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Bahrain protests

April 19, 2012

As Bahrain gears up for Sunday's controversial Formula One race, the situation there is becoming increasingly volatile. DW talked to Nabeel Rajab, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist, about the concerns he has.

Bahrain International Circuit atmosphere, 23.04.2009 in Sakhir.
Image: picture-alliance/Panimages

Nabeel Rajab is a Bahraini human rights activist and President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

DW: Could you tell us why you and the Bahrainis are against Formula One?

Nabeel Rajab: You know that in the past the Bharaini regime committed a lot of crimes against its people, killing, torturing, detaining, firing. Now this government, or this regime, is being isolated from the international community because of the crimes committed. And since Formula One is the sport of the ruling elite, it's the sport of the kind of the king, they use that as a tool of PR to come out of this isolation. We think Formula One should not give a hand to the repressive dictators to come out of this isolation. Especially among the people who were tortured, detained. The Formula One bulding was itself used as a torturing center. Half of the staff of Formula One were put into jail, and before that they were tortured in the same building by the security institution.

Now, Formula One comes to Bahrain at a time where people are being killed in the streets. Last night, we had many people who were wounded by live ammunition as the government went to clear the way to keep the protest away from the Formula One. This government treats people like that. The government detained more than 100 people two days ago just to clear the way for Formula One. This government should not be rewarded. This government should be punished internationally, politically punished, rather than being rewarded by having the race. And helping the government for the PR campaign. This is why we think they should not have come here. 

Could you tell us about how many people are protesting and who they are? [Are they] only Shiites or only Sunnis?

There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people protesting here on a daily basis. There was supposed to be a big protest attended by hundreds of thousands of people in Manama, but the government, because of Formula One, denied that. They said you could not do that. The Shiites are the most marginalized population. But there are Shiites and Sunnis at the protests. They're mainly Shiite because they're the marginalized group who are discriminated against by the ruling family. The Shiites are marginalized in this country since their country was invaded 200 years ago by the ruling tribal family who came from Saudi Arabia.

So those are most of the people. On Wednesday we had tens of people that were shot by live ammunition and were wounded and some of them seriously. You know, it's a criminal regime that is as bad as Syria, as bad as Libya, but unfortunately Western governments have ignored them for a long time because of the interests, because of the oil, because of the arms sales. [There's a lot] of crime here on daily basis by the regime against its own people. And it's maybe a good opportunity now [that] journalists are in behind to see the actual story and what's going on here.

It appears the conflict doesn't go along a religious line, but rather economic lines. How do you see that?

It's the political dispute. It's got nothing to do with religion. Yes, the government of Bahrain tried to play with the card of religion to gather more Sunnis around them. But actually, it's about democracy, it's about justice, about equality, about liberty. People want to have democracy. People want to have a parliament that has actual power. They want to have an elected government. They want to have a different government. They want to have equality. You know, that's it. It's not about religion. Yes, the government's playing religious cards. They want to use Sunni people to be beside them because they are also Sunni.

Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab
Nabeel RajabImage: Reuters

What are your main political demands? What are the changes you are hoping for?

I'm a human rights man. For me, I want justice to be applied. I want equality to be applied. I want freedom to be applied. I want everything according to international standards, everything according to the International Convention for Human Rights. I want the same democracy you guys have in your own country. We want the same liberty and justice, a level of equality you have in your own country.

But what does that mean for the political system? Do you have any ideas about changes in the system itself, in the make-up of the state, government, etc.?

It is the government that has to be elected by the people, either directly or through the parliaments. Parliament should have the power to legislate, to monitor. Our laws should be changed according to international standards. You cannot run the country as you did run the country for the past 200 years. One family rules over everything: the economy, the culture, the politics, everything. No, people have to take part. People need to participate. Wealth has to be distributed in a fair manner, not only for one family [while other people have a very] low standard of living. Government has to be elected and the parliament has to be elected. Parliament has to have power. Changes, democratic changes. Our regime has to leave.

How do you protect yourself and the Bahrainis against the regime?

Unfortunately, there is no protection. We just leave it to destiny. We have to do that because changes will not happen in our country. We have to sacrifice. At least 80 people were killed in one year. We have thousands of people wounded, hundreds who [have lost their lives]. All of those people sacrificed their lives for democracy [and] for a better future for our future children and the next generation. So that's why we have to have a level of sacrifice and carriage to continue our struggle or human rights. There is no protection. Protection is from nature and from God.

Do you have any expectations of the West?

The western countries should understand that we are fighting for the same goals, the same values, the same principles that they have in their own countries and that they voted for hundreds of years ago. We share more things in common than they share with those dictators. They should not [place a higher priority on] arms sales and oil than human rights. They should support people fighting for human rights in this part of the world. And they should stop their double standards toward the Gulf region, toward Bahrain, toward Saudi Arabia and all of the rich region in the Gulf.

The king initiated a national dialogue last year. You agreed to this proposal. What do you think about it?

It was a fake [dialogue that was used] to mislead the public opinion and international community. It was not a genuine one. So that's why people were not there. The real opposition were not there taking part. It was between the government and itself. The government and the government supporters. It did not bring the actual people, it did not tackle the actual problem. Everything was chosen by the government. That's why it failed.

And finally what about the right of self-determination?

This is something the international community will understand. We are fighting for self-determination. In 1971, the United Nations asked in a referendum if we wanted the ruling family or not. We said that we wanted the ruling family. But this ruling family has treated us very badly. Now we are calling on the United Nations again for self-determination. We want to choose our own government. We want to choose our own regime. We want to choose our own political system.

Interview: Kersten Knipp
Editor: Rob Mudge