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."

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