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Bahrain Exclusive: An Interview with Maryam Alkhawaja 

Maryam Al-Khawaja is the Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the head of the international office of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR). She is the daughter of prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, a former head of BCHR, who was given a life sentence soon after last year's outbreak of mass protests. She's also the sister of Zainab Al-Khawaja, another prominent Bahraini human rights activist.

EA's Josh Shahryar spoke to Maryam about this week's arrest and imprisonment of former BCHR President Nabeel Rajab, her father's condition, the ongoing protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the arrest and detention of human rights activists in Oman. 

Josh Shahryar: How did you find out about Nabeel Rajab's arrest? Were he and the staff at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights worried he'd be arrested and imprisoned for the [three-mont] sentence this soon? 

Maryam Al-Khawaja: No, actually we weren't expecting that he would be arrested, rather that he would be allowed to appeal the sentence before being detained. I found out through Twitter of course. 

JS: What was your reaction? 

MK: I was surprised but not really. Lately we've seen the Bahraini regime rapidly escalate their attacks on human rights defenders, and it's been received with silence by their western allies. This usually is an indication for the regime to continue escalating their targeting of activists.

JS: Do you think he'll be allowed to appeal and be released?

MK: As in the past, political decisions such as this tend to depend on how much international attention a case gets. 

The more attention, especially from allied governments, the faster the case is resolved. At this point it's unclear how this case will be handled. Although at the same time, the Bahraini regime is trying to put forward an image that the judicial system in Bahrain is what it's all about and so they put many cases through the courts and make it look like defendents are receiving due process. As human rights defenders, we know that the judicial system in Bahrain is neither independent nor just and that especially in the big cases, the decision is made by high level officials in the regime, not inside the courtroom.

JS: So you're saying it's not the court's decision, but rather the government's? If so, are you hopeful the government will let him go? 

MK: Since the judicial system is not independent, and does not adhere to the international standards of a fair trial, then we do not have hope that anyone going through the Bahraini judicial system will receive a fair trial. It really is dependent on how much attention his case gets. In some cases it seemed like they were arresting him during that specific period due to events he was supposed to attend, or due to an increase in the movement on the streets. It may be the case that they want him locked up during the month of Ramadan when events tend to escalate. 

JS: Do you think Ramadan will be used as an excuse for the government to widen their crackdown on protesters and human rights defenders? And that's why Nabeel has been removed from the scene? 

MK: They don't use it as an "excuse", although it may be the unspoken reason. It really has everything to do with the international response. It's not a coincidence that in January the regime was a lot more careful with Nabeel. When he was hit, the [US] State Department immediately released a statement. Representatives from the embassy visited him at home.

Now he gets arrested, imprisoned for periods [weeks] at a time, and yet nothing from the State Department; nothing from the US administration. The situation right now as it is is that Nabeel is in prison, possibly for a little more than two months; Zainab Alkhawaja, who is also one of the most active activists, is unable to walk without crutches for at least six weeks afer she was directly targeted and shot in the leg at close range, which not only shattered her thigh bone, but removed all skin and tore the muscle. Removing two of the most well-known activists from the streets at this time seems to be too convenient right before Ramadan to be a coincidence

JS: How does their absence impact the movement in your opinion? Are your plans --- if there were any involving them - deterred now that they're in prison? 

MK: Their absence does not influence our human rights work, but their voices are vital on the streets. They strongly promote non-violence, anti-sectarianism, justice and freedom.

JS: Do you think anyone who tries to lead protests from your organization will be similarly removed from the scene? For instance, Said Yousif?

MK: They tend to not target everyone in the same way so that the attention is not focused on one issue, for example, arrests. Said Yousif has already been arrested and released several times, and he's been hit on the streets and that's not mentioning the threats he continues to receive

JS: As the new acting director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, what does your organization plan on doing to secure Nabeel's release? Is there a specific campaign to prioritize his release?

MK: For the BCHR working on Nabeel's case is a continuous process, which takes many forms --- issuing urgent appeals, writing letters and so on --- but we also have more than 750 other political prisoners and they all hold as much importance to us. Nabeel will automatically receive more attention internationally, as well as locally during protests, which helps speed up his release.

In a nutshell, we will do all we can, but we will also continue to give priority to the hundreds of other cases as is our responsibility.

JS: Where is he being held and do you know if he is being treated humanely in detention? 

MK: He is being held in a small office at Jaw central prison, and his cell/officemate is a migrant worker. Nabeel informed his family that the treatment has been bad, and the migrant worker with him has been instructed to not communicate with him, which would have been difficult anyway given the language barrier. This may be because the last time Nabeel was in prison, he spoke to migrant workers and spoke about their cases when he got out.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted on Wednesday. Hours later, Maryam reported that Nabeel Rajab had been transferred to a small cell in solitary confinement where conditions are much harsher. He's being handcuffed when being moved inside the prison and is not being allowed to see his lawyer or family and is not being given his medication. 

JS: How are BCHR's plans for sanctions going in Scandanavian countries and why do you think Sweden didn't sign the joint UN statement last week regarding human rights in Bahrain?

MK: Unfortunately, as advocates for human rights in Bahrain, we have seen to what extent the policy of double standards is extended when it comes to allies of the western countries. It is unfortunate and shameful that the countries who preach human rights and democracy are the very same ones who are to Bahrain today what Russia is to Syria. It was a great step that more than two dozen countries signed the joint statement, as it showed that there were those who wanted to work on putting a halt to the double standards and I think it is very telling that the United States and United Kingdom did not sign on

JS: Your father and the former director of BCHR, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, has been refusing to take part in his trial. What is the latest update on his condition and his case?

MK: He has made good progress health-wise and put on some weight. He's refusing, along with several others in the same case, to take part in the court process as it gives legitimacy to an illegitimate court system. He very specifically spoke about this in his testimony which we published on our website. Personally, to be honest, I don't really keep up to date with the trial. The decision has probably already been made and the process is just a way to buy time.

Alkhawaja informed me last time I spoke with him that his analysis is that they're being held as pawns in the political discussions taking place. To try and push forward the idea of a working judicial system in Bahrain they [the government] will probably have their prison terms reduced, but they will not be released and they will continue to be incarcerated until the regime reaches a political agreement with the opposition which is not behind bars, using them as a pressure point.

JS: His health has improved in the past few months, though?

MK: Yes, he's gained weight. He had a bit of a health issue last week because he ate meat, but he came out of it OK.

JS: The violence against protesters in Saudi Arabia's eastern Qatif region continues to escalate as protest for human rights there continue. What are your thoughts on that as the head of the international office of the Gulf Center for Human Rights?

MK: In the GCHR our mandate is providing support and protection for human rights defenders, and so we do not cover all human rights violations. On the other hand, the events in Qatif usually are influenced by and influence events in Bahrain and so it influences our work at the BCHR.

Part of it is that Qatif receives even less attention because it's even more diffcult to get countries like the US and UK to condemn the killing of protesters in Saudi than Bahrain. We have been warning for more than a year that the situation in the Gulf region will continue to deteriorate due to the situation in Bahrain and that the continuation of the double standards and the refusal to condemn and take a firm stand against the human rights violations in Bahrain will influence the rest of the Gulf. It's a ticking time bomb and unfortunately the allies of these countries are not making too much of an effort to defuse it

JS: So do you see the situation there escalating?

MK: Defintely these countries learn from each other. If they see Bahrain committing widespread violations and there aren't any real consequences internationally, what stops them from doing the same? Since the beginning of the widespread crackdown in Bahrain, we've notcied an increase in the crackdown in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE and its only getting worse, especially when it comes to going after political dissidents and activists.

JS: Regarding the situation in Oman, do you think the government will change its current stance regarding human rights defenders' imprisonment?

MK: We're continuing to monitor the situation closely. Oman, like the other Gulf countries, does not allow people civil liberties or freedoms and the government is continuing its crackdown on activists and those who speak out. Without the right international attention to the situation, we will probably see the situation deteriorate further.

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