by Zainab al-Khawaja
December 25, 2012
Zainab al-Khawaja, an activist, was
arrested and jailed earlier this month and charged with inciting
hatred against the Bahraini government.
Earlier this month, Aqeel Abdul Mohsen, 19, was
shot in the face for protesting against Bahrain’s government.
He was covered in blood, with the lower side of
his face blown open, his jaw shattered, and a broken hand hanging awkwardly
from his wrist. It’s one of those images that you wish you had never seen,
and can never forget.
After more than 10 hours of surgery, and before Mr. Abdul Mohsen regained
consciousness, his hospital room was already under guard by the police. Had
he been able to speak, he might even have been interrogated before going
Others have lain bleeding without medical attention while
government security agents asked questions like:
“Were you participating in
a protest? Who else was with you?”
Bahrain, a small island nation off the
coast of Saudi Arabia, has been ruled by
the Khalifa family
for more than 200 years.
It is also home to the
headquarters of the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet,
which patrols regional shipping lanes, assists with missions in Iraq and
Afghanistan and monitors Iran as tensions in the region mount.
The oppressed people of Bahrain joined the Arab Spring soon after the fall
of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
With newfound hope, Bahrainis took to the
streets on Feb. 14, 2011. Rich and poor, Shiite and Sunni, liberal and
religious, they felt what it was like to speak freely for the first time in
the capital, Manama, at a traffic circle with a pearl monument at its
center. The Pearl Roundabout came to symbolize the Bahraini revolution.
But this newfound freedom didn’t last long.
The government’s security forces attacked the
peaceful protesters, then tore down the Pearl monument. And in March 2011,
troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened
to suppress our pro-democracy protests.
Going out on the streets, carrying nothing but a flag and calling for
democracy could cost you your life here. Chanting “down with the dictator”
could lead to your being subjected to electric shocks.
Giving a speech about human rights and democracy
can lead to life imprisonment. Infants have died after suffocating from
toxic gases used by riot police. And teenage protesters have been shot and
It’s not unusual in Bahrain to find families with four or five members in
prison at the same time. My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten
unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year
by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry
documented. He was then taken away with my husband and
brother-in-law; they were all tortured.
My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after
a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in
prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and
almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)
But despite all these sacrifices, the struggle for freedom and democracy in
Bahrain seems hopeless because Bahrain’s rulers have powerful allies,
including Saudi Arabia and the United States.
For Bahrainis, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the
Saudis and the Americans. Both are supporting
the Khalifa regime to preserve their own
interests, even if the cost is the lives and rights of the people of
The United States speaks about supporting human rights and democracy, but
while the Saudis send troops to aid the Khalifa government, America is
sending arms. The United States is doing itself a huge disservice by
displaying such an obvious double standard toward human rights violations in
the Middle East.
Washington condemns the violence of the Syrian
government but turns a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses committed by
its ally Bahrain.
This double standard is costing America its credibility across the
region; and the message being understood is that if you are an ally of
America, then you can get away with abusing human rights.
If the United States is serious about protecting human rights in the Arab
world, it should halt all arms sales to Bahrain, bring Bahrain’s abuses to
the attention of the United Nations Security Council, support a special
session on Bahrain at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and begin a
conversation about potential diplomatic and economic sanctions.
administration should also demand that high-level Bahraini
officials be held accountable for human rights abuses, and that
nongovernmental organizations, United Nations human rights investigators and
journalists be allowed to enter the country and investigate abuses.
At present, the Bahraini government believes it has international immunity.
It commits widespread human rights violations, and business continues as
usual: the government continues to buy arms and negotiate lucrative deals,
without having to face any real consequences.
This is why the most prominent Bahraini
human-rights defenders are languishing in prison.
Until the United States
starts to put real pressure on its ally, Bahrain’s government has no
incentive to change.
No matter the price, Bahrainis will keep demanding the very values - human
rights and democracy - that the United States claims to stand for.
It is an
outrage that America continues to back a regime that tramples them.