My encounter with a human rights defender

The Rafto price 2013 is awarded to Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). Sunday 3. November Maryam al-Khawaja, acting President for BCHR, accepted the prize on behalf of BCHR at the National Stage in Bergen. On the occasion of the Rafto Prize award ceremony I got the opportunity to interview the young human rights activist.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m waiting outside an assembly room inside the Radisson Blue Hotel Norway. The tension in the air suggests that it is an important person waiting behind the closed door. I’m a bit nervous, something my fingernails will know.

The door opens, and I get the green light to enter. I am greeted by a warm smile, and we shake hands. Maryam has a clear voice, which fills the room. She has a way of talking that captures the listeners attention immediately.

Photo by: Caroline Sanden
Maryam al-Khawaja Photo by: Caroline Sanden

Bahrain in the future

The mission of BCHR is to encourage and support individuals and groups to be proactive in the protection of their own and others’ rights, and to struggle to promote democracy and human rights in accordance with international norms. They will document and report on human rights violations in Bahrain, and use this documentation for advocacy to influence international policies according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Logo of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Rafto Prize laureate 2013. Photo by: BCHR
Logo of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Photo by: BCHR

How will this award affect your organization (BCHR)? This is doubtfully the first time she has heard this question, and the answer comes quickly and concisely without hesitation.

– First of all it brings much-needed media attention to the situation in Bahrain, which doesn’t even exist, or exist in a very low level. It also gives us a platform to speak from.

Do you think Bahrain will make any progress with fundamental human rights in the close future?

– I think that as long as the local culture of impunity in Bahrain continues, and the international situation of impunity of the Bahraini government continues, then no. If we were able to get international accountability for the Bahraini government, and consequences and reactions, then yes.

Banned from her country

Maryam has been active in participating in protests and volunteering for human rights organizations since she was a young teenager. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is former president and co-founder for BCHR. He was banned from Bahrain in the mid-1980s, and they got political asylum in Denmark, where they lived until 2001 when they were allowed re-entry into Bahrain. She is currently in exile in Denmark, where she has been since the Bahraini uprising in 2011.

Can you ever go back to Bahrain?

– No. I tried in August this year. I went to Copenhagen airport, booked a ticket at British airways, and I tried to get on the flight. I was told that I’m not allowed to get on the flight by orders of the Bahraini government. So I was denied boarding. So no, I can’t go back.

What do you think will happen if you manage to get into the country?

–I don’t know. My father is in prison, my sister is in prison, my uncle is in prison, and my colleagues are in prison.

This tragic litany is followed by a light ironic laugh from Maryam, indicating what is likely to happen to her if she goes back to her country.

 – Logically I would think that I would be in prison if I were there. But I don’t know. You can’t really tell what the Bahraini government are going to do, because there is no system. It’s not like it’s a law that say I would be in prison. The government decide that today is a good day to put him or her in prison, and then arrests them. It can be very arbitrary. You can go on the street and get picked up. It is very difficult to predict what would really happen. My expectation is that the very least, if I’m not arrested, I can’t leave Bahrain and talk about the situation there.

On 22 June 2011, her father was sentenced to life imprisonment in a military court on the charge of «organizing and managing a terrorist organization» for his role in the pro-democracy 2011-2012 Bahraini uprising. Nabeel Rajab, the current president of BCHR is also in prison, for having «insulted Bahrainis» in a Twitter message.

Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR, Rafto Prize laureate 2013), at a protest in support for Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja, in Jidhafs, Bahrain on 6 April 2012. Photo by: BCHR
Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR, Rafto Prize laureate 2013), at a protest in support for Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja, in Jidhafs, Bahrain on 6 April 2012.
Photo by: BCHR

The inconvenient revolution

Inspired by the regional Arab Spring, large protests started in Bahrain in early 2011. The Bahraini uprising was a series of demonstrations, amounting to a sustained campaign of civil resistance in Bahrain. The Bahraini protests were initially aimed at achieving greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shia population, and expanded to a call to end the monarchy of Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The students played a big part at the start of the revolution, and many of them were tortured or killed by the authorities. It started as nonviolent protesting, but was turned down by violence. Maryam has referred to it as the inconvenient revolution, because it is inconvenient to everyone: the Arabs because of Gulf money and influence; the West because of their security, geopolitical and economic interests with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Nobody is supporting the efforts to democratize the region.  

How is the situation for students in Bahrain today?

­–The youth, and the students started this revolution. They paid a very high price for it, either with their lives, or with their physical beings. Students are on the run because they are wanted, so they can’t go to school. A large number of these people have been arrested and tortured. Many of them have been kicked out of the university and lost their education. There are different levels to the violation against students in Bahrain. Something as small as clicking like on a picture on Facebook, or writing 140 characters on Twitter, can get you put in prison.

She takes a deep breath and stares into her cup of coffee, before she continues.

  –Things like Facebook and Twitter are used for fun, entertainment and following celebrities here. That’s not how it is used in Bahrain. It can actually put you in prison. Going out on the streets holding a banner that says something, can get you killed. Holding up a phone with a camera, and taking pictures public out in the street, can get you killed. This is definitely not the case here. Things that are simplistic here can be a question about life and death in Bahrain.

Suddenly I am a bit embarrassed about my Instagram- account, which mostly documents my meals during the week…

How was it when you were a student at the University of Bahrain, compared to the situation today?

– When I studied at the university, there was no revolution. They didn’t let us talk about politics, which I don’t like, cause I grew up in Denmark, and I am not used to censor myself. I continuously talked about the human rights situation of Bahrain, and they continuously tried to make me stop. But it was nothing like what it is now.

Are there gender specific violations?

–Yes, to some extent. But much the same that happens to me also happens to my male colleagues. I always see it like this: there is discrimination based on gender within the Bahraini system. The only time the government does not discriminate based on gender is when they are cracking down. Then women and men get beaten, tortured, and killed.

At first I am surprised at how untouched she talks about these events, which are incomprehensible to me. Then I realize that this is everyday life, not only for the people of Bahrain, but also for other people all over the world.

– I did not wake up one morning thinking that as a woman, do I want to participate in a protest. I went because I’m a human being. I want to do it because I’m a Bahraini. Not based on my gender, religion, sect, or anything like that. Personally I don’t think it comes into play. I do what I do because I believe in it.

Maryam al-Khawaja with the national flag of Bahrain Photo by: Fatima Isa/BCHR
Maryam al-Khawaja with the national flag of Bahrain Photo by: Fatima Isa/BCHR

Support Students in Bahrain

It’s easy to forget that not all fellow students around the world have the same freedom to say and do as they please, as we have here in Norway. We are to some extent aware of the situation, but it’s hard to know what to do with it, and it may seem like a hopeless project to address.

My twenty minutes with Maryam is soon over, but before I go she wants to encourage Norwegian students to show their support to fellow students in Bahrain. They feel like they are all alone because their government targets, harasses and even kills them, and the international communities don’t do anything about it.

– I think it would mean a lot for students in Bahrain to know that students abroad support them, and know about what they are going through. That is something I would love to see students here in Norway do.

How can Norwegian students show their support?

–All they have to do is go online. They can show statements on social media for support, for students in Bahrain to see that they know about them and care. I feel like that’s the least people can do, especially for fellow students. At the end of the day it is important for us, as human beings, to know that when you stand up for others you stand up for yourselves. Because when you see injustice, and choose to turn the other way, you are actually loosing a part of your own humanity and your own dignity. Fighting for other people aswell makes sure you’re human. Fighting for others is fighting for yourself.  

Rafto Prize award ceremony

“The 2013 Rafto Prize is awarded to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) for their long and courageous fight for fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association in Bahrain. By awarding the Rafto Prize to BCHR, the Rafto Foundation turn the spotlight on the systematic violations of human rights in a region where abuse is too often met with silence from western governments” it is written on the websites of the Rafto fundation for Human Rights.

Sunday afternoon Maryam al-Khawaja went on the stage to receive a diploma and prize money of 20 000 USD on behalf of Bahrain Center of Human Rights. In her acceptance speech she read from a letter sent from Nabeel Rajab, the president of BCHR.

The person who should be on this stage is not me, but the people on the streets in Bahrain. They are the unnamed heroes, she said, clearly touched by the moment.

The ceremony was followed by a torchlight procession in the city center of Bergen.


Representatives from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Maryam al-Khawaja and Yousif al-Muhafdha, during the torchlight procession   Photo by: Lind and Lunde / Rafto Foundation
Representatives from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Maryam al-Khawaja and Yousif al-Muhafdha, during the torchlight procession
Photo by: Lind and Lunde / Rafto Foundation





Featured image  by: Jonatan Jacobson