Two weeks ago EA’s Josh Shahryar spoke with Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The interview came just after police had attacked a march in Manama, with Rajab at the front, and had allegedly beaten the human rights activist.
Since that interview, there have been further significant developments in Bahrain, including more marches, more clashes, and more deaths from tear gas and possibly from police abuse. Regime supporters claim that Rajab and opposition societies such as Al Wefaq are supporting violence against the security forces, while regime critics argue that little has changed despite the King’s promise to address the shortcomings identified in November’s report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
Rajab himself returned to the political stage days after his chat with Shahryar, telling a massive rally that the Manama marches would continue. Equally important, he had a message for King Hamad. This was mis-reported by some prominent journalists, including Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, as Rajab’s call for the monarch to step down. In fact, Rajab had said that, if the King wanted to retain the support of the people — who are the real power in Bahrain — then he had to make significant reforms quickly.
In light of these developments, Josh Shahryar resumed his discussion with Rajab yesterday. The activist discusses the future of the opposition movement, the problem of rising violence, the role he wishes the ruling family will play in reforms, and actions by the US and Britain if they are genuine in their concern about Bahrain.
What is the forthcoming strategy for the opposition, given that 1) the regime is not giving way on demands for substantial political reform; 2) marches are often blocked by security forces; and 3) there are claims of a violent minority growing amongst protesters?
I don’t believe violence is a policy of the opposition or that it is systematic. Lately we have seen some isolated cases of violence. We as human rights groups and the opposition in Bahrain disagree with violence and don’t think it could be the means for change for the better. However, we understand the frustration of the people. They are being arrested, tortured and their loved ones are being killed.
The other side [the regime] is offering no solutions. Due to political considerations and economic interests, the international community is ignoring these abuses as well. That is adding to the feeling of frustration. Then we see people getting killed because of tear gas to which the international community replies with more silence. Foreigners come to Bahrain, they demolish mosques, they rob houses, they destroy property. An indigenous opposition in this country exists that is now being crushed by foreign mercenaries.
I am very sad to see violence, I don’t think it will ever be a solution, but [the human rights groups in Bahrain’s] ability to control or to keep masses peaceful is limited because of the pervasive violence against them by the regime. The same is the case with the opposition — they can’t either. The deadlock and the continued oppression by the government is creating this violence and I’m afraid that this violence could increase in the face of oppression and silence by the international community.
Let’s make one thing clear, all is in the hands of the government. All we can do is create pressure locally and internationally. all the tools are in the hands of the government — the army, police and all institutions. The government doesn’t seem to have the willingness to make changes, especially since it is getting support from regimes like Saudi Arabia, who are helping with oppression to either stop or to hijack the revolution.
So we have to put pressure on those governments, social and economic, to take sides with the people who are being oppressed. Locally, we will continue our uprising. We can’t imagine any reason to stop now. We are at a stage where over 50 people have been killed, thousands have been injured, countless have been tortured. Human rights violations have been committed by many people in system including high-ranking members of the royal family, like two sons of the king. With all these huge sacrifices we have paid, I don’t think anyone is thinking of stopping the uprising. We will continue fighting for justice, democracy and freedom. We will try our best to keep it peaceful and maintain calm.
You mentioned Saudi Arabia. What has been the role of Saudi Arabia in the violence against Bahrain?
Saudi Arabia is working parallel to the revolution to cancel it. Across the Middle East, either, it is either giving money to stop revolutions or when they happen it tries to hijack them. And this is happening in places like Egypt. They have wealth to buy institutions and media to influence the outcome of revolutions. That has to be taken into consideration when people are fighting for democracy in this part of the world since Saudi Arabia is powerful in the Gulf and Middle East.
This is one reason why you don’t hear about Bahrain in the international media because most of the media in this part of the world are owned either by Qatar or the Saudis. These countries are ruled by regimes who are friendly with the government in Bahrain. That’s why Al Jazeera Arabic, which was actively covering all the other revolutions [in the Middle East and North Africa], is totally silent about Bahrain. That is why Al Arabiya continues to run material opposing the Syrian regime, but when it comes to Bahrain, they are on the government’s side. This is the case with all media owned by them [the Saudis].
What does King have to do to stay in power?
The truth is that this king had more support from the people than any other king from his family in the past 200 years because of the promises he made. This support even came from human rights organizations. We had hope.
In 2000, He was in the village of Sitra on a visit. People — civilians — lifted his car up with their hands and carried it around the village out of happiness and love. They shouted, «With our blood and life, we would sacrifice for you.» But that was ten years ago. Now 14 people have been killed in that village in the past few months. Now when they protest, they shout, «King Hamad! Step Down». People have lost confidence in the king.
There should be a radical change for people to regain their trust in him. There should be a radical move that will bring confidence back. It is gonna have to be much more than what he did in 2000 to gain trust and confidence because people have lost trust in him and the regime. First of all, he must release all political prisoners. Then, he must bring the opposition together and ask their demands with them while treating them with dignity and respect and granting. Then, he must apply and implement all the demands they require. A big part of the opposition still isn’t asking for the overthrow of the government. Calls for his departure are not as deep-rooted. They only started when people started to get killed by security forces. His role may be negotiable.
The bottom line is that there should be real changes to satisfy people. The government has failed completely to address the people’s demand. The king’s image has become that of a man who doesn’t keep his word because of the number of promises he made and never fulfilled them. However, the government doesn’t seem to want to give anything.
If the Prime Minister is removed, will Nabeel Rajab and others sit down for talks with Crown Prince and other regime officials?
It will create a positive atmosphere, but will not solve the political problem. People talk about the system; that is the problem. You remove the Prime Minister and then what? Another Prime Minister from the same family for another 40 years? No matter what the prime minister does then – corruption human, rights violations, the murder of civilians -, you can’t remove him from power because he’s from the royal family. The people say that they need an elected government. The king is there by default, but he shouldn’t be able to decide everything — 70% of the ministries and 70% of all the high-ranking jobs in all institutions shouldn’t be only from one family [the ruling Al Khalifas].
Remove the prime minister, sure, but don’t bring someone from same family. Bring someone elected by the people.
Do you have any hope that Crown Prince is the «moderate» who will bring reforms?
There is very little hope. He has also disappointed the people. He came out with promises, but later we realized that the promises were bigger than him and he couldn’t fulfill them. He’s only big in the United Kingdom and United States. He talks about democracy justice and reform only when he’s there. But when he comes to Bahrain, he lives in silence.
What is expected of outside actors such as the US and Britain?
Well at this time, they have good policies towards revolutions like Syria, Egypt and LIbya. We expect them to treat Bahrain like Syria and Libya. We don’t want intervention. We don’t want revenge and the killing of people. We are even willing to forgive people who killed our children. We need political opposition. The Western governments have supported the other revolutions and are tough against dictators. We want one policy. We don’t want to be treated differently.
Democracy is democracy, justice is justice.
You can’t ignore Bahrain and Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights violence just because you have military and economic interests in the region. We should not ignore the rights of the people who are being oppressed. We want them to stop the double standards because it will cost the people here as well as people in the other parts of the world. It is creating frustration and extremism. The ignorance towards this situation turns people against the international community.
So I urgently ask them to stop this. Criticizing Russia for selling arms to Syria and then selling them to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is double standard. Our people need political protection from the international community. Our people are getting killed every day. The regime is acting like an invader and people are being treated like hostages.
Nobody trusts the regime. We need international protection. We don’t like the Arab League. We don’t trust them because they are controlled by oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia so we want the United Nations to help us and provide us the protection we need.