Said Yousif AlMuhafdha Vice President and the Head of the Monitoring and documentation Unit of Bahrain Center for Human Rights in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas
Why has BCHR been set up and what was has been achieved since its inception?
BCHR was set up as a non-profit/non-governmental organisation in July 2002. It is registered with the Bahrain Ministry of Labor and Social Services. In November 2004 the authorities ordered it closed. In spite of this unilateral action by the government BCHR continues to operate. It supports/promotes the following: Civil, political and economic rights, combats racial and religious discrimination, is in the forefront of human rights education and provides support and protection to victims ofhuman rights abuses.
We have setup committees to monitor and report on various issues: migrant workers, those who don’t have passports, the unemployed and more importantly on the rampant human rights abuses, which includes illegal arrests, detention, torture and murder of Bahrainis by the government in power. The subsequent documentation is also being used to influence international policies according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Our work has been widely acknowledged by the international community. The numerous awards that BCHR has received in recognition of our endeavours: The Rafto Prize 2013, The Stieg Larsson Prize 2012, Baldwin Medal of Liberty 2012, The Martin Ennals Award Final Nominee 2012, Advocacy Award 2012, The Silbury Prize 2011, Ion Ratiu Democracy Award 2011.
Who are the people behind this organisation and does it receive mass support from the citizens of Bahrain?
The co founder is Abdulhadi alkhawaja (imprisoned under life sentence), the current president is Nabeel Rajab (sentenced to 2 years), the acting president Maryam Alkhawaja, and the Said Yousif AlMuhafdha (me). And supporting the work of BCHR are thousands of Bahrainis who wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the authorities. We live and work with and among the ordinary people documenting the arrests, incarceration, beatings, shooting of innocent citizens by the authorities.
Who rules Bahrain and which countries support this regime and why?
The Al Khalifas, a Sunni family that controls the Shia-majority population since 1783. They are supported by the USA, UK andSaudi Arabia among other countries. Because the Al Khalifas are Sunni they are supported by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have even sent troops into our country to quell the massive popular protests that seek to bring about a democratic state for fear that the agitation may spread to their own country. Bahrainis are subjected to inhumane treatment. The financial benefits from theoil industry do not percolate down to the masses. The Saudis are aware of the power of the people and are apprehensive that if Bahrain does become a democratic state it would only be a matter of time before it spreads to Saudi Arabia – a country that seriously lacks basic civil and human rights.
What kind of support do you receive from other countries and organisations?
What more needs to be done? We are working with human rights groups in various countries but we need support from foreign governments to put pressure on the Al Khalifas to stop arresting, torturing and killing Bahrainis. The bitter truth is that the Saudis and Americans must stop support for the government till it acknowledges the civil and human rights of its citizens.
On March 18, 2014, acting president Maryam Alkhawaja delivered this address to the UN Human Rights Council.
Human Rights Council: 25th Session
Oral Intervention- Item 4 General Debate
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Thank you Mr. President,
This statement is made on behalf of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. My name is Mariam Al-Khawaja and I am the Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights.
Within the Gulf region human rights defenders are increasingly subject to harassment, imprisonment, torture, incarceration and reprisals. In this context a new Gulf Cooperation Council Security Agreement was signed on the 13th of November 2013 which infringes on the basic rights and liberties of the citizens of these six countries and creates the framework for regional repression of rights defenders.
For example, Article (2) of the agreement states: “State Parties shall cooperate to pursue system outlaws, or those wanted by State Parties, regardless of their nationality, and take necessary action against them.”
In most Gulf countries almost any form of dissent against official policy including human rights work has been criminalized thorough laws that fundamentally contradict with international human rights standards. In this context the vague term ‘system outlaws’ is likely to be used in an arbitrary manner to restrict liberties and pursue political activists, dissidents and human rights activists throughout the region.
In effect, we are witnessing the regionalization of totalitarian repression. And yet here in this Council silence on these issues continues to be the norm.
In several of these countries, notably Saudi Arabia, the mere act of sending information to the United Nations, in whatever form or for whatever purpose, has been criminalized and rights defenders have been systematically prosecuted for any and all interaction with international bodies. And yet this Council on these matters remains silent. The lack of action by this Council on these matters is a stain on the moral conscious of the international community, and mocks the dignity of this institution.
In Bahrain, the authorities have time and time again used “prevention of terrorism” as grounds to target and silence rights defenders and political dissent. In 2013 alone, 328 defendants were tried for alleged terrorism crimes in 38 separate cases. According to a report by the BCHR, the majority of these cases lacked adequate evidence, and convictions were based mainly, or entirely, on the defendants’ confessions obtained under reported torture or secret sources that were never revealed.
In a sample of twenty cases, the sentences handed down for the 231 defendants totaled more than 2500 years in prison. The government in Bahrain, like other governments in the region, is in the process of consolidating a system in which almost any form of dissent is classified as terrorism. It is an approach that will only deepen social division and further entrench repression.
Much has been reported about police brutalities and the use of tear gas that has injured a number of people. Please give us details of when this agitation commenced and how many people were tortured and/or jailed.
Thirty people have died due to tear gas. Then there is the collective punishment meted out to Shia villages where security forces entered homes, beat people, arrested many. A number of those beaten and/or shot succumbed to their injuries. It is estimated that there are over 3500 people in jail who are presently subjected to the official treatment – torture. This has been going on since 2006.
Under the present regime what are the rights of the citizens, if any?
Bahrainis do not possess any rights. They are at the mercy of the Al Khalifa family.
Your organisation talks of ‘democracy’ but how can this come about with the present regime in power? Please comment.
Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has been the Prime Minister of Bahrain from 1970, taking office nearly two years before Bahrain’s independence on 16 December 1971. He is the longest-serving current prime minister in the world! Therefore, we don’t have a democracy, no free and fair elections just a government ruled by one family. We have been fighting to change this system, to remove these dictators.
The situation is grim and many Bahrainis have borne the brunt of the ruthlessness of the state. BCHR continues to pay a high cost for the promotion and support of human rights and the call for the formation of a democratic state. We will continue to fight for our freedom despite the violence perpetrated by the state.
Have cases been filed against the regime in the International Crime Court?
It is claimed that the popular uprising comprises of a Shia led majority against the minority Sunni led regime. Is this true? And if so, how can a democracy function with this religious divide? Please comment
Yes, Shias are a majority in Bahrain. However, there are many Sunnis who are fighting alongside us for justice and democracy. They too have been arrested and tortured.
There is no religious divide in Bahrain. The fight is about money and power against civil and human rights.
What is your message to the world?
We ask you to support the rights of Bahrainis. And to the media we want you to cover our story like other countries in the Arab Spring, which unfortunately is not happening.