Columns

Zacks ’15: Suffering on the path to freedom

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

 

The independent watchdog organization Freedom House last week held its annual Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C., an event honoring the courage and sacrifice of individuals struggling for human freedom across the globe.

Previous Freedom Award honorees include instantly recognizable names like Winston Churchill and the 14th Dalai Lama. But the people honored this year are far less recognizable to most Americans, since the liberty they are fighting for does not neatly fit within United States foreign interests. In fact, their efforts are against the Bahraini government, an ally to the U.S. government and the perpetrator of the great injustices done to the Al-Khawaja family and the Bahraini people.

Since popular uprisings first broke out in February 2011, the Bahraini government has been carrying out a campaign of brutal repression against Bahraini activists. The regime has been arresting, torturing and even killing those who commit the “unspeakable crime” of peacefully demanding a freer and more dignified life. Reports of human rights violations have reached the international community, and the regime has been widely criticized by human rights groups and governments. But the situation on the ground remains largely the same, and if possible, it is deteriorating.

In response to occasional looks of disapproval and friendly condemnations by the United States, the Bahraini government implemented some reforms. Activists call these “Bahraini-style reforms” – a series of empty promises that more than anything enable the U.S. to believe it is promoting peace and democracy abroad. Practically, these reforms mean that torture has been moved from state prisons to unofficial torture centers.

The connection between U.S. leniency and Bahraini impunity is not lost on the people suffering under the oppressive regime. While the relationship between the countries remains tight and unthreatened, the ruling family has little incentive to pursue significant reform and make meaningful concessions. By refusing to exert its influence and put real pressure on its Persian Gulf buddy, the U.S. effectively becomes a supporter of the human rights violations taking place in the country. Bahraini human rights defender Maryam Al-Khawaja was not exaggerating when she said that the “United States is to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria,” a staunch ally who repeatedly allows its own economic and political interests to outweigh basic human rights. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain American rights.

Maryam, who received the Freedom Award last Thursday on behalf of the Al-Khawaja family, has long been pointing out American double standards regarding human freedom. One policy applies to the people of Syria and Egypt, and another to Bahrainis and Gazans. But for Maryam’s family, freedom is not a nationality-based privilege. Her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, one of Bahrain’s most prominent freedom fighters – “terrorist” in Bahraini Newspeak – was arrested in early 2011 and sentenced to life in prison for participating in pro-democracy protests. Last spring, Al-Khawaja went on a hunger strike, declaring that his choice was between “freedom or death.” Zainab, Maryam’s sister, was detained in August after staging a one-woman protest. She is currently in detention, facing 13 charges.

As people living in this world, we are involved in the struggle for human freedom. As residents of the United States, citizens or foreigners, we are implicated in the consequences of foreign policy and national interest for Bahraini freedom. As members of the Brown community, we are personally connected to the story of the Al-Khawaja family. Maryam was a Fulbright fellow and a teaching assistant in the Arabic department at Brown. She lived, taught and studied here at our university. Last April, students organized a vigil in solidarity with Maryam’s father. Our solidarity necessarily goes beyond international solidarity. It is a test of our power as a community, of our mutual responsibility and commitment.

It is saddening to note, in this context, that the University never joined the international wave of protests and refused to send a letter to the King of Bahrain regarding Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s unlawful imprisonment. Former President Ruth Simmons did assure students of her intentions to write to Secretary          Hillary Clinton and Senator Jack Reed, as she had previously done. Yet Brown’s unwillingness to publicly take a stand for justice – justice that so intimately concerns the life of one of our own – was disheartening.

As I think of Maryam’s extraordinary strength and reflect on her speech at the Freedom House Annual Dinner, I cannot help but feel that as a community, we can do better. At the award ceremony, Maryam read a letter that her sister Zainab wrote in prison:

“I open my eyes, and I see the crack in the prison wall. We suffer on the path to freedom, so that someday we can live without suffering, with our rights and dignity.” 

It’s only fair that we remember and honor that.

 

 

Mika Zacks `15 would like to dedicate this column to Maryam Al-Khawaja and her family, and to all human rights defenders in Bahrain who continue to fight and suffer for freedom.