Courageous Bahraini free expression campaigner Nabeel Rajab finally got to make his contribution to this week’s IFEX General Meeting in Beirut on Thursday evening, not in person as planned, but via skype and laptop.
The Bahraini government had prevented Nabeel, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), from flying to join his IFEX colleagues in Lebanon on 29 May. Fellow free speech and human rights defenders gathered for a 40 minute call, during which Nabeel thanked them for their support and welcomed plans for an IFEX mission to Bahrain in the days to come.
Nabeel also brought them up to date with the rounds of arrests, detentions, assaults and threats that both preceded and followed the Bahraini king’s call for ‘national dialogue’ on reform this week.
This left King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s call for talks with “all parties” from 1 July ringing hollow in his ears. “The King said he would cancel the state of emergency but wanted a dialogue,” he told the group.
“How can there be a dialogue when people even this morning are being detained?” The people who were needed to be on the other side of any talks were being ruthlessly targeted. “Stop persecuting people for doing their human rights work, allow journalists to publish freely, stop the bans on blogs.” What dialogue can you have in these circumstances, he asked.
As he spoke Twitter feeds reported that cyber activist Zaynab al-Khawaja – known to her 11,000+ online followers as @angryarabiya – was on her way to be interviewed by police again. Daughter of detained human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a former BCHR president, she had written an open letter to Barack Obama, warning that she would hold the US president “personally responsible” if any harm came to her father while in detention.
Her husband Wafi was arrested and held without charge 55 days ago and his welfare and whereabouts remain unknown. The authorities will not allow him to see his family or a lawyer. Like Zaynab and many Bahraini rights activists, Nabeel also argues that the West is bowing to Saudi and Bahraini royal family pressure to moderate its criticism of the crackdown.
The King’s speech Wednesday did not slowed the repression. Poet and student teacher Ayat Alqurmozi, 20, was arrested the same day for reading a political poem Wednesday at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, and was due to face a military tribunal the next day.
Defence lawyers Mohammed Ahmed, Hafedh Hafedh and Mohammed al-Jishi were also interrogated by the police on 1 June. They were threatened with prosecution for ‘illegal assembly’ – groups of more than five people cannot meet in Bahrain without state permission – and ‘inciting hatred’ against the government by protesting outside the justice ministry.
Hundreds more people have been detained during the days between the imposition of the state of emergency on 15 February and 1 June, about whom nothing has been heard of since. Many injured have been lifted by police from hospitals against the wishes of doctors, some of whom have been targeted for treating them.