Bahrain's refugee crisis? Behind the scenes with Bahraini activist asylum-seekers
Security forces who have violently cracked down on opposition activists rarely are charged or even tried for their crimes (File Archive/AFP)
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On-the-ground sources are running out fast in Bahrain. Those who have not been locked up or tortured for opposing the ruling monarchy are finding themselves with no option but exile.
Thirty-one-year-old Yousif al-Muhafda is the latest activist to join the growing list of asylum seekers to flee Bahrain – ruled by the Khalifa family since their 1783 invasion of the Gulf archipelago brought the tribesmen to power.
Two weeks ago Muhafda wrote a letter from Europe announcing he would not be returning home after receiving a barrage of death threats, following the launch of a campaign that publicly outed officials involved in the torture and killing of prisoners.
“The son of the king can go on TV and threaten protesters, and officials can send death threats under their real names and photos, and they feel confident that they won’t be held to account.”The most alarming threat came from Adel Fleifel – a former security official notorious for corruption and torture – who, in thinly veiled terms, called for the father of two to be killed in a tweet earlier this month.
"This is what we mean when we talk about the culture of impunity in Bahrain," Muhafda told Al-Akhbar.
“The son of the king can go on TV and threaten protesters, and officials can send death threats under their real names and photos, and they feel confident that they won’t be held to account.”
With short curly hair and long, neatly trimmed sideburns that curve down past his earlobes, Muhafda looks more like an aspiring pop star than a local champion for human rights, now widely recognizable across Bahrain.
Muhafda was the eyes and ears of the popular revolt which broke out on February 14, 2011 to demand political reforms and an end to the Khalifa dynasty’s concentration of wealth and power.
As head of the documentation unit at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), he closely monitored the ensuing (and ongoing) regime crackdown on dissidents which has left about 90 civilians dead in an island kingdom of 1.2 million, half of whom are migrant workers and other foreigners.
Unable to contain the movement, Bahrain’s regime ushered in a Saudi-led Gulf force a month after the uprising began in a bid to crush it. The move was quietly supported by the United States which continued to send arms to Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet.
For almost three years Muhafda traversed from village to village, interviewing people who had been harassed, beaten, shot, and had their homes raided and ransacked by regime forces. With mounting evidence in hand, he shared an endless stream of photographs, videos, and reports implicating the kingdom’s ruling family in violations of human rights to his nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter.
Since the 2011 revolt he has been arrested seven times, and collectively spent about eight weeks in prison for documenting violations.
International rights groups, including Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights and others, have come to rely on BCHR for that kind of intrepid investigative work.
“It proves how dangerous it is to challenge the Bahraini authorities and to demand basic human rights,” Jebsen told Al-Akhbar in reference to Muhafda’s decision to go into exile.And earlier this year Norway’s Rafto Foundation honored the group with its annual human rights award for its “very courageous and principled” approach to the crackdown in Bahrain, the group’s executive director Therese Jebsen said.
But at home the embarrassment it caused to the regime led to BCHR being branded public enemy number one. The Center’s two co-founders, as well as one of their daughters were jailed, while its other members were forced to move their operations abroad to escape the witch hunt, bolstered by unfettered Saudi and US support.
“It proves how dangerous it is to challenge the Bahraini authorities and to demand basic human rights,” Jebsen told Al-Akhbar in reference to Muhafda’s decision to go into exile.
“It's extremely sad to see the situation in Bahrain where the regime chooses to threaten and punish human rights defenders,” she said. “And it's also a big problem that the perpetrators are not put on trial.”
Muhafda understood what he was getting into when, on November 1, his organization began publishing “wanted” posters with the names and faces of officials who allegedly tortured dissidents and political opponents, some of whose cases dated back decades.
The posters included the allegations against the officials along with links to reports from international rights groups and victims’ testimonies.
With 59 mugshots on file, the “wanted” campaign wrapped up on November 23 – symbolically chosen to coincide with the International Day to End Impunity – with the indictment of the regime’s chief tyrants: King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who were said to be legally responsible for the human rights abuses committed by their henchmen.
BCHR’s “wanted” campaign represented a turning point for Bahrain’s activists-in-exile who are now focusing their efforts on persuading foreign governments to blacklist regime officials.“I know I cannot go back to my country,” Muhafda said, explaining that he moved his wife and two daughters, aged five and three, out of Bahrain after the launch of the campaign over fears of reprisals.
“But for me, this is the cost for change,” the activist added. “Some of those people on the list are responsible for crimes from the 1980s, and they are still in their positions repeating those violations because they were not held accountable.”
BCHR’s “wanted” campaign represented a turning point for Bahrain’s activists-in-exile who are now focusing their efforts on persuading foreign governments to blacklist regime officials. They hope to collect enough evidence to convince Western states to stop arms shipment to Bahrain, deny travel visas to known torturers, slap them with sanctions, and eventually put them on trial.
“Some of these people on the [wanted] list have traveled to Europe and the United States, and their faces needed to be known,” Maryam al-Khawaja, who assumed the role as BCHR’s acting president after the imprisonment of her father Abdulhadi, along with Nabeel Rajab, the group’s two co-founders.
“Once we put out their faces and names and the allegations against them we could start working on an international level to get accountability through courts and visa bans,” the 26-year-old explained to Al-Akhbar.
Khawaja spoke over the phone during a trip to Washington DC and New York where she, as a sort of de facto international envoy for the movement, distributed copies of BCHR’s final "wanted" report to government officials and policy makers ahead of a regional "security summit" in Manama earlier this month.
“We gave them the report and told them that there are people here that you probably will meet in person, and it’s always good to know who it is you are speaking to,” Khawaja said.
Seperately, Reda al-Fardan, another exiled activist from the group Bahrain Watch, visited the US Capitol last week where he met with Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the UN, to promote the cause.
Meanwhile back in Bahrain, the repression persists with an estimated 2,500 anti-Khalifa protesters and activists behind bars. In the last three months alone authorities have handed sentences of up to life in prison to nearly 200 people accused of “terrorism.”
Among the more prominent cases was that of Naji Fateel, a popular blogger and board member from the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights who was abducted from his home by regime forces in May and held incommunicado for two days before being allowed to call his family.
Fateel testified in court that during his first few days of detention, his genitals were hooked up to cables and jolted with electricity, and that he was severely punched, kicked and threatened with rape. Unmoved, a judge in October convicted the 39-year-old activist of involvement in “setting up a terrorist group” to “harm national unity” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
The United States and other Western powers have acknowledged Bahrain’s dismal human rights record and called for reforms in recent years. But their actions tell a completely different story.
A report issued in November by the US-based group Human Rights First calculated that since 2000, the United States has sold $1.4 billion worth of weapons to Bahrain. US arms deals with Bahrain have continued since the 2011 uprising with sales of helicopters, a missile system, ammunition and spare parts for combat vehicles.
It’s hardly a surprise considering the Khalifa regime caters to a major American naval base, which is set for a $580 million renovation project, according to the report. Details of that expansion are laid out in a story carried by a US military mouthpiece earlier this month.
“It’s going to take a long time and require a lot of hard work, and it might not even be in our lifetime that things change,” Khawaja said.
“But it’s the work of the people on the ground, and also the work of people working internationally that’s going to help bring us to that point where change becomes inevitable.”
By Marc Abizeid
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