UK is to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria, says prominent Bahraini human rights activists

 

Maryam al-Khawaja doesn't mince her words when she's asked to assess what many Bahrainis think about Britain. “It's not a very positive picture,” she sighs, stirring a spoonful of sugar into a steaming latte.

"People today are saying the United States and the UK are to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria.  They are countries willing to aid repression, people who are willing to overlook human rights violations because it's in their own interests. The only difference is that Russia doesn't try to present itself as a beacon of human rights and democracy."

Al-Khawaja - one of Bahrain's most prominent human rights activists and the daughter of jailed opposition activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja -  doesn't want to be down on Britain. She recently travelled to the UK to hold talks with the Foreign Office and desperately hopes Downing Street will signal some sort of policy shift towards our ally in the Gulf. But she knows it is unlikely. 

Over the past 18 months - as whole swathes of the Arab world have hit the streets to demand greater democratic representation and the end of autocracy - Britain has tried to portray itself as a friendly benefactor who is willing to help Arabs achieve a greater level of personal freedom. In Libya and Syria especially we marketed ourselves as supporters of a just cause, whilst chastising countries like Russia and China for blocking the march of self-determination. But with Bahrain our silence has been deafening.

Despite the deaths, the show trials, the continued suppression of protesters with tear gas or bird shot and the lacklustre pace of reform, Britain has gone from issuing the occasional cautiously worded statement to wholeheartedly welcoming Bahrain back into the fold as a rehabilitated Arab nation. It was not lost on Bahrain's opposition that when Prime Minister David Cameron came back from his summer break last month Bahrain's King Hamed was the first foreign dignitary he met.

Khawaja, 25, believes the pace with which Britain has accepted Bahrain's assurances it is on the path of reform has simply emboldened the hardliners in Bahrain's government. "A year ago statements from the US and the UK made a difference," she says. "Now they don't make any difference because the Bahraini government now knows that even if there are statements it won't result in any consequences."

Over the past 18 months - since predominantly Shi'a protestors hit the streets of Manama calling for the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty to go - scores have died and hundreds have been imprisoned. The al-Khawaja family have suffered acutely. Maryam's father helped found the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights - a group which has seen many of its key personnel imprisoned of fled.

Abdulhadi is one of a number of prominent activists who were handed down life sentences by a military court following the February 2011 protests. He and a group of prominent opposition figures and activists have since been retried and convicted in a civilian court, an attempt by the Bahraini government to legitimise the sentences but one that has nonetheless been rounded on by multiple human rights groups in a country where the independence of the judiciary is highly questionable.

Her sister Zeinab - a prominent Bahraini blogger and activist who uses the moniker Angry Arabiya, has also been arrested seven times. She currently has 13 cases against her ranging from tearing up a picture of the king, to insulting a police officer and blocking a public highway.

The only reason Maryam is not behind bars is she got out shortly after the government's crackdown against pro-reform protestors began in February 2011.

"I didn't want to go, but my father convinced me that it was important to make sure people on the outside made sure what was happening on the inside," she explains. "I thought I would go back. That's why I left with a very small suitcase, enough clothes for one week."

She now leads a peripatetic existence, shuttling between Lebanon, Denmark, Britain and the United States trying to make sure human rights abuses inside Bahrain are brought to the wider world's attention.

Al Khawaja has been an exile before. When she was a child her family fled to London and later settled in Denmark during a previous crackdown against opposition supporters.

"My parents built my life on the basis we would go back," she explains, in fluent English with an American twang that comes from two years college Stateside. "They always prepared us for the idea that we would return. So instead of putting me in Danish school they put us in private English schools. They knew we'd need English not Danish if we returned."

At the time there were just 21 Bahraini families living in Copenhagen and every Saturday they would meet to make sure their children learned Arabic and the history of the little island in the Straits of Hormuz that called home.

Abdulhadi took his family back to Bahrain in 2001 when the king promised a series of reforms that were never granted, a situation that eventually led - ten years later - to the massive street protests that broke out last year calling for the regime to go.

The Bahrain government describes the opposition to their rule as a front for the local Shi'a superpower Iran in and attempt to get a foothold in the Arab Gulf. The United States, which uses Bahrain as a base for its regionally vital Fifth Fleet, and Britain have largely bought this line, fearing the removal of the Khalifa dynasty would strengthen Tehran's hand.

Opposition groups and human rights activists say Iran's involvement is deliberately over played and that those hitting the streets each night wish to see a Bahraini democracy, not a repeat of the Islamic Republic across Hormuz.

But Khawaja warns that as the repression continues it is inevitable people may start looking for help wherever they can get it.

"I had a meeting at the White House and I told them 'Everything you fear and is making you not do the right thing because you fear it, you are actually making it a reality'," she explains. "At the end of the day it only makes sense that when people feel polarised, cornered and ignored they're going to look for help from wherever they can get it.

I'm actually really surprised that hasn't happened yet. I'm really surprised that we're still to a large extent peaceful. I'm surprised we're not as sectarian as I thought we would be and that we haven't yet reached a point where we say we'll find help from wherever it comes."

She leaves with a final word of advice for Britain: "In Bahrain you have a largely religious society demanding a civil secular state that institutionalises human rights. Grab that opportunity because it doesn't come along very often."

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit