Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Human rights organizations, activists and researchers called for radical change in international policies tackling human rights violations in Bahrain in an international conference held in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, entitled "Bahrain: 8 Years of Repression under International Silence".
Members of prominent organizations such Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, IFEX, FIDH, Civicus and others participated in the discussions of the topics of the conference organized by Bahrain Interfaith Center with the cooperation of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).
Bahrain Mirror interviewed some of the participants on the sidelines of the conference, including Senior Advisor at Human Rights First, Brian Dooley, political activist and former Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, Joe Stork, and Salam for democracy and Human Rights Director Drewery Dyke. Here are excerpts from the interviews:
Bahrain Mirror: Following a top Bahraini court ruling upholding a 5-year prison sentence against Nabeel Rajab just last month over tweets, what does this mean for those who speak out against the government in Bahrain?
Brian Dooley: It's clearly a warning to anybody who speaks against the government. If the government has a reach over those people, then Nabeel's sentence was also a message to everybody else, telling them to be quiet. The Bahraini government is saying: "If we can put Nabeel in prison even though he's very famous and internationally connected, then we can reach you too." So, the verdict wasn't just a verdict against Nabeel. I think it was intimidation against everybody else, actually. However, I also think that the sentence, whether five years, three years, ten years, whatever it is, isn't real, because the judiciary isn't independent. It sort of doesn't matter whether it's five years as opposed to two years or ten years. If the government decides it wants to release him tomorrow, then they'll just release him. And at the end of five years, they could decide they don't want to release him. They'll just extend it. Hence, the period being five year is sort of meaningless in a sense. This is a political decision just to keep him in prison as long as they want to.
Bahrain Mirror: Do you foresee any solutions for Bahrain's violations of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression?
Brian Dooley: I don't see a lot of promise and hope in the near future. Honestly, I think that the murder of Khashoggi has changed the equation a little. It's hard to know longterm how much that's going to really change things, but I think it has made a little change. I think if we could stretch the issue of the Saudis murdering a journalist, and show that this is really part of a wider system of repression in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and elsewhere, and even focus some of that attention of that murder on to some of the other associate countries and their violations, then yes maybe matters will change. It's hard; however, to even direct attention on the Saudi women being abused in prison. There's a lot of attention on Khashoggi and that's good, but I think it's possible, but difficult, to try to stretch out that attention on some of the other related issues, including freedom of expression in Bahrain. I think that's the likeliest in the short term. There are questions that should have been asked in Washington everyday for the last ten years that haven't been really asked for a generation, i.e. why Washington is friends with these terrible dictatorships. Somehow that is okay to have that conversation now because of the Khashoggi case, so that's a positive development now. I don't know how long that will last or where it would lead. If we're looking for hope, there isn't much but I think there is a little bit there. That's a conversation that we could have now, which wasn't likely last year or for the last 20 years.
Bahrain Mirror: If you could send a message to imprisoned prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab what would you say?
Brian Dooley: I would like to say that people could still do human rights work from inside prison. They could still inspire other human rights people, even when they're in prison. In fact, one of the charges against him was for doing human rights work, while he was in prison for revealing the torture that was happening in jail, so he shouldn't' think that by putting him in prison, the government has silenced him. Really they haven't, as people are still talking about him and his work. I think he is probably the most famous Bahraini. I don't know a more famous Bahraini, whether an athlete or singer or politician or anyone else. The government have made him the most famous Bahraini in the world and that doesn't stop when he's in prison, in fact, if anything, it makes him more famous. Hence, he's contributing to the human rights movement, to the cause of human rights in prison. I hope he appreciates that and doesn't lose faith or hope because he's in prison. It's frustrating for him of course, but he shouldn't feel like he's being useless because he's not.
Bahrain Mirror: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a recent visit to Bahrain, praised Bahrain for "steadily moving forward on the right path to maintain its stability and the continuity of development and progress," what are your thoughts on the US Administration's support for Bahrain despite its deteriorating human rights situation?
Joe Stork: Well, I think the problem is Pompeo is exactly wrong. The way the trajectory of Bahrain under the ruling family is one for instability not stability. That's my short answer.
Bahrain Mirror: Do you expect any improvements or change in the deteriorating human rights situation in Bahrain?
Joe Stork: I can only hope there will be an improvement, but everything is moving in the wrong direction. I has been moving in the wrong direction and I don't see anything immediately on the horizon that's going to change that, unfortunately. It will change, but when and exactly what the dynamics will be, I don't know.
Bahrain Mirror: With regards to the growing issue of citizenship revocation in Bahrain, do you see any change in 2019? And what are the grounds for such sentences in your opinion, as many HR organizations find that the Bahraini government is using the revocation of citizenship and expulsion from the country as tools to suppress all forms of opposition and its activities.
Drewery Dyke: I think arbitrary revocation of citizenship, as practiced notably by Bahrain really, over 750 people have had their citizenship revoked since the end of 2011, beginning of 2012 until now. And last year alone, it was an incredibly high number with 298 people stripped of their citizenship. I think the practice of what we're seeing in Bahrain in general is a politics of extirpation, of removal. Crushing civil society is one thing, such as silencing them, but actually physically removing the rights of people arbitrarily by making them non-people is kind of quintessential expression of silencing, of extirpation, of removal. It's an absolutely astonishing policy. It's absolutely cruel and heartless. Of course, a lot of people who had their citizenship taken from them are imprisoned and obviously that undermines their legal position in any case, then there's the case of people who've been basically forced to leave like Jawad Fairouz and scores of others. People have been expelled to Iraq for example. It's a huge challenge for us in the human rights community. I think we need to renew and revisit what we're saying and how we're tackling this issue because it does fall between the mandates and the activities of the office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, but also the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I think there hasn't been enough action on this and I would really like to see the Bahraini communities join forces with Rohingya, people in the millions who had their citizenships removed by the government of Myanmar, and others such as people from the Dominican Republic, those of Haitian descent for reasons of discrimination have had their citizenships revoked. These are all kind of the same thing. All about discrimination, political marginalization and removal and really not enough has been done about it.