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Reem Khalifa: Brutal repression of democracy movement continues as F1 race will go ahead in Bahrain

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

Repression of democracy protesters in Bahrain continues. And now joining us from Bahrain to describe today’s events is Reem Khalifa. She’s a Bahraini, and she writes for the AP and contributes op-eds to various publications in the Middle East. Thanks for joining us, Reem.


JAY: What happened today? You’ve just come from a protest. What was it about, and what happened?

KHALIFA: It actually was, at the beginning, a funeral—ten thousands of people who participated in this funeral, opposition, human rights activists, and all level of classes who participated in this funeral, actually, for a person called Ahmed Ismail, 22-years-old citizen journalist who was killed by a gun, a live-bullet gun, two weeks ago. There was an argument to collect his body between his family and the authorities. It’s just because the authorities refused to say that the cause of death was a live bullet. The family decided to collect it today after fighting a case against the authorities for that. The person also was one of the volunteer organizers who used to participate in Formula One events every year. Ismail was very much popular in the social media among his friends and colleagues, and also among his colleagues in Formula One.

JAY: Now, the Formula One is an issue right now because there’s a F1 race to take place soon in Bahrain. Last year’s was canceled, and there was a big debate whether to cancel it again this year. But they’ve decided to go ahead with it this year. What do people think of that decision?

KHALIFA: Well, today, seeing them, you know, we saw the feedback coming out from a couple of activists [incompr.] complaining and criticizing why it’s happening in Bahrain and giving an example of Ismail, that this symbolized how, you know, he was killed with a cold blood. And also you see after this event classes have started between protesters who seek for democracy and freedom and between police forces who used—fired, sorry, tear gas and shotgun.

I have to highlight that the shotgun was not used for about six months, but they are back using it massively, and we witnessed that. Many protesters were wounded today, and some were trying to have treatment inside houses in the area of Salmabad, which is the located in middle of Bahrain Island.

JAY: Now, you say he was a 22-year-old citizen journalist. What kind of journalism did he do? And do they think he was in any way specifically targeted?

KHALIFA: Yeah, he was targeted as his colleagues were filming. When he was trying to film the protests and the clashes where—. Literally, in Bahrain there is daily clashes in various areas. So Ismail was one among the young Bahrainis who was very much passionate with, you know, camera and filming. And he was just filming the clashes. And what—according to the opposition, Al Wefaq, and other human rights activists, in their statement issued, they said that he was—you know, what—they pointed directly to him because he was carrying a camera, filming the clashes and the event, and they didn’t want that.

And also one more thing. There was a couple of press releases in solidarity issued with Ismail, like CPJ and RSF.

JAY: And the authorities have been trying to hide or cover up the fact live ammunition is being used. But you saw it being used today. Is that correct?

KHALIFA: Yeah, that’s correct, yeah, a lot.

JAY: A lot. And what are they shooting? These are live bullets?

KHALIFA: They were shooting the—they were shooting shotguns, the birdshot guns.

JAY: With birdshot.

KHALIFA: Not live bullets. Birdshot guns. Yeah. They were using birdshot guns, which is like a small-circle middle type of bullet which insert immediately to the body. It was a lot, and it was quite scary to report in this environment.

JAY: Now, there’s a sort of a—the Bahraini government—and to some extent a lot of the international media have kind of moved on from Bahrain. The government is sort of suggesting, oh, things have died down, there’s not really that much protest anymore. And most of the international media, I would say—you know, you’re one of the exceptions—have kind of—not covering much of the Bahrain story anymore. But the conflict continues quite intensely, does it?

KHALIFA: Yeah, every day. For example, yesterday, north and northwest Bahrain was under siege with armored vehicles, which were deployed in [bÉ™’deɪjÉ™] Highway, and clashes were nonstop clashes between the police and the protesters. Many areas were under siege. And many vigilantes were trying to set checkpoints in some of the areas. Even today in the funeral there were police and people in several clots—they were blocking people to prevent them to attend the funeral, and the rally as well.

JAY: Now, you know, in Syria, perhaps the level of repression is more violent. The conflict has gotten more violent. But even early on, before it reached such a state, the United States and the West were very, very critical of the Assad regime, but not so much about Bahrain. And, certainly, Saudi Arabia, which is, you know, leading the charge about the issues in Syria, as we all know, helped the Bahraini government suppress protesters. What reaction is there to, I guess, what most people would call a double standard? What do the Bahrainis think of all this?

KHALIFA: Well, today, for example, people of Bahrain, or in the demo, they feel very much that there is a kind of double standard when it comes to the U.S. policy, when it comes to Bahrain issue. And they were—like, not just today, but in the past few days they started to chant and say U.S. slogans beside the antigovernment slogans. That’s a new thing. And we—a couple of weeks ago, some of them were trying to have an American intervention to release the hunger strike human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Main demand is to call for the release of the political prisoners which are in detention still. They have, like, between 600 to 800, according to the opposition and human rights activists.

The fact-finding committee which—they issued a very important report last November [incompr.] recommendations according to the NGOs and opposition, that the governmental of Bahrain didn’t really implement these recommendations. So still there is a struggle and battle going on in the street. And also, Bahrain, according to the opposition, violated the international covenant when it comes to the political rights and civil rights which Bahrain ratified in 2006.

So all these things—they consider Bahrain violated human rights and violated the rights to access for the people to express themselves. And what happened a year ago, it was Bahrainis were punished for, basically, expressing their views and their rights for freedom and democracy. And that’s why you see until now there is trials going on for doctors, for journalists, for teachers, especially doctors and journalists, who—they basically witnessed many crimes happened by the regime. So basically [incompr.] they were doing their job, but in the same time, they were punished and arrested and detained and tortured in different ways.

JAY: The White House press secretary a few days ago issued a statement on Bahrain. What did people think of that statement?

KHALIFA: It differs from [one] group to another, because what—there are, like—you know, the opposition didn’t really comment much on the statement; we didn’t see any feedback. But in the social media you will find two different kind of people: people with and people against and people in between. What they call themselves, the group the Fourteenth Fifth movement or coalition, who—they always announce things in the social media, and then they set up their demos and protest against security forces around the island—they issued today a statement saying that, you know, the White House and the U.S. policy is all moving towards pleasing the government of Bahrain, and also by standing aside [to] one side to protect their own interests, while they didn’t really issue one single statement about the killing that’s happening every day, including Ahmed Ismail, who was killed by a live bullet. So, basically this is what they were saying today in their statement. And they criticize also why F1 should go ahead on time in Bahrain while still the clashes and the killing going on. And the government doesn’t want to admit that.

So, yeah, this is how they feel. They feel they are voiceless and they feel no one really standing beside what they are demanding and calling for. And that’s why yesterday there was a couple of explosions in a couple of areas, like, you know, gas cylinders and an attempt to set fire on tires. And they tried to do just a kind of—things just to pay attention to the people, and probably to the people who’s coming to Bahrain, to see that there is a political problem.

JAY: And just finally, we’re seeing in the press more—we have almost from the beginning, but even more so now—it’s being portrayed as the struggle in Bahrain is simply a proxy war with Iran, it’s all Sunni-Shia. But are Sunnis in fact participating in these protests?

KHALIFA: There are. Like, the society-wide society is a mix of Shia and Sunni, the liberal ones, yes. But there are—like, the categories like the Sunni Islamist societies are the pro-government societies in the island, so they will participate in the government rallies. And that’s why you see now, the opposition, all the pro-democracy rallies are more like with the opposition human rights Shia side—and mixed with Sunni as well, but majority are Shia, yes, because Bahrain is majority Shia, and obviously you will find they are the one who’s moving the things in the streets. And this is how we see as an observer, and how when we are reporting. So there’s two type rallies: rally which is with the government, and a rally which is with the opposition. So basically with and against.

JAY: But part of the rationale here, I think, both with American media and American politicians, is that because they’re trying to portray this as Sunni-Shia, but really Iran versus Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and they’re kind of in that way delegitimatizing the protest, that they’re not really democracy protests, it’s not really a Bahraini phenomenon, it’s somehow an extension of Iran. What do you make of that?

KHALIFA: Well, according to [incompr.] report, which was issued on November 2011, he made a very clear statement in the report, saying that there was no—any Iranian involvement or conspiracy when it comes to the movement that happened in Bahrain a year ago. So this is a very important and a clear statement that came out from a fact-finding committee was recognized internationally.

What’s actually, in Bahrain, going through the things and reporting things [incompr.] this is actually a very old demand for Bahrainis. It goes back to the ’50s. And it just developed by time. And probably because with the Arab Spring that happened last year and now, we are witnessing awakening of a sort of movement spreading around the Arab world. So probably it might happen, more development, the way how they address their demands. And what—if you ask or talk to the opposition or to the activists, they will keep saying that Bahrain, it doesn’t differ from another country or different country from—in the Arab world; it’s just all Arab world are the same; but it could differ in the size or the number of the population.

JAY: I guess it also differs, from an American point of view, that there’s the Fifth Fleet there and there’s a major U.S. naval base, and that makes it different for them. Any rate, thanks very much for joining us, Reem.

KHALIFA: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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