Despite Crackdown, Bahraini Human Rights Defenders Continue to Fight for Democracy

Nabeel Rajab is a bit of a hero in Bahrain. In the streets, people recognize him and gather round him; he’s a local celebrity. But when a camera appears, the crowds scatter, laughing – no-one wants to be photographed with a man so openly critical of the Bahrain government. Not these days. Nabeel, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is one of a handful of human rights defenders operating in Bahrain. Others have been detained during the government’s crackdown on dissent in recent months, and his house has been attacked with tear gas and sound bombs. He has been beaten up, and is unable to leave the country because the government won’t let him travel. He’s been speaking out against human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini government for years, including the recent spate of mass detentions, the disappearances, the deaths in custody, the widespread torture, the military trials, the mass sackings of Shias and the destruction of their mosques. Harassed, arrested, beaten and smeared as a terrorist, Rajab continues to document and publicize human rights violations by the Bahraini government. The King of Bahrain lifted the country’s emergency laws (officially if oxymoronically known as the State of National Safety) two weeks ago, on June 1. It’s hard to notice the difference. The Saudi troops – sent in to support the military crackdown on protestors in mid-March – remain. People are still being arrested. Military courts continue to condemn men, women and children to prison. Last week 15 year-old Mohammed Salman Majid Hassan was sentenced to two years imprisonment for protesting and rioting. His family says he was ill-treated during his detention. Yesterday Ayat Alqurmozi, a 20 year-old poet, was sentenced to one year imprisonment for taking part in illegal protests and disrupting public security, and for inciting publicly towards the hatred of the regime. She read a poem criticizing the government at a protest in March. That details of these cases are brought to light at all is largely due to the work of people like Nabeel Rajab and Mohammed al Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. Both live with the possibility of imminent arrest. Mohammed told me when I was in Bahrain last month “The time of most risk is between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. That’s when the security forces usually come and arrest people in their homes. After 4 a.m. we can sleep normally because we think they won’t come that night.” Some human rights defenders took real personal risks to meet me and tell me what was happening in Bahrain. People who had relatives in detention were nervous about telling me their stories, but did so anyway so the world would know what’s happening. The Bahrain government tries to suppress those voices, and is now trying to show that things have changed since June 1, that the situation is back to normal. It is not. The awarding (and then recancelling) of the Bahrain Grand Prix best illustrated this tussle over whose version is being believed – the activists’ or the government’s. The Formula One authorities first appeared to buy the Bahrain royal family line that staging a Grand Prix in Bahrain in October would be safe and appropriate – that the political situation was under control, that the crackdown on human rights was a temporary blip. But when voices were raised in complaint – including from Red Bull racing driver Mark Webber, who said “Like it or not, F1 and sport in general isn’t above having a social responsibility and conscience. I hope F1 is able to return to Bahrain eventually but now isn’t the right time,” and that in his opinion “the sport should have taken a much firmer stance earlier this year rather than constantly delaying its decision in hope of being able to re-schedule it in 2011. It would have sent a very clear message about Formula One’s position on something as fundamental as human rights and how it deals with moral issues.” Former F1 world champion Damon Hill also thought giving Bahrain the prestigious event would send the wrong signal, suggesting that if the race went ahead “we will forever have the blight of association with repressive methods to achieve order,” and that “…F1 must align itself with progression, not repression, and a lot of demonstrations in that country have been brutally repressed.” F1 backed down in the face of these protests, and concerns that the season was just too long, and the race was withdrawn. Meanwhile, the repression in Bahrain continues. We know because some courageous human rights defenders on the ground tell us what’s happening. While the Bahraini government continues to deny access to international human rights monitors, what Nabeel, Mohammed and others are doing is crucial if the world is to know the truth behind the propaganda.

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Published on June 13, 2011

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