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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bahrain: The Forgotten Revolution. An Interview With Asma Darwish, Part III

As this piece is published, Zanaib al-Khawaja's father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is currently in the 33rd day of his hunger strike in a Bahraini prison. al-Khawaja is the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has spent his lifetime championing human rights. For more about al-Khawaja read the linked Wikileak bio.

Read al-Khawaja's letter to Denmark's Minister of Foreign Affairs (February 8, 2012) courtesy of Ceasefire Magazine (UK).

“If not for Twitter, I would probably be in jail right now, and maybe dead,” Asma Darwish, a 21 year-old political exile from Bahrain told a reporter last year.

In yesterday's column, Asma discussed the difficulties the Bahraini people have faced telling the story of their portion of the Arab Spring. A regime that has been able to outlast the attention span of the world, denial of entrance permits for foreign journalists last fall, and the increasing trickle of information from Syria, have all conspired to turn the world's attention away from Bahrain. Meanwhile, the revolution, and the brutality of the Khalifa regime, continues.

Darwish: There are so many people in prison right now, and they have not been released yet. Torture is still going on. So many people are oppressed. In the streets there are peaceful protesters protesting everyday and they get attacked with tear gas and other poison gasses. I tweeted the other day about Bahrain being number two in the amount of martyrs killed in one year, after Libya, comparing the populations of the two countries.
I was not able to find an exact number of political prisoners detained or arrested in Bahrain in the past year, but the number is generally estimated at above 2,000. Using that conservative figure, against a native population in Bahrain of 700,000, (1.2 million with guest workers),  a per capita comparison with the United States would put 9.5 million Americans in jail for speaking out against the government.

Asma Darwish
There are no published statistics for the number of Bahraini citizens killed by the government during the past year. Darwish estimated the number at 75, but that number may be greater. A Facebook page entitled Bahrain Martyrs tallies 29 through April, 2011, and an article in the Guardian UK had the number at 60 through June, 2011. Obviously the Bahraini government is not going to release these figures, and without outside monitoring the amount of Bahraini citizens killed or imprisoned by their government is unknowable.

The number of people killed in Syria at the hands of their government is yet to be known but the fact remains, of the top three countries in numbers of citizens murdered by their governments over the last year, Libya and Syria have garnered world-wide attention. Bahrain has not.

When do you think you will be able to return to Bahrain?

Darwish: I don't know. I applied here (Switzerland) for asylum and I'm waiting for the decision to be [made] for me and my husband. I'm not sure when I can get back because if I go back right now there will be a huge amount of risk I would be taking. I might be arrested in the airport itself. I am staying here for the moment and I am studying here and I will work for the Bahraini case from this land. I will tell the people here about [how] we are struggling in Bahrain. Actually in a few days I am attending the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva with other activists so we can deliver the Bahraini case to organizations here.
In the United States the story of Bahrain is not receiving a lot of attention. Is it the same in Europe?

Darwish: It is a quiet story. I think people who live in the United States and the UK have more awareness on what's happening in Bahrain than here in Europe. Here [in Europe] the coverage is very little and our work here is quite more than working in the States or UK about Bahrain. So here we have to start from scratch.

Asma's brother Mohammed was arrested in May of 2011 and was detained by Bahraini authorities without word of his whereabouts or condition. On June 4, Asma began a hunger strike to bring attention to her brother's case. Around this time, Asma was also forbidden from attending university classes. A week after Asma's hunger strike began to attract world-wide attention, authorities allowed her family a fifteen minute visit with her brother.

Doctors from Doctors Without Borders attended to Asma during her hunger strike, but for safety parked blocks away and walked to her house because doctors in Bahrain have routinely been targeted by the police for torture and arrest. Over the past year, underground networks of aid and care have developed to shield caregivers from the eyes of the government and many doctors have been forced to flee the country, seeking asylum in the UK and United States.

Asma's husband, Hussain Jawad was a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Amnesty International and has been arrested multiple times. Hussain's father, Mohammad Hassan Mohammad Jawad, 65, is also a human rights activist. He was arrested last March and was kept in solitary confinement for four months before being sentenced to 15 years in prison. In prison, Jawad's interrogators tortured him with electric shocks to his genitals, legs, ears and hands. They made him bow down before a picture of Khalifa with his mouth open so they could spit in it, adding that "unless you swallow the spit we will urinate in your mouth instead." He is currently the oldest political prisoner in Bahrain.

Last summer, one of Asma's cousins was arrested and tortured for simply observing a protest. He was subsequently released, but one has to assume he was arrested because of who his family is. Asma also has another cousin and an uncle currently serving time in prison because of their activism.

Bahraini Shi'a political prisoners are routinely subjected to electrical shocks, beatings, and sexual abuse, including rape. Many of the prison guards committing offenses against Shi'a prisoners are Sunnis from Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Guards have been known to burn Qur’ans among other acts opposed to their faith, in-between their own prayers. "One prisoner was made to kiss an officer’s foot as he kicked his Qur’an across the cell."

By "importing" guards to carry out inhumane acts against Bahraini political prisoners, the Khalifa regime can claim a level of separation from the depravity it unleashes on its own people. Charges have also been made by Shi'a activists that the Khalifa regime is allowing a disproportionate number of Sunni Muslims into the country to change the overall demographic of the country. Sunnis would tend to be more sympathetic to the majority government, furthering marginalizing the Shi'a minority.

Khalifa is a beast among men, and as an American I want my government to maintain a higher standard among the people it chooses to do business with.

Again, I call on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama to make a firm statement denouncing the violence and torture of Bahraini citizens in the country the US Navy 5th Fleet calls home.

Addition information courtesy Bahraini Freedom Movement.

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