Bahrain has hit the headlines this week, due to Formula One’s controversial decision to go ahead with staging the Grand Prix race on the troubled island Gulf state.
Since February last year, Bahrain has been home to a sustained campaign of civil resistance, and an equally sustained campaign of violent repression by the government. Supported by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the regime has attacked hospitals, mosques, and homes. Protesters have been subject to teargassing, torture and arbitrary arrests.
While the Grand Prix’s organisers say that the race will go ahead as planned, the unrest shows no sign of abating, with demonstrators using the event to draw attention to their cause and being met with a stepped up security operation as international guests flood in.
“We have been marginalised internationally in the media,” Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights tells me over coffee at his central London hotel. “None of the western powers which talk about democracy are willing to highlight our situation, and that has an impact on the media.”
An activist since the 1990s, Rajab emerged as a key figure in Bahrain’s revolution when the Arab Spring swept the region. We met during his brief visit to London to collect an award from Index on Censorship earlier this month. He explains that he is keen to get back to Bahrain and join his people on the streets.
Despite over a year of harsh and violent crackdowns, the energy of protesters in Bahrain continues. A demonstration on 9 March appeared to be the biggest yet, with between 100,000 and 250,000 people attending. Opposition activists claim that nearly half the population of the tiny nation was there.
It is not just the inaction of the media that causes frustration, but the failure of western governments to comment on the situation in Bahrain. I ask Rajab what he would like to see the international community doing. “Stop this hypocrisy, these double standards in foreign policy. Treat all revolutions in an equal manner. Both Bahrain and Syria are struggling for the same reasons, for the same end goal. You can't support one and ignore the other; you can't ask the Russians to stop arms sales to Syria when you are sending arms to Bahrain. We need to embarrass governments into stopping this policy.”
On the reasons for this double standard, he is quite clear. “Oil and arms sales, military presence, influence of rich countries, dictators like Saudi Arabia. Every British or American politician will speak about Iran, China, India, whatever, but not the Gulf countries.”
Rajab became involved in organised human rights activism during the 1990s uprising in Bahrain, and founded the Bahrain Human Rights Society in 1999. Since at least 2005, he has faced harassment, smear campaigns, interrogations, and beatings, and this has only increased since the current wave of protest began. Does he worry for his safety?
“I think I've passed that stage,” he says. “My family used to get worried at the beginning but they know the size of the goal we are fighting for. My life is in danger, but I have my obligations and my business in order so that tomorrow if they kill me, there won’t be any problems for my family.”
He is unemotional as he describes being beaten and kidnapped, and the security services teargassing his house, even bursting into laughter while recounting one recent incident. In January, the government released a video of Rajab lying beaten on the street, claiming that they had rescued him. In fact, they were responsible for the beating. Smiling and shaking his head, he tells me to look it up on YouTube.
Rajab has a huge following on social media, and proudly says that he is the number one Tweeter in Bahrain, and number four in the Arab world. Much was made of the importance of social media during the Arab Spring, and Rajab agrees, saying that it is invaluable when all other media is controlled by the state. Clearly, the regime is well aware of this. Rajab says that he has been interrogated three times in the last six months, each time about his Twitter account.
Al-Jazeera once described him as “the unofficial leader of the 14 February movement”, but he does not claim the title. “I'm just one of the citizens struggling. I'd say it is a movement of no leaders in Bahrain.”
Some have accused Bahrain’s opposition of refusing to engage with the regime. Yet the government is offering little real engagement. “There was no national dialogue,” says Rajab. “There was a statement here and there by people in the regime but there was no dialogue. This was a misleading move by government.”
Finally, I ask him what he would like to see in Bahrain. “Democracy. The same thing that you have in the UK. Elected prime minister, a parliament with power, people free to do anything, laws and institutions that respect human rights and international standards. That's it. Nothing other than what you have here.”
What could be done in the short term? “Recognition of the problem,” he says. “We don't see any pressure on the government because nobody's talking about it. Europe should not ignore the fact that a human right is a human right, whether it is in Syria or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Justice is justice, democracy is democracy. Once the international community adopts one language, that will help us come out of the crisis we are in.”
As the Bahraini government continues to clamp down on protests, determined to capitalise on any good publicity it can from the Formula One games, these goals seem very far away from realisation.