Exclusive from Bahrain: Interview with Human Rights Activist on Repression Against Formula One Race Protest
Sam Husseini interviews Said Yousif al-Muhafda, who was jailed for his twitter activism, about arrests, mass teargassing and use of shotguns to suppress peaceful protest
SAM HUSSEINI, WRITER AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST: This is Sam Husseini for The Real News.
Formula One Grand Prix just went ahead in Bahrain despite human rights objections over holding such an event in a country gripped by an uprising for two years, prompting a fresh wave of protests.
During that time, the U.S. and Saudi-backed monarchy there has limited media access, exacerbating the minimal media coverage the uprising in the Gulf monarchy has received.
I was able to get into Bahrain recently and interviewed Said Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. The president of that group, Nabeel Rajab, continues to be jailed by the regime, along with other political activists. Al-Muhafda, who I interviewed, was jailed for a month late last year for Tweeting information about human rights abuses by the regime against protesters.
Al-Muhafta recently wrote:
“The United States is one of the countries supporting the Bahraini regime despite the Obama Administration’s claims to be on the side of democracy and human rights. Why does the administration often stay so silent on the situation in Bahrain and not announce its support for the legitimate demands of the Bahrainis to peaceful protest and for self-determination? We know Bahrain hosts a major U.S. military base. That is why it is so important for them to speak up for us and to say that we are people who deserve democracy.”
I asked al-Muhafta about repression in Bahrain and the course of the uprisings just before the Formula One, or F1, Grand Prix that was just held in Bahrain and just as protests against it were starting. I interviewed him across the street from the police headquarters where he was recently imprisoned.
So this is where you were held for one month?
SAID YOUSIF AL-MUHAFTA, BAHRAIN CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: Yeah, I was arrested here for one month. They kept me here one month for a Tweet. I Tweet what’s happening in my country, so I was kept for one month.
And they did not take me to the main jail because I am the head of documentation in Bahrain Center for Human Rights. So the last time I was arrested, last year, I went to the main jail, and I have documented all the cases of the prisoners who were arrested—mistreatment, torture. So that’s why the second time when they arrested me, they kept me here with one Asian prisoner who cannot speak my language, so I cannot document.
So I was almost in solitary confinement, but I cannot say in solitary confinement, ’cause there is one Asian who cannot speak my language. They did not take me to the main jail where the hundreds of prisoner are suffering. Some of them, they do not have a right to have medical—some of them were tortured, beaten. So they don’t want me to see the marks on their body, because my job is to document and write a report.
So that’s why they kept me here for one month alone, as a punishment alone, and also not to let me document what’s happening in the media, because my mistake in the first time that I was arrested, I document all the cases. And when I go, went out, I speak to media. I told—I said thank you to the government for allowing me document the cases that I cannot document while I was outside.
So I think they have learned of that mistake. And they said, no, the next time when we arrested him, make sure that we kept him somewhere else. So they kept me here [incompr.] place, in the Al-Hora Police Station for one month for to the charge of publishing false information.
HUSSEINI: Now, your Tweet wasn’t even really political. It was talking about what was happening during the protests.
AL-MUHAFTA: Exactly. My Tweet that I was arrested for, it was in English, and I said “Shotgun injury in the capital, Manama.” That’s it. And they say that it is false information and no injury. But no, there was injury, and I document it myself and I take picture of him. And they know they just want to discredit my credibility.
I have credibility. I have 83,000 following me on Twitter inside Bahrain, a credible source in Bahrain. The media inside Bahrain and outside Bahrain, they trust me and trust my Tweets. So that’s why they’re angry about my human rights work.
So that’s why they arrested me, especially that they arrested me one week after when I was in Brussels. I met with E.U. MPs in Brussels, and I told him about what’s happening in my country. So one week after, I was arrested.
So in general they are angry about my work. And also they benefit off it so they can discredit my credibility. But it will not happen at all. They know, even the government, they know that I don’t lie, I don’t publish false information. All what I publish I witness myself, I witness myself and I take picture of the injury. Yes, it was not political at all, but showing that it is not related to what they said.
HUSSEINI: Yeah. A cab driver who drove me today from the airport said there aren’t much protests, that there are no more. Maybe once in a while, he said, someone will burn a tire in the streets to block traffic. Is that accurate? What do you say about that?
AL-MUHAFTA: One hour ago I was just in a protest, tens of thousands in the street demanding democracy and freedom.
HUSSEINI: In the capital or somewhere else?
AL-MUHAFTA: No, in the capital—no, not in the capital; in a village called Sitra. But there are 40 villages protesting on a daily basis from 2011 till today. Yes, we were suppressed, killed. One hundred protester killed. Thousand were tortured. Thousand were arrested. Thirty-five Shia mosque has been demolished as a collective punishment. A thousand were suspended from their works as a collective punishment to those who attend the protest.
We have—pay a very high cost for our demanding for democracy and freedom. And even Saudi troops came to my country, GCC troops came to my country to take part of the crackdown. But even with that did not work [incompr.] Now there are hundreds of thousand, and even the capital, Manama.
But the government don’t allow the protest in the capital Manama at all, and they have arrested hundreds of protester who were protesting in the capital, Manama. They don’t want in the capital anyone to protest. They don’t want the media and the journalists and foreigner to see what’s happening. They just want to hide what’s happening, to make it only in the villages and far away from the capital.
But still, till yesterday night, no. Yesterday night was a protest against the Formula One in the capital, Manama, and it was attacked.
HUSSEINI: What happened?
AL-MUHAFTA: As usual, they attack the protests with the tear gas and shotgun and rubber bullets. After that, the collective punishment would start. Collective punishment, I mean the riot police will come and will shot tear gas inside the house, inside the window. We have video of police putting the tear gas inside the home and as a collective punishment. And because of that policy, 30 citizen died because of that. Most of them are old or children or women [incompr.] they cannot make it, especially the children and the old men. If you throw a tear gas canister inside his room, he cannot make it. So, many of them were died, according to the United Nations and the human right organization.
And also many injury because of that policy from the short [incompr.] we have documented protester killed from close range of the tear gas canister. They use the tear gas as a weapon, not to [incompr.] just as a weapon. Even Physician for Human Rights, American organization—it’s called Physician for Human Rights—they came to Bahrain and they published a report about how weaponizing the tear gas in Bahrain and how the tear gas has been used in Bahrain as a weapon. And they have document also people, protester who were killed and protester who suffocated from tear gas.
HUSSEINI: Coming with the Formula One, what do you expect to have happen in the next couple of days? What do you expect to happen and what do you hope will happen?
AL-MUHAFTA: You know, even last year it was many protest against the F1. And even this year, before the F1 came to Bahrain and the last two weeks, many protest against the F1, especially in the villages very close to the F1.
But because of F1—I mean, we are not against the sport and the F1. But because of F1, they came to Bahrain, a crackdown have started in my country. Fifty protester were arrested the last two weeks, especially who lives in the villages next to the F1. So the crackdown was focused on the villages to make them silent in the period of F1.
We have issued a report in Bahrain Center for Human Rights for protester being kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and then released, tortured in secret detention and then released just to create the fear in those villages to make afraid and terrified. And also many house raid. Schools has been raided. Today, morning, the riot police storm a school, and they have kidnapped a student, a seven years old student. And then, after that, they shot teargas inside the school.
So, you know, we have people being arrested, house raid, checkpoint, many injury. We have documented three serious injury from close range to the head also in the protest that was against the F1. One woman protest against the F1 [incompr.] three days ago, and they have shot a woman. Her name is [sarasmaI], eighteen years old. She was shot in her head from close range and she was taken to the hospital. And also we have document two protester who were shot by tear gas from close range in the village Sitra.
So all those what I said, that people arrested and in jail, kidnapped, all of them are suffering unfortunately because of F1, because of the F1 coming to Bahrain. So the government is trying to suppress them.
Also, as you know, the media are not covering my country in Bahrain, and the only time the F1 time. So that’s why there are many journalists here, coming in Bahrain. So the government, they don’t want them to see what’s happening in Bahrain, so they want to crack down on them so at least they show that the journalists will not see anything. And even if they will see, they will see just a few people, not as much as—.
But, no, unfortunately, no, their plan was—will not work, because I just came one hour ago from a protest of thousands in the street. They will not be afraid. In the martial law, three-month martial law, people have been killed even in the street. Day after the martial law has been finished, tens of thousand went out in the street. You cannot imagine how people of Bahrain are very strength and they are struggling for freedom for many years, not from—not even when the Arab Spring started in the Arab—the Middle East, I mean.
HUSSEINI: You said earlier to me that Bahrain is about 1 million from Bahrain and half million immigrant workers, Asia, South Asia, and so on. What is their status? Do they have rights in Bahrain? Have they participated at all in the protests? Or are they two separate worlds, two separate things?
AL-MUHAFTA: No, at all. The migrant, they don’t participate in the protests at all in my country, and because many of them are poor. They came from poor—from country, and they just want to live and to have, to find a good job. And that’s why—.
You know, I mean, participating in a protest in Bahrain, calling for democracy, it’s a very high cost. It’s not an easy—it’s not like U.S., U.K. They allow freedom of expression. In Bahrain, no.
In my country there is a Korean, actually. He is a blogger. Two years ago he wrote an article on the internet, on his website, talking about the crackdown that has been started in Bahrain. Two days after, he was kidnapped from his [incompr.] tortured till death. So imagine: article take him to death. It’s not an easy—it’s not a joke by calling—I mean, by protesting or calling for democracy.
And we are only half million. One hundred protester killed within two year with a population of half a million. It is high. Thousand were tortured, arrested, suspended from their work. I think, no, it is high.
So that’s why those people, even if they are in their heart in solidarity—I know many of them. I sit with many of them. They are in solidarity with us. They say, well, we know that you are struggling and fighting for democracy and freedom and human rights, and we do respect that, and we are proud of you. But they say that because many—.
And we have—we know—there is one member in Bahrain Center for Human Rights. He’s not Bahraini, and he was very active in [crosstalk]
HUSSEINI: Where’s he from?
HUSSEINI: Where is he from?
AL-MUHAFTA: He’s from Pakistan, and he is [incompr.] Bahrain Center for Human Rights. So after that, the authority in Bahrain discover that he’s with us, a member, so he was dropped outside Bahrain and he is from there [crosstalk]
HUSSEINI: They deported him.
AL-MUHAFTA: They deported him. And till now, he cannot come to Bahrain. So as I told you, it’s not an easy—it’s not a joke to be—to have a solidarity with the uprising in Bahrain or with the human rights. It’s a high—.
HUSSEINI: Now, these immigrants, it’s very difficult or impossible for them to become citizens, right?
AL-MUHAFTA: Yes, it is very impossible, but only for political issues. For example, no, the government in Bahrain, they are giving nationality to—.
HUSSEINI: They are.
AL-MUHAFTA: Yes, to many people outside Bahrain, but those who are working in the police, for example. The police in Bahrain, 70, 80 percent of them, they are not Bahraini. They are bring from Pakistan, Syria, even Jordan, Yemen, India, Bangladesh. They came to Bahrain to work in the police. And especially [incompr.] in the police, in the—they take them to the villages, where they attack the people.
So that’s why—and those people will give nationality, house, while Bahraini people, they don’t get their house when they come. We have Bahraini who don’t have house for many years. He should apply in the housing ministry, and he will wait for many years, and even 15 years to get a house in Bahrain. Even myself, I apply before five years. I did not get.
But those who are working in the police, in the same day he came to Bahrain, he will get nationality. And it is not legal that someone from outside, in one day you get nationality. It’s not legal. But the law is not implemented in my country. We are not in a state of law. When you see the attitude of the government giving nationality just because of political reason, we are in Bahrain—the majority are Shia. They bring people from outside, giving them nationality. All of them are Sunni, just to make a balance. It’s not—I mean, it’s political.
So that’s why we call it the political naturalization in Bahrain, just to take part in the crackdown, and also to make a balance between the opposition, and—because most of the Shia [incompr.] are in the opposition. And there are Sunni and Shia in the opposition. But they just want to make balance between them.
HUSSEINI: But other immigrants—I went to a pharmacy, and most of the pharmacists were not Bahraini. They don’t get citizenship. They only get—. Or do they after a while?
AL-MUHAFTA: Many—. That’s why what I told you, that—.
HUSSEINI: Only through the military? Or—.
AL-MUHAFTA: Yes. I mean, what I want to say that in medical [incompr.] if you stay for five years or ten years, you will get nationality. And there are many Arabs, and not even Arabs—Asian, Filipino, Indian. They have been spent 20 years in Bahrain and they did not get nationality because they are working in restaurant or hotels or construction, so they don’t need them. But if any of them will apply in the Ministry of Interior or the army and will tell them that I’m going to be part of the crackdown and I can—oh, yeah, you will get nationality.
So—I mean, so that’s why I told you the law is not implemented in Bahrain. And if any citizen stay here in Bahrain for 15 years, according to the law he should have a passport, he should have your nationality. But that did not happen in my country at all.
HUSSEINI: I interviewed al-Muhafta on April 16. Since then, the Formula One race has come and gone to Bahrain. But the democracy movement and the repression continue. The race was won by a team sponsored by the drink Red Bull. Formula One race boss Bernie Ecclestone wound up commenting that the Bahraini government was, quote, stupid to hold a Grand Prix because of the so-called opportunity it posed to political protesters. Asked whether he would ever consider taking F1 to other countries experiencing political unrest, such as Syria, Ecclestone replied, quote, we’d have to have a look and see, close quote.
For The Real News, this is Sam Husseini.
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