain, taking part in the repression of the political protest. If the West knew what was really in its interests, it would not be thinking on the short term. On the short term, these monarchies look like their best bets. But in the long term, people will create change and when it happens these populations are not to going to look with a friendly eye towards the West because they did everything they could to stop the progress of human rights and democracy in these countries.


What about the situation facing the human rights violations committed against migrant workers in the Gulf?

The migrant workers issue does get some attention and one of the reasons is that human rights defenders like Najeel Rajab and my father worked hard to make sure that these groups get noticed and that their rights are fought for. What should be asked is why is the EU discussing a free trade agreement with Gulf countries at a time when there is such a big issue with migrant workers? Again and again, we talk about human rights violations in Gulf countries but a part of the reason why these violations happen is because of the silence of their allies.


You have a hearing on 5 November – how are you feeling about going back to Bahrain?

I know that in going back to Bahrain there is a big risk that I will be going to prison for a very long time and it is not that I am afraid of prison. Going to prison might create a lot of international attention toward Bahrain in the beginning, but if I get sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison it is not going to last for that long. But if I don’t go back, it means I no longer get to see my father or my sister.