While the world is focused on the upheavals in Egypt and Syria miles away, a small but dedicated group of young activists planned the latest round of protests against an autocratic regime in the island nation of Bahrain last week.
The pro-democracy protests on August 14th — exactly 42 years after the country's independence in 1971 — are the latest installment in Bahrainis' long struggle for democracy and human rights in their country of 1.32 million people.
The Shiite majority has joined Sunnis to launch a protest movement against the Sunni royal family approximately once a decade. The most recent uprising began in 2011, just as the Arab Spring spread across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and into the Middle East. Despite the royal regime's repeated attempts to crack down on the movement, hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis have rallied in an effort to win greater political participation and equality between the Sunni and Shiite communities.
The response of security forces has led to at least 100 deaths and thousands of arrests, detentions, interrogations, and instances of torture and imprisonment.
Bahrain has always been of strategic interest to the United States and other Western countries. Its close proximity to Iran and oil shipping routes in the Gulf makes it an ideal home for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. While the U.S. State Department has repeatedly condemned the Bahraini government's violence and encouraged democratic reforms, Bahrain has adopted only modest changes since the uprising began in 2011. Instead, the government's human rights abuses have continued over the last two years, with arrests, detentions, and interrogations of doctors, journalists, activists, and other members of civil society.
After the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, Bahraini human rights activists called for renewed protests. Despite the fact that they risk their lives for fairness and freedom, these Bahraini activists are not widely known, particularly in America. Their demands — increased personal freedoms and elections for civilian leadership — were forged in print with the Manama Document, published by five Bahraini opposition parties in October 2011. Many activists are young people who maintain faith in their nation as they lead it on a tenuous march to freedom.
Among the most well-known reformists is Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of famed Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. When she was two years old, Maryam's father brought her to Denmark as a political asylee. Banned from Bahrain for his activism in the 1980s, Abdulhadi and his family sought and found refuge in Europe, where he and other Bahrainis are living in exile. From there, he co-founded the Bahrain Human Rights Organization, now known as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. In 2001, after finally being allowed re-entry to Bahrain, Abdulhadi made a fateful decision: to return home.
Maryam graduated from the University of Bahrain in 2009, then left the country on a Fulbright scholarship to Brown University. She returned in 2010 but couldn't find a job because of Abdulhadi's continued disfavor with the government, so she traveled abroad to raise awareness about Bahrain's human rights violations. She hasn't returned to Bahrain since January 2013, to visit family in prison and do documentation work.
In April 2011, months after Maryam left the country, five armed and masked policemen stormed her family's apartment, beat Abdulhadi unconscious, and removed him from the home. Abdulhadi's son-in-law, activist Mohammed Al-Maskati, was also beaten, as was Maryam's older sister, Zainab. Abdulhadi was tortured in prison, suffering injuries that included a shattered jawbone. He protested his imprisonment with a 110-day hunger strike but was repeatedly force-fed by the Bahraini authorities. On June 22, 2011, Abdulhadi and eight other activists were sentenced to life imprisonment.
For more than two years, Maryam has been forced to monitor developments in Bahrain from her home in Denmark. She was denied access to a British Airways flight to Bahrain in August on order of the Bahraini government, a defining moment for her. "I realized that I'm no longer in self-imposed exile," she said. "It's an exile imposed by the government."
With her sister Zainab now imprisoned and in poor health and many friends, family, and colleagues trapped by the ongoing crisis, Maryam acknowledges that her experience has been emotionally trying. But in the end, she is as concerned with the larger movement in Bahrain as she is her own family. "As a human rights defender, I have to keep an equal space toward all the different cases in Bahrain; so I deal with the cases of my family members as I do with all other human rights cases in Bahrain."
As protests continue in Bahrain, Maryam doesn't feel particularly optimistic about the situation in the short-term. "I don't think the Bahrani government has an incentive to address any of the protesters' demands," she said. "There's no accountability, locally or internationally. There really isn't an incentive for the human rights violations to stop."
Indeed, Maryam has been disappointed with the Obama administration. Although the State Department has condemned violence and repeatedly expressed support for the Bahrainis' right to freedom of expression and assembly, the U.S. has continued to sell arms to the country. Maryam also believes the U.S. could do more to speak out in international forums. "The U.S. government refuses to hold the Bahraini government accountable at the U.N. Security Council or the Human Rights Council," she said. "If you want to really understand how committed a government is to their statements about human rights and democracy, you have to see if they're holding their closest allies accountable. And unfortunately, in the case of the U.S. administration, they're not doing that with their allies."
Still, Maryam has been pleased to see more Americans become familiar with her country's troubles. "When I was in the United States in 2009 or 2010, most people didn't know that Bahrain existed, except that Michael Jackson lived there and the fact that there was a Formula One race. But now [more] people associate the Bahraini regime with an absolute rule and being repressive."
She's hopeful Americans will take action on behalf of Bahrain. "One thing that is provided for in the U.S. and other countries is the ability to influence your policymakers," she said. "I've been to so many meetings in Congress, and I've met members of Congress who told me they were contacted by their constituencies who wanted to learn about what's happening in Bahrain."
While Maryam remains in exile, activist Sayd Yousif has been working on the ground with the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. He has documented protests and human rights abuses around the country since 2007, posting his findings on Twitter and through the BCHR website. He's been arrested three times for these anti-government activities, including for "spreading false information on Twitter." Next month, he'll go on trial for charges that could lead to life in prison. "The Bahraini government doesn't want any human rights activists to talk to any human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the media about what's happening," Sayd said. "They just want to lie to the people and mislead the international community."
Like his colleagues, Sayd regularly receives threats via Twitter and other media from government allies. "They say I am an American spy and that I'm working with the CIA," Sayd said. "Because I work with Human Rights Watch and talk to some American media, so they say, 'That guy is an American spy.'" But he remains undeterred and insists that he's doing nothing wrong. "I'm just talking to media and human rights groups and tweeting. That's all I'm doing on a daily basis. People are suffering, and I want to tell the international community what's happening to my people." Even though he lost his full-time job because of his work with the BCHR, Sayd notes that his compatriots — many of whom have been arrested, tortured, or killed — are suffering more than he is.
Sayd thinks that the majority of Bahrainis are looking for a change, including most young people. Even so, with Bahrain deploying Saudi, Pakistani, Syrian, Jordanian, and other paid forces to crackdown on protesters, Sayd believes that the situation on the ground will only become more complicated and brutal in the coming days. Even Bahraini hospitals are now run by plainclothes security forces, he said. "Within one minute, when a protester gets injured, the military will arrive at the hospital. The patient is injured and the police are interrogating them — instead of a doctor, you see a police officer."
Mohammed Al-Maskati also sees this dire situation on a daily basis. For 10 years, he's been involved in human rights work in Bahrain, currently serving as the director of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. Like Sayd, he was arrested last year. Next month he'll go to trial on charges that he "smeared Bahrain's reputation," when he spoke out about Bahrain's human rights abuses during a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last year. However, Mohammed is not intimidated by the government' s latest attempt to imprison or torture him and he is confident that human rights activism will continue in his country — with or without him.
"Our organization is not based on one person. Our organization is based on an institution," he said. "The government, they think that when they arrest someone, our work will be slowed down. But they're wrong."
Like Maryam, Mohammed believes that the U.S. and other Western governments could do more to support the people's movement in Bahrain. He opposes the sale of arms to the Bahraini government and thinks that democratic governments should practice what they preach when it comes to human rights and democracy. "It's very important for the U.S. and the U.K. to see principles in Bahrain, not to see business," he told me.
Even with the movement's challenges and the prospect of facing life imprisonment, Mohammed is inspired by the many other young people he sees involved in human rights activism. "This generation is aware of what's happening on the ground," he said. "We need to continue our work to help people to have their rights — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. It's not coming easy."
Protests will surely continue for some time in Bahrain, as will the violent reprisals by a regime fearfully tightening its grip on a nation yearning for freedom. But the vigor of activists like Maryam, Sayd, and Mohammed gives activists reason to hope. "I think there is a bright future for Bahrain," said Mohammed. Given that he's willing to risk his life for it, it's hard not to believe him.