Q&A: Bahrain rights defender Maryam Khawaja

Maryam Khawaja spoke to Al Jazeera before her recent arrest about the fight for human rights and freedom in Bahrain.

Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja is the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights [Getty Images]

The co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Maryam al-Khawaja, was arrested on arrival at Manama airport on August 30 and told that her citizenship had been revoked.

After three years living abroad, Maryam returned to Bahrain to see her father, a leading pro-democracy actvist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Abdulhadi started an open-ended hunger strike on August 25 to protest what he called his “arbitrary arrest”. He was sentenced to life imprisonment after mass anti-government protests hit Bahrain in 2011.

“Of course, she immediately protested, saying that such a verbal declaration was not legal even under Bahraini law and refused to turn back. They handcuffed her, taking her to the public prosecutor for interrogation,” Maryam’s sister, Zainab, told Al Jazeera, about the arrest.

Speaking from Manama, Zainab explained that her sister’s detention was extended for an additional 10 days on September 7, and that additional charges were expected over the coming weeks. Maryam began a hunger strike in prison on September 12.

The Bahraini authorities have accused Maryam of verbally insulting and assaulting a police officer during her arrest, a charge she denies. The government also said that Maryam was arrested because her citizenship was revoked and as a result, could not legally enter the country.

The UN, meanwhile, has called for her immediate release, and expressed concern that her arrest “is linked to her legitimate work to promote human rights“.

In early August, prior to her arrest, Al Jazeera spoke to Maryam at the Copenhagen office of the Danish Centre for Human Rights about the future of the opposition movement in Bahrain, and what international actors should do to support democracy and human rights in the country.

RELATED: Bahrain extends custody of rights activist

Al Jazeera: Given a continuing stalemate between the Bahraini government and opposition figures, what is the biggest threat to the country’s stability?

Maryam al-Khawaja: Increasing violence, I would say, is the biggest threat. We are looking at a situation in which for the past three years, people and human rights defenders like myself have been talking about how governments in what we call the free world … choose to turn a blind eye on the situation in Bahrain.

AJ: How have the Bahraini authorities reacted to the opposition movement?

MK: Every year, the government gets better at controlling the protest movement and especially the area where people can protest. We saw that last year on August 14 they put entire residential areas on lockdown by putting barbed wire around so people could not reach the streets in large numbers.

Of course the Bahrain government has massive security cooperation with many countries. They buy a lot of their military weapons from the United States and United Kingdom and a lot of their crowd control gear from companies in places like Germany, or South Africa for tear gas companies. Bird-shot pellets, which have been a huge issue in Bahrain because they caused numerous deaths, come from places like Cyprus. But they are also buying a lot of crowd control arms from countries like France and the UK.

They lock up protesters by the day, making Bahrain one of the largest holders of political prisoners in proportion to the population; [there are] over 3,000 prisoners out of a total populace of 600,000.

AJ: How is this affecting the opposition movement and protesters?

MK: We tell them they are actually creating the space for violence to happen, as people get more and more frustrated. The most dangerous message that is being sent is that in Libya they carried arms and they got NATO; in Syria they carry arms and their issue is being discussed internationally. Bahrain is almost being completely ignored, so people start to think, ‘Maybe we should do like Syrian and Libyans for us to be recognised internationally and for governments to care more about what is going on in Bahrain with the human rights situation’.

I definitely believe in civil disobedience ... The reason it is such a powerful weapon is that you never fight your enemy with the strongest weapon they have; you fight him with the strongest weapon you have.

by - Maryam Khawaja

AJ: Given this situation, do you still feel that civil disobedience works?

MK: I definitely believe in civil disobedience.

I think it takes a lot of courage and strength to practice civil disobedience. The reason it is such a powerful weapon is that you never fight your enemy with the strongest weapon they have; you fight him with the strongest weapon you have. And the strongest weapon these governments have are their arms.

AJ: Why is Bahrain not getting the attention externally that we have seen in the case of Libya, Egypt, or even Syria?

MK: Bahrain is what we like to call an inconvenient revolution. It is not convenient to the Arabs, it is not convenient to the West. This for many reasons. Geopolitically, Bahrain is very important for its relation with Gulf countries and namely Saudi Arabia, but also because of the security and economic relationships that [the] Gulf as a whole, and Bahrain specifically, have with the western countries.

For example, you have the US fleet in Bahrain and Prince Andrew of the UK has reportedly been seen in Bahrain a little while ago trying to sell armed jets to the king. So there is this ongoing business-as-usual of selling arms, doing security and economic deals with the Bahrain government at a time when it is continuing to crack down on people asking for change and democracy.

AJ: What about the European countries? How economic interests affect their reaction?

MK: There is a difference within the EU among foreign ministries, governments and the EU parliament. The parliament has being doing a tremendous job in bringing Bahrain to the attention of the [EU] governments. I have met several MPs who have been amazing and who have really put a lot of effort in bringing the Bahrain situation up as an issue.

There is actually a resolution on Bahrain currently being discussed in the parliament, but unfortunately regarding Bahrain, anything said in the parliament doesn’t apply much pressure to actual government reactions and foreign policy. When the EU is negotiating a free trade agreement with Gulf countries, what should be on the table for discussion is human rights. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

For example, the Danish authorities have been trying to secure the release of my father Abdulhadi, who is also a Danish citizen, but they have received little political support from the EU and cannot be effective on their own.

Follow Preethi Nallu on Twitter: @Preethi_Nallu

Source: Al Jazeera