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Bahraini Activist Urges U.S. To Pay Attention To Country's Rights Abuses


Last week, five years after the season of protests in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, Maryam al-Khawaja's sister was detained by police along with her sister's 1-year-old son. Maryam al-Khawaja's father, a human rights activist, is serving a life sentence for his role in the protests. And now Maryam is trying to get the world to pay attention, and she says geopolitics are getting the way. She's in New York this week where she's been at the United Nations. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, what did your sister, Zaineb, do to warrant arrest, and what's her status now?

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, Zaineb is a very well-known activist in Bahrain. She's faced numerous charges, so she's had at least 10 cases in court. She's been arrested at least 10 times. And the recent arrest is mainly related to her exercising her right to free expression and free assembly. So she's currently sentenced to three years and one month on those charges.

SIEGEL: Her free expression entailed - was it tearing up pictures of the king?


SIEGEL: Is that what she did - yep.

SIEGEL: Bahrain is a small island kingdom. It's very closely connected to Saudi Arabia. It's the home base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Do you think that the U.S. is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses there for strategic reasons?

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I think that unfortunately, it's gone beyond just turning a blind eye and a deaf ear. I think the United States, to some degree, is enabling the Bahraini government by continuing to sell them arms and to do economic deals with them. And this allows the Bahraini government to continue committing the human rights abuses that the do and getting away with it, unfortunately.

SIEGEL: Here's what a State Department spokesman said when he was asked about reports of your sister's arrest last week. He said, we're aware of those reports, and we strongly urge the government of Bahrain to follow due process in all cases and to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings conducted in full accordance with Bahrain's international legal obligations.

AL-KHAWAJA: Yes. And I mean the problem with that statement is that Zaineb has already been through the appeal court. And so there is no further legal process in her case. And so for them to call for due process and a fair trial at this point doesn't mean much. That being said, also, we're looking at a country where, for the past several years, it's been void of fair trials and due process. We don't have any examples of cases where there have been the international standards of fair trial and due process upheld.

SIEGEL: Human rights groups in Arab countries these days seem to have another problem, which is that the outcome of popular Arab-Spring-like movements have been so disappointing throughout the region that a lot of Westerners seem to be willing to tolerate repressive regimes even if there aren't big U.S. naval bases there. They figure it's better than opening the door to more popular movements that might be more hostile to the West.

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I mean, that's definitely the easier way of looking at it. But when we look at the situation in the Middle East, a lot of the outcome of what we're seeing today is because of the inaction of the allies of many of these governments when they were cracking down or while they are cracking down.

When we're looking at the state of civil society in places like Bahrain or when we look at the situation in Syria, it is largely due to the inaction of the international community in holding the Assad regime accountable. And so it is definitely the easier thing to say that, let's stick with the dictators because the other outcome is extremism. But I think the outcome of extremism is because of sticking with the dictators.

SIEGEL: What do you hope to happen to your sister, Zaineb, at this point?

AL-KHAWAJA: For the time being, of course, I'm worried about my sister and my nephew, who's a baby. I would like to see them released, and the only way we are going to see that is if we can raise enough international pressure to get her released. But generally, we have a chronic problem in Bahrain of systematic use of arbitrary arrest and systematic use of torture and unfair trials. And so this is definitely the larger issue that does need to be dealt with and does need to be addressed on an international platform.

SIEGEL: Maryam al-Khawaja, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, thanks for talking with us about the situation in Bahrain and with your family.

AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: We asked the Embassy of Bahrain in Washington for a response to what Maryam al-Khawaja told us, and they sent us a statement which says this. Maryam al-Khawaja's arrest is not arbitrary, and the charges against her include vandalism, insulting a public employee amd contempt of court. They also say that her young son is not being forcibly detained. He has remained with Maryam al-Khawaja, they say, at her request. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.