Bahrain Detains Activist After Crackdown On Dissent
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The tiny monarchy of Bahrain is a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, and until a couple of months ago it was considered quite stable, even though a Sunni king rules over a mostly Shiite population. Then protesters began demanding reforms and the government cracked down hard. Now the security forces have arrested the former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Abdullhadi Al-Khawaja. His daughter, also an activist, is in Washington, D.C. this week for the U.S. Islamic World Forum. Maryam Al-Khawaja told us what happened when security forces showed up at her family's door.
Ms. MARYAN AL-KHAWAJA (Human Rights Activist): They got there around 2 a.m. in the morning. They usually break the handles on doors with sledgehammers.
MONTAGNE: You say they, and who are they?
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: The security forces. Usually during the raids for arrests, there's a lot of people in civilian clothing and then they'll be accompanied by riot police in uniforms. And usually all of them wear masks, ski masks, in which you can only see their eyes. They broke down the door. One of them grabbed my father from the neck and dragged him down the stairs. They beat my father until he was unconscious. And then they took him away, as well as two of my other brothers-in-law. And we don't know anything about them since.
MONTAGNE: So you don't know what conditions they are being held in?
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: No, we don't. Unfortunately, as a human rights activist myself, I've documented many, many cases of people who have been released from prison and I've had to listen to people give me detailed graphic accounts of what they were subjected to while they were in prison. So it's very, very difficult for me to deal with the idea that my own family might be going through something like that at this very moment.
MONTAGNE: When you speak of the conditions that you've heard of for those who have been detained, what specifically happens as you understand it?
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: Everything from electric shocks to beatings to sexual assault. There are also a lot of accounts in which the detainees are kept in cells underground and a lot of them are usually kept blindfolded during the whole length of their detention. They're also usually forbidden from using the bathroom, from showering, from praying, so there's a lot of blatant violations to human rights in regards to torture ongoing in Bahrain right now.
MONTAGNE: Do you know about the fate of other activists who have been detained other than your family?
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: Well, according to our count right now, there's 572 specifically, I believe. So far what we've seen is four people have actually turned up dead in detention centers. There was very obvious marks of torture on those bodies, so we do believe that to a large part it was due to the torture that these people actually died and not because of the reasons stated by the government.
MONTAGNE: I gather the government is now seeking court approval to dissolve the main opposition parties. What does that mean?
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: The Bahrain government is basically attacking anyone that's criticized the government or participated in the protests. Amongst those are doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers - even national football players have been arrested. So what we're seeing is a widespread crackdown on anyone who criticized the government or spoke out or participated in the protests.
MONTAGNE: Since the protests began, it has moved from sort of one position that protesters might have started with to American media, including the Wall Street Journal, quoting government and intelligence sources saying that Iran is now backing some of these protesters. What do you say to that?
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: I would begin by saying that I don't think that that is true. When Iran made statements about the situation in Bahrain, the first people to denounce that were the protesters. This excuse of Iranian-backed, or Iranian agenda, is something that the government has been labeling anyone who criticizes the Bahraini government. There's been a lot of talk about Iran contacting the opposition or trying to influence. What I have yet to see is a statement that says Iran is in fact influencing the opposition and they have evidence for that.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. AL-KHAWAJA: Of course, thank you.
MONTAGNE: Maryam Al-Khawaja is with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Her sister Zainab has now been on a hunger strike for six days to protest the arrest of her father and other family members.
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