The Ongoing Struggle in Bahrain: An Interview with Alaa Shehabi
Alaa Shehabi (AS): I am Alaa Shehabi from Bahrain. I am a lecturer, economist, and writer by day. I am also the wife of a political detainee. My husband is called Ghazi Farhan, he is a businessman, completely apolitical.
A month after the Saudis invaded, he was arrested from his office car park. On that day, 12 April, he came home for lunch and played with our baby and then drove back to his office. I did not hear from him again. I went online and read on Twitter that Ghazi Farhan has been successfully arrested—someone from the intelligence network was tweeting about it, bragging about it. It was a very big shock. He was not expecting it; he was the guy that stayed away from this. He knows that politics is trouble in this part of the world, so he was not involved in any activism.
I am sure they went after my husband because of his relationship to me. I come from a strong opposition background, my father is an opposition activist in the United Kingdom. I was very active and I have never been quiet about my views. I think they knew of me so they selected one of us. I have seen his interrogation notes and I appear in most of them. It was punishment by proxy.
So, Ghazi was held for the next fifty days and then suddenly appeared in a military tribunal at the end of May. He was charged with participating in the protests. The technical term is “participating in an illegal assembly consisting of more than five persons,” and he was also charged with spreading false information. And then in a matter of ten minutes, he was sentenced to three years in prison. It has been seven months since he was convicted. It has been a very difficult time for my family personally. But I would like to emphasize that in the prison he is in, he is one of at least five hundred people who have been arrested, charged, and convicted because of their participation or involvement in the political uprising.
Anjali Kamat (AK): There are hundreds of people who have been arrested including doctors, teachers, nurses, and even well known athletes. What have they all been charged with?
AS: Participating in an illegal assembly is actually one among many charges that have been used on nearly everyone that has been convicted. In the space of twelve days, military tribunals sentenced 208 people to a combined total of over 2500 years in prison. This was summary justice, there was no due process. Most appeared without the knowledge of their families or the presence of lawyers, and nearly all of them were convicted based on false confessions and secret sources. I know my husband never even got the chance to speak at his own trial. So there has been an utter lack of fairness in anything that has happened. The entire state apparatus has been turned into tools of repression and persecution. As far as the types of people who have been arrested: you could be sharing a prison cell with some of the best athletes, the best teachers in the country, even the best doctors were there at one point. The dragnet just swept across the entire spectrum of society. And you must have heard of the case of twenty doctors being convicted to fifteen years in prison. These sentences were handed out like parking tickets. In fact, a parking ticket takes longer to issue than some of these sentences, given they were held in these military tribunals.
AK: Is there possibility for appeal?
AS: Yes. My husband is going through an appeal in a civilian court, a so-called “normal” court, and he was not even allowed to attend his own trial last session. So I am not too hopeful. I would not be surprised if the civilian court upheld the convictions. Because it is the same: in the military tribunal they had military outfits on, in the civilian courts it is the same political trial but without the military costumes. In my personal opinion, there is very little difference between the two.
AK: Take us back to the moment when the uprising in Bahrain began. It began soon after Tunisia and Egypt, in mid-February. But unlike the other uprisings it was quickly forgotten outside the region, and was brutally crushed. What were the demands of the uprising and what drove people to the streets initially?
AS: Well on 14 February, the Bahraini people took to the street in the hundreds of thousands. At one point, I think on 23 February, it was the biggest protest in the history of Bahrain: a quarter of the population took to the streets to demand greater political participation and a fully democratic representative political system. They were calling for exactly the same things as people in the rest of the Middle East and Arab world: freedom, democracy, and social justice. It never differed in any way. So these were the grievances that drove people to gather in the Lulu Roundabout for nearly a month before the Saudi intervention took place.
The Saudis entered in mid-March and we knew the minute they arrived that the encampment in Lulu Square would be destroyed in a matter of days. Yet people still continued, and both men and women insisted on camping out in the square to face the tanks, guns, and security forces that were going to come and try to drive them away. We saw people with complete and utter conviction having this very clear belief in the cause they were fighting for. It was amazing to see how people were willing to stick it out. But then we saw that it was met with complete and utter violence and repression.
The crackdown was not just military. After the Lulu Roundabout was cleared, it swept across the entire area, across all of Bahrain, and across the villages. We began to hear of people’s homes being raided before dawn, people disappearing, mass arrests, and mass dismissals. To give you some statistics: about 1500 people were arrested, five hundred remain in prison; forty-three deaths have been recorded—mostly killed by security forces—and four to five dead in custody because of torture. Three thousand people were fired from their jobs and accused of participating in protests. There are hundreds in exile who had to leave the country because they feared for their safety and tens of people who are still missing or in hiding—some are leading fugitive lives in Bahrain because they know the security forces are looking for them.
So it was an extremely difficult period. We have seen grave violations of human rights take place. We have seen widespread systematic torture, my husband being one of the victims. I have been a witness to this–I have seen the scars on his neck and back, and he talks bout what happened to him during interrogation while he was in prison. He told me what he saw happening to the other prisoners who were with him. There are terrible stories of people losing their eyes and bodies covered in birdshot, which is a weapon that is used by security forces when they are attacking protesters. It targets people indiscriminately and is usually used to kill animals.
AK: Can you summarize the opposition’s main demands in Bahrain? You have talked about some of the similarities with other Arab uprisings, what were the demands that were specific to Bahrain? Why a new constitution and what are the historical grievances against the monarchy?
AS: Well, in Bahrain, there has been a longstanding constitutional movement for democracy extending at least back to the 1950s. In the fifties and sixties it was tinged with anti-colonial flavor calling for the British to leave Bahrain. In the seventies it was more of an Arab nationalist type of movement, and by the eighties and nineties it took more of an Islamic turn. But it has always been very much entrenched in this idea of a necessary contract between the people and the ruler. So when the British left, there was a constitution in 1972. It was not perfect, but Bahrain worked with that constitution and had its first parliamentary elections in 1973. In 1975 the parliament was dissolved and the constitution was suspended, and then began a constitutional movement that lasted for about twenty-five years calling for the return of constitutional life. We went through an uprising nearly every single decade up until this point. In 1998 the new king initiated so-called reforms, but they were not enough and did not come up to par with people’s expectations and desires for representation.
So the grievances during this year’s uprising are very much linked to a longstanding struggle for freedom and democracy. You speak to someone on the street in Bahrain today and they know what a constitution is and why they want one. So on February 14, one of the key demands was a new constitution, one where there is “one man one vote,” where it does not matter what your sect is, what your race is, what your color is, or what your religion is. You get an equal vote whether you are a man or a woman in a new parliamentary system. And the parliament needs to have full legislative power. It needs to be able to do something, unlike our current toothless parliament that cannot actually initiate any legislation because an appointed assembly can always override its powers. So people want a fully representative democratic parliament. Historically, that demand has not changed for the last fifty years.
AK: One of the biggest points of contention has been the makeup of the security forces. Explain the population breakdown in Bahrain today and why the composition of the security forces is viewed as a sectarian issue.
AS: Community policing generally in Bahrain is a remnant of colonial times when Bahrain was a British protectorate. Since then, the police force has been an imported one, consisting of imported personnel mostly brought from the Asian subcontinent. We saw that policy continuing and actually increasing over the last ten years. The opposition calls them mercenaries, because they are being paid for their services to the security forces, and today they are from a range of countries and ethnic backgrounds: Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen, and Syria. They are paid to serve the security forces, and a lot of them—if not the majority—end up with a Bahraini passport, they become naturalized. So this issue of political naturalization, because it escalated over the last ten years, has been one of the key issues of contention when it comes to politics. People are very angry that they are being policed by foreigners. The policeman you see on the street is not a Bahraini policeman. Just recently the Minister of Interior defended this policy during a television interview. He did not deny that this policy existed, and said we need this kind of policy because we are a small island and we can not have Bahrainis policing Bahrainis. They actually went to the extent of defending this policy.
That has been the reason why tensions have been so high and why people have focused the movement on trying to regain ownership of their place in the country. The majority of Bahrainis perceive themselves to be overrun by foreigners who have more rights than them in the country. Foreigners can actually be recruited to the military where there is an active policy of exclusion of the majority Shia community. Sectarianism has been a state policy that divides the people. There is this gap that exists between the ruling elite and the people. By policing them with this minority, you can always perpetuate this divide and the fear of the other. It always makes you feel like there is a constant state of attack against your very existence in the country.
AK: Bahrain is seen as a very strong ally of the United States: the fifth fleet is stationed in Bahrain. It is a small but important ally. What is the feeling among Bahrainis towards the United States and what many perceive to be its silence on the crackdown on Bahraini protesters.
AS: From the inside, people have always noted the complicity of the United States, if not in active intervention at least in their silence against very obvious grave violations of human rights. If they were not going to push for democratic reform they could have at least pushed to stop the crackdown which is ongoing on a daily basis. They are there, the base is there, you see Americans walking down the street, and yet we have not seen any punitive measures being taken against the Bahraini regime over this period. In fact, we were shocked to hear that there is an arms deal planned to go through. So the Americans definitely see it as business as usual. They will continue arming the Bahraini regime even though we know that the Saudi troops that entered Bahrain were using American weapons. So there is a very clear precedent that has been set where these Gulf states have no hesitation in using this weaponry against their own people. And there is no guarantee that they will not use it again or they will not continue using it.
In villages, if you go to a Bahraini village, there are protests every night. The revolution has not ended. This is another myth that the Arab revolution was crushed and does not exist anymore. No, there are protests across the country in every village nearly every night. And there are clashes that take place between the security forces and the protesters and there is excessive use of teargas. Nearly every house contains a couple of canisters, or rubber bullets. I have some souvenirs at home too, and they are all made in the USA. So we do not think that the United States has been very helpful towards the Bahraini people in their call for democratic reform: they continue arming the Bahraini regime and keeping silent about its abuses. Someone said that Barack Obama needs to attach a crumpled copy of his Arab Spring May 2011 speech the next time he sends arms to the Bahraini regime. There is no starker example of double standards than US policy towards Bahrain as compared to other countries in the Middle East. The United States has to prove itself to us: that it is going to put its ideals over its interests; that it is going to stand up for the legitimate demands of the Bahraini people who are calling for reform and democracy, if not an immediate end to the human rights violations committed by the Bahraini regime.
AK: There is an independent international commission working in Bahrain right now that is supposed to come out with a report on the violence and arrests that have taken place over the past several months. What is your expectation of what the commission can produce and your sense of its independence?
AS: I have had direct experience and interaction with this “truth commission,” it is another American idea to try and bring Bahrain back from the brink. I do not need a truth commission to tell me what happened to my husband, we have seen this firsthand and we do not need someone from the outside to come tell us what has happened to the Bahraini people. We have experienced it, we have seen it across the country, we do not need verification of that. If anything, the key test of this commission will be to what extent it holds the regime to account, and how can an appointed commission in which people were hand-picked by the king and paid by him, how can the accused party appoint someone that is going to incriminate it? It is illogical and irrational that it would do that. So the expectation is that it will whitewash at least the highest ranks of authority from responsibility for the violations that occurred.
We have hope that there will be justice served. Justice will not just mean saying that this and that happened. It will mean that the people who did this are going to be held to account and punished for what they did. I know these are renowned international law experts, I have spoken to them personally. I have asked Mr. Cherif Bassouni, “Who is responsible for my husband’s arrest and torture?” It is not going to be enough to tell me—after we have seen the widespread and numerous accounts of torture, thousands of cases that have happened across the country—that this was the result of individual police officers who acted irresponsibly and unprofessionally in their dealings with protesters. After you hear consistent accounts over and over again, night raids, breaking into houses, terrorizing members of the family, beatings with rubber hoses in the prison cells, across nearly all the police stations in Bahrain, you begin to wonder that this is not a coincidence. This is not a result of one or two police officers. This is widespread systematic torture. Unless this report documents that fact and says that these incidents amount to very grave violations of human rights—that under international law constitute crimes against humanity—there will be much to say about the independence of this commission.
I think I can speak for the majority when I say Bahrainis are very skeptical about the commission’s findings. We are hoping justice will be served, we are hoping the perpetrators at the highest ranks will be at least incriminated and not exonerated. We do not need a political shield for the regime after what was done. Justice here is related to political justice.
AK: You mentioned there are protests every night in the villages. Is there a plan to step up protests in the capital city as well?
AS: We have seen this across the Arab world. The more people fall the stronger and louder the people become. So the protests are no less strong than they were before. They were strong in terms of numbers, you would see masses on the streets, but now because of the security situation it is more of a dispersed situation across the whole country. The nightly protests are tactical I think; to keep the movement going and it is only going to increase. I think people are paying too high of a price, and my husband says this to me all the time, “I do not want to be released to go back to the same Bahrain that was before, I do not want this to happen to my children again. This happened to us, it happened to my parents. We do not want this system any more. If I am paying the price now, a very dear price in terms of my freedom, there has to be change outside.” Other prisoners who were with him and have been released have said, “We are the first people who are going to go out and join the protest. We are not going to leave you in the prisons and forget about you.”
The regime is very good at public relations, so it has been trying to sell initiatives like the national dialogue and this truth commission. But in terms of actual concession of power to the opposition, there have not been any steps taken in that direction. We have seen this across the Arab world. None of the Arab leaders—the dictators—have taken the step of trying to back down from their position. It just becomes a very defensive, delusional course that they take. So to expect them to give in is very difficult at the moment. We would like to see light at the end of the tunnel but we will have to wait I think. The Bahraini people are unarmed; they have been peaceful for the last eight months. But young people are getting more and more radicalized and the situation is simmering. It could blow up at any time. Already forty-three people have died, and people have called Bahrain at least the second most oppressive state in the Arab world in terms of per capita deaths and arrests. It is a small state but, relatively speaking, it has paid a heavy price. I would like to predict that a real concession from the regime has to happen, and it has to happen soon.
AK: We are meeting in Cairo right now and you have been very candid and fearless about criticizing the regime. Are you afraid of returning to Bahrain or speaking out openly?
AS: What we have seen in Bahrain has been very painful. I can speak for myself, you do not want to see your loved ones being punished and hearing the stories that come out. With the atrocious things you hear happening, you wonder who is capable of doing this, in terms of inflicting torture on another human being like that. But you reach a point where you do not actually fear arrest. You have heard the stories over and over again, you know what to expect, you know what it is like, you know the details of things, and you lose this mask of fear. It stops existing. So that is why you continue seeing people protesting and you continue seeing activists speaking out, despite the threats they face. You do not know whether you will be prevented from travelling, from entering back into the country, or whether you will be spending the night in a police detention center the next day. When you leave for a brief period, like I did, you do not know whether you are going to lose your job when you go back.
Everyone knows that the price of speaking out is very high. People are just prepared to pay that cost. I have paid a very small price I have to say. My husband spent seven months in jail. But I look around me, and he looks around him, and I thank god that I am still alive and I actually have no regrets whatsoever. We were part of this. I do not like to call it the Arab renaissance, so let us say part of this momentous regional rise against tyranny. I think if it did not happen now, what other moment in history are we going to get to try and change the world.