North Africa, West Asia

Interview with imprisoned Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab

Rajab speaks about his experience in a Bahraini prison, the failure of western media and governments to support human rights in the Gulf, and the challenges facing his country's pro-democracy movement.

Malachy Browne
7 October 2014

Nabeel Rajab. Image credit: Malachy Browne. All rights reserved.

Nabeel Rajab undertook a European advocacy tour in August and September during which he was outspoken about government inaction at tackling human rights abuses in Bahrain. During the tour, Rajab, who has some 240,000 followers on Twitter, posted an online poll asking whether his followers supported or opposed the Bahraini government.

Within days, the Ministry of the Interior issued a statement warning of the consequences of “misusing” social media to “disseminate false information and news”. During an interview in Ireland that week (video here), Rajab, who was imprisoned for two years in 2012 for his public criticism of the government, said he interpreted this as a threat to re-arrest him upon his return to Bahrain.

This is precisely what happened on Wednesday, October 2, within a day of Rajab’s return to Bahrain. Summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department, Rajab was detained for a week while “charges of insulting a public institution” on Twitter were investigated.

Malachy Browne (MB): You were imprisoned in 2012 for two years for publicly criticising the government. What was your experience of prison like? How were you treated?

Nabeel Rajab (NR): People think pain only comes from torture. It’s not like that. Pain can be created from many things that are not physical. When I was in jail and I lost my mom, when she wanted to see me, this itself is more than torture. I knew that to the last moment she wanted to call me. Then she died and I was released to be with her. Of course my aunt, my uncle, his wife and two cousins I lost also while in prison. This is very painful. 

Also, keeping me away from people. For two years I was kept in isolation. Not in a proper facility where others are kept. They kept me separate so I couldn’t influence people. They are afraid of my language, of my influence. When I complained, they put other prisoners in with me who don’t speak my language. So they made sure that I couldn’t influence the people staying with me.

I was not allowed to talk about human rights even by telephone to my wife or my kids. So I was not aware of what was going on on the ground. Yes, I had a TV, and I can see the BBC. But maybe once in a year they cover Bahrain. They tried to disconnect me from my people. And that was very painful also.

Of course they tortured me physically. They keep you naked and made me stand and sit 40 or 50 times [in a row]. My back was already injured by the previous beating I had by the police. These injuries got worse when they made me sit and stand. Naked I used to do it. I was taken to hospital again.

So it’s mental and physical. But you know when you are a respected man and you are humiliated, that is very hard. I am a human rights activist for 15 years and I have heard such stories. I always thought that I am going to be strong facing such circumstances: You could beat me, you could kill me. But there were things I shouldn’t have suffered.

MB: Your colleague Abdullah Al Khawaja recently renewed his hunger strike in prison and others continue to be detained for opposing the government. What are the conditions for those people in prison, and what must be done to get them a fair trial or have them released?

NR: Well you are in a country where the ruling family owns everything, including the judiciary. From the leadership to the judges; the ruling family is a part of the crisis that we have.

All the human rights groups have said that the trials are not fair trials - they are political trials targeting activists. Khawaja, like others, is respected by the international community.

MB: What responsibility does the media have in reporting what is happening?

NR: Many reporters in Bahrain end up in jail. We have at least 10 photographers behind bars. Many were sentenced to 15 to 20 years. So journalists and reporters, photographers, social media activists, website owners or administrators are targets. It’s dangerous.

The media in western countries has to take a greater responsibility toward their colleagues in Bahrain who have been sentenced, some of them killed, some tortured to death. To raise their cases.

We have said that we were abandoned not only by western governments but also by the media, the media agencies who think about doing business in Bahrain. Because they think that if they cover a story about Nabeel Rajab or the revolution or some issue, they will not be allowed to cover the economic side of Bahrain. So they are not covering stories that anger the Bahraini government.

The Bahraini authorities are specialists in public relations now. They have employed many companies, they spend a lot of money to fix their image internationally. At the local level they have banned journalists [from getting] into Bahrain, they have banned human rights workers. But they have PR companies trying to present the human rights situation in a good light.

They are also targeting activists on social media. People who write and try to bring the story out were targets also. You have tens, maybe hundreds of them behind bars as we are talking here.

Yesterday there was a statement by the Ministry of the Interior threatening those who work on social media, under the pretense of fighting terrorism.

MB: What is the role of western governments with respect to Bahrain?

NR: The US and the UK are the most influential superpowers in my county as well as elsewhere. And they shoulder a big part of the responsibility of what is going on with our people. Because they not only abandoned us, but they misled the public and the real story of what is going on in Bahrain. 

The UK is the main political player in Bahrain; they play a very bad role. Not only in supporting dictators, not only in selling arms to a country that does not respect the human rights of its people. But they tried to mislead the UN agencies on the situation in Bahrain. For example, the last report the UK released on the situation in Bahrain said, yes, there are improvements. But all human rights groups around the world, including the UN, speak about the deterioration.

The number of people in exile are now three or four times the previous record. The number of people arrested on a daily basis is much worse. Oppression has been institutionalised now by creating laws that ban you from criticising, ban you from peacefully protesting. We are a victim of so many actors - the UK, United States, the media in a rich region that nobody wants to upset, nobody wants to anger.

MB: What about the role of the US which is the biggest financial supporter of Saudi Arabia and supplies it with its weaponry?

NR: All of our miseries in the region are because of the influence of the United States and the UK. Because of their support, the dictators in our region are strong.

MB: Even though they claim to support the pro-democracy movement as well?

NR: Well, they issue a couple of statements here and there. But in reality, they don’t support it at all. 

I would say the UK is the worst now. It used to be the United States. Since Barack Obama was elected, they have started talking more about democracy. But the UK has gone totally the wrong way. Not only supporting the Bahraini government but even trying to make our job as human rights advocates difficult. I was detained in a UK airport three weeks ago with my family for five hours, and I was interrogated. My passport was taken by the UK authorities for two weeks. For no reason other than doing human rights work in my country, than fighting for democracy.

They have not dealt with our revolution the same way they did with Syria or the same way they do with the Iranian human rights movement. They very clearly have two different stances.

MB: Why?

NR: They present it as if there is something wrong with our revolution. Because of their interests. It is in their interest to stay with those ruling families. They pay for that. Arm sales, petrol, money, investment, business, everything.

Who was promoting Bahrain’s royal family in the UK? The Queen’s son, Andrew. He is doing PR for Bahrain’s royal family. No country will receive our rulers except the UK, with a red carpet.

MB: What about western businesses working in Bahrain?

NR: Doing business in Bahrain should not rule out protecting human rights. Human rights standards and criteria always have to be respected when you’re doing business. This means that you at least respect the EU guidelines. This is what we are asking; don’t do anything underhand.

We say to European companies, for example, when you know a lot of people died from tear gas in Bahrain, you should not supply tear gas to the Bahraini government. South African, Brazilian and Korean companies supply tear gas, but they say it’s owned by European companies who conduct their business at one remove. We are doing our investigation into that to see who the businessmen are [behind that]. That’s what we are going to do in the future. We are going to look at the companies doing business with dictators. We have to have an impact on their economic situation. Their money has our blood and our children’s blood. We have to stop them doing business that affects our lives, our future. We’re going to target them slowly, of course in a peaceful way.

MB: Have you met officials in the UK government?

NR: I have stopped trying. Everybody from our movement who meets officials or the embassy comes out of the meeting depressed. I tell you the truth. Even foreign journalists who come out say it’s a waste of time, because they are clearly supporting the repressive regime.

MB: Does the government say there is a conspiracy against them? 

NR: The government associates us with Iran, because they can sell that very easily - Shia and Iran. Sometimes they say that Iran is supplying arms. But Bahrain is not an armed revolution. There now is some small [incidents of] violence, mostly teenagers making homemade bombs. But we don’t know them.  We don’t advocate for armed violence because we know that it could be very costly. We are very careful about that. We insist that it has to be peaceful. Maybe that is also why we are not covered - the media, they want to see blood.

MB: You said that you are not against the monarchy. How can you reconcile a pro-democracy movement with accepting a monarchy?

NR: If you offer me full democracy and the removal of the monarchy, I will say thank you. But I am talking about possibilities. We are in a region ruled by a royal family who are willing to burn the whole country down before they give up power. I say let’s compromise. You have power, you have wealth, but let’s live like human beings. But for now they are rejecting that.

MB: What next for the pro-democracy movement?

NR: Well, we have no option but to continue our struggle. There is a long way to go, because now we are not only [working] in Bahrain but the Gulf region. We are more influenced by [other] conflicts. Human rights activists are behind bars in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman. All the activists are in prison. I am one of very few people who are outside.

At the time of writing, Nabeel Rajab has spent a week in prison. Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, United Nations bodies, international journalists and European parliamentarians are among those who have internationally condemned his imprisonment. 

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