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Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab on dialogue with the government, the international community and democracy

July 7, 2014 at 4:54 pm

The veteran Bahrain human rights activist Nabeel Rajab has renewed his call for discussions with the government with the hope of ending more than three years of unrest in the Gulf island kingdom.

Mr Rajab was freed in May after serving two years in prison for his involvement in peaceful protests. He was convicted in August 2012 of taking part in illegal gatherings and disturbing public order.

Amnesty International called him a “prisoner of conscience” and said he was detained in “inhumane and humiliating conditions”.

Mr Rajab is president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and deputy secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

He told me: “I see no problem talking with the government and I see no problem if the opposition (parties) talk to the government. Talks are needed to solve problems. Continuing the situation as it is now serves no one.”

A dialogue process broke down in January of this year and there have been no formal discussions since then.

Mr Rajab says he has no personal animosity towards the government and the judicial system that jailed him.

“Our problem with the government is about human rights issues and is not of a personal nature. We want justice to be applied, we want equality, we want freedom, we want human rights, we want democracy. And if the government gets closer to considering those issues we look forward to having a constructive dialogue so that we can come out of the crisis we have been facing for the last four years.”

He said that despite a groundbreaking study into human rights abuses that was commissioned by the Bahraini king and authored by the Egyptian law professor Cherif Bassiouni, the situation has “gotten worse on the ground.”

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), released in November 2011,
was a damning indictment of the way police and security forces had put down largely peaceful protests calling for more democracy in February and March of that year.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa accepted the report and its recommendations in full and promised sweeping reforms. But that has not gone nearly far enough in Mr Rajab’s opinion:

“The king accepting the recommendations does not mean anything if it is not followed by real tangible changes on the ground. We have experienced more repression since the report was published. Today we have thousands in jail. The king did accept the findings, yet did it improve anything? No. On the ground the situation has become worse.”

Mr Rajab was critical of Europe for not doing enough to push for the reform agenda in Bahrain.

“All in all the level of support we have from European countries is very disappointing and very worrying because this will have negative future consequences as people realise that their struggle has been abandoned by the international community.”

He was critical too of the United States, alleging that America’s security concerns in the region trumped the issue of human rights. Bahrain’s capital Manama is home to the US 5th Fleet.

But he reserved his harshest criticism for the UK despite the fact that Britain has spent a large amount of money, time and effort encouraging reform in areas such as the creation of a police ombudsman, the first in the Middle East.

Mr Rajab said that establishing institutions like the ombudsman’s office intended “to fix the image of the regime outside Bahrain more than fixing human rights problems in Bahrain.”

He added:

“We have to see the other side. How many setbacks have there been on human rights in the past two years while I was in jail? Many new laws have been created that make it difficult for the human rights community, for journalists, politicians, social media activists to operate in a free and open environment. If you criticise the king you can go to jail for seven years. Compare this situation with the institutions the UK has helped to create like the police ombudsman and you will clearly see the imbalance. The UK criticises the opposition for violence – and let me just say we are all opposed to violence – but at the same time they do not criticise the regime for the violence it is committing against the people of Bahrain. Yes, there are some positive steps that the UK took, yet there are more negatives. The UK needs to tell the world the whole story otherwise it is conveying an inaccurate impression. We want the UK government to help us, instead of creating obstacles and supporting one side which is the government.”

Mr Rajab denied the charge that he was using human rights to mask his own political ambitions – he says he has none – and also denied that he ultimately wanted to see the overthrow of the ruling Al Khalifa family.

“We hear that all the time, that we want to overthrow the government which is not correct at all, but at the same time we believe that choosing how you are going to be governed is the right of the people. If tomorrow I said I wanted a republic and I made that demand peacefully, no one has the right to stop me from saying so. But I personally do not want the overthrow of the government.”

He said he wants the situation to evolve towards the sort of constitutional monarchy the UK has.

“We have a lot in common with the UK people. We believe in democracy, we believe in justice and we believe in peaceful struggle. We want to have the same government that exists in the UK, we want an independent judiciary and we want respect for human rights.”

The journey toward democracy, he believes, will take time: “we know that we will not be Britain tomorrow but we know the process has to start in our region.”

Asked if he was worried that his comments may put him back in jail, he replied:

“Yes. I am worried but I know these worries will not stop me. If you tell me ‘you have two choices, to keep quiet or be in prison’, I will say I do not want to be in prison but I do not want to stop talking. Being silent is not an option. I will be sad, angry, upset if I go back to jail but whatever happens I will not make that bargain. I will continue my struggle for democracy.”