Bahrain rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja speaks

Maryam al-Khawaja, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and a leading rights defender in Bahrain—now exiled from her homeland—spoke in New York City July 30, at a small gathering organized by the MENA Solidarity Network. It was hosted at Moustache Pitza Middle Eastern restaurant in the East Village. Al-Khawaja spoke about the ongoing protests and extreme repression in her country—and how the Arab regimes are exploiting sectarianism to pit the regional revolutions against each other.

Al-Khawaja related how the 2011 protest movement began by demanding reform of the 2002 constitution that centralized power in the hands of the king (formerly known as the emir). But after the deadly repression of February 2011, the demand became the fall of the regime. She says that protests continue even now, despite five years of the most draconian police-state measures.

The regime has been filling the ranks of the security apparatus with men hired from Sunni-majority countries, to turn them on protesters in Shi'ite-majority Bahrain. "When we chanted for peace at the demonstrations, the Pakistani police couldn't even understand us."

The hospitals are stiff with security cameras installed by the Interior Ministry, so those injured in the protests are afraid to receive care, lest they be recognized and arrested or "disappeared." Protest leaders are having their citizenship revoked and being expelled from the country—some 250 since 2012.

The struggle is also being waged online, with the regime blocking social media and activists using VPN devices to get around the firewall. The regime employs armies of paid trolls and bots to harass and defame activists on the Internet.

And al-Khawaja charges the Western powers with complicity in the repression, as they largely turn a blind eye. Bahrain is home of the US Navy's 5th Fleet, as well as a new British military base.

Al-Khawaja spoke about the role of her father Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja—imprisoned by the regime since 2011—in bringing about the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. His work as an activist beginning 15 years ago was instrumental in "creating an entire generation of non-violent activists." Maryam says the movement he built was committed to principles of pacifism. "He would tell activists, 'Even if they bust your head, don't bust back—that is the difference between us and them.'"

In an Orwellian twist, he was arrested in April 2011 and charged with "membership in a terrorist organization"—presumably meaning the GCHR, which he founded. He has been subject to torture, and adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Despite hunger strikes and demonstrations for his release, he remains imprisoned.

Maryam's sister Zainab al-Khawaja has also been imprisoned. And Mayram herself was imprisoned for three weeks in 2014. She subsequently fled the country, and was sentenced in absentia to a one-year prison term. Charges still pending against her could mean the death penalty. She currently lives in exile in Denmark, and cannot return home.

Al-Khawaja seemed most frustrated when she spoke of the stratagem to "pit Bahrain's revolution against the Syrian revolution." The regime "portrays all opposition as Iranian subversion, but says that Syria needs democracy." This has again reached Orwellian levels. Al-Khawaja related how security forces would occupy a village or neighborhood, shoot tear-gas directly into homes to drive out the residents and beat and arrest them—all under a banner reading "STAND WITH THE PEOPLE OF SYRIA." 

This propaganda has met with some success. Al-Khawaja recalled how the movement in Bahrain was initially inspired by that in Syria. "Youth preparing banners for the 2011 protests listened to Syrian revolutionary songs," she said. But now many Shi'ite protesters in Bahrain have become suspicious of the Sunni-dominated opposition in Syria. Even her own comrades have accused her of "supporting takfiris in Syria"—the popular Shi'ite pejorative for Sunni militants.

This strategy of "pitting the revolutions against each other" was revealed as an official policy in the "Bandargate" scandal of 2007—when government advisor Salah al-Bander turned in a public report exposing the divide-and-rule campaign.

Al-Khawaja sees Iran's actual role as no less cynical than that of Bahrain's regime. "Both Iran and Bahrain use these tactics to enflame sectarian tensions," she said. "All Iran does is issue statements that do more harm than good."

But playing the card of Sunni sectarianism has to an extent backfired against the regime, as some high-ranking officials of the security forces have gone to Syria to join ISIS.

Al-Khawaja still sees signs of hope. She notes that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the dissident Shi'ite cleric executred in Saudi Arabia earlier this year—sparking protests in Bahrain—had criticized the Iranian regime, and spoken in support of the Syrian revolution.

And the GCHR continues its work of training human rights defenders from all six of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) plus Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. "We are always attacked by both sides. But we will continue documenting abuses on both sides, and demanding accountability on both sides," she said.

Al-Khawaja closed with some thoughts about the US elections. Noting Saudi ties to the Clinton Foundation and and the Clinton State Department's cooperation with dictators, she admits she initially saw little difference between Hillary Clinton and Trump. "For the Middle East they would both be a disaster," she said. She recalled that assassinated Honduran activist Berta Cáceres had blamed Hillary Clinton for backing the coup d'etat that unleashed a reign of terror in her country. 

But al-Khawaja said that after speaking with her American friends and supporters, she got a clearer picture of the threat Trump represents—to the Middle East and the world. "As bad as Hillary is, she still looks like the better option," she said.

CounterVortex on the scene.