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Political Change Slow To Come To Bahrain


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

One country often forgotten in the narrative of the Arab spring is Bahrain. Opposition activists are still fighting for political reform there, perhaps none more fiercely than Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights advocate. He is serving a life sentence for alleging plotting to overthrow the government by force. He's now on day 87 of a hunger strike. The government says he has been treated well at a hospital in Bahrain. But his daughter Maryam al-Khawaja told us her mother got a different story when she visited him this week.

MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA: He told her that he was drugged and tied to the bed and then force fed, and that he had notified the doctor who did the procedure on several occasions that he considered this torture and that he would hold the hospital, the doctor himself and the minister of interior responsible for these actions.

GREENE: Maryam, your father is sentenced to life. I mean, he's a political opposition figure, raised a lot of alarm bells among international human rights groups. The recent news, a court in Bahrain this week said it will review your father's case, and also the cases of a handful of other dissidents. Is this some encouraging news?

AL-KHAWAJA: Not really. I mean, first of all, it's not a retrial. It's an appeal, which means that, you know, they might just reaffirm the sentence. They're not actually starting from scratch. They're just re-looking the case, or looking at it as an appeal.

The second thing is that we have to understand that there is no such thing as an independent judiciary system in Bahrain. It's not fair, nor just. And so this is a court that is usually used by the regime as a political tool against people that they want to put away.

GREENE: Maryam, stay on the line with us from Beirut, if you don't mind. I want to bring in another voice. Khalil al-Marzooq is with me in the studio.

Khalil, you're a leader of the opposition movement in Bahrain. And I listened to Maryam speaking about her father willing, you know, he has said, to give up his life for this fight. What is the opposition fighting for, and why is it worth such a sacrifice?

KHALIL AL-MARZOOQ: Just to touch upon the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, which is an international defendant of human rights, rather just a Bahraini defendant of human rights. This is the case of most of the Bahrainis. We don't have independent institutions within the state to protect us, to develop us, to look for our interest.

All of these institutions works sometimes against the population, if this conflict with the interest of the rulers. The rulers want to dominate everything: the wealth of the country, the decision-making, the institutions, everything. So whenever there is somebody talking against them, they will put him in jail.

GREENE: The kind of themes that you're talking about we've heard in other countries, obviously, during the Arab Spring. One of the frustrations among opposition figures in your country was that the United States did not do more when the protests began last year. You're here in Washington. You're meeting with lawmakers and others in the United States. What message are you getting from them right now?

AL-MARZOOQ: For the past 14 months, I think the United States and others, they are in a mode of wait and see what's going on. So this is the situation. This is the name of my mission here, trying to see the possibility is that this shift will happen in Washington.

GREENE: Do you see some hope, some progress that might lead you to tell Maryam's father that maybe he should not put his life at risk yet? Maybe he should wait a bit, because, you know, you're on a mission, give people like you time to convince the American government and other Western governments to try and, you know, get involved.

AL-MARZOOQ: The whole message for the Bahrainis is that, at the end, we will win, despite the delay in response from the international community. For Mr. Khawaja, which is a - he is a beloved individual in Bahrain. His life is very precious, but I don't know. This is his own decision. We all contributing to save his life, but the problem is that the international community is not assertively interfering.

In Bahrain, all what you see is backward, is going repression more, ill treatment of people more, segregation, polarization of the community - all of this done by the government.

GREENE: Maryam al-Khawaja, you're still on the line from Beirut. And I just wanted to ask you about you and your family, I mean, if you're prepared to lose your father for the sake of a cause - I mean, the worst case, if he does have to sacrifice his life, that that's not a position many people can relate to. I mean, can you just give us some window into your emotions right now?

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I mean, there's several aspects of looking at this. Of course, he is my father, and it very much concerns me that I might lose him. And it's something that I definitely don't want. And I know that my father himself has said on several occasions that he loves life, but he loves freedom even more. And that's mainly the point of his hunger strike. And this is why we support him, because we understand why he's doing it.

One of the main goals was to bring attention to the human rights violations in Bahrain, which he's managed to do through this hunger strike. Other goals were, you know, to put the government in a position where they had to make a choice. They either had to release him, and he would be walking evidence of the kinds of violations that are committed in Bahraini prisons or allow him to die in a situation where he has committed no crime. So again, the government is in a position where they have to do one or the other because - and both ways they look bad.

GREENE: That was Maryam Al-Khawaja. She works for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, an organization her father helped found. We also heard from Khalil Al-Marzooq. He's a senior member of Bahrain's main Opposition Party, Al-Wefaq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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