Open Letter to President Obama From a Bahraini Human Rights Defender

Protesters in Manama, Bahrain, 2011. Photo by Bahraini Activist via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Protesters in Manama, Bahrain, 2011. Photo by Bahraini Activist via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Kingdom of Bahrain is known for its vast oil wealth and, increasingly, its violations of human rights and religious freedoms. A nation of just 1.3 million, Bahrain has long been an ally of the United States, which has maintained a military base on the island since 1947.

In the popular uprisings of 2011, Bahrainis demanded greater accountability and adherence to human rights standards from their government. Since then, many have spoken of systematic discrimination and marginalization of Shia Muslims by the regime. While the majority of Bahrainis are Shia Muslim, the ruling Al-Khalifa family is Sunni. During the protests, Marc Lynch wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that “the Bahraini regime responded [to protests] not only with violent force, but also by encouraging a nasty sectarianism in order to divide the popular movement and to build domestic and regional support for a crackdown.”

The regime has developed a reputation as one of the most ruthless oppressors of online political speech. Numerous journalists, bloggers, photographers, and digital activists have been arrested and jailed for their efforts to shed light on human rights violations and promote their protection. Among them are two members of our own community, Ali Abdulemam and Mohamed Hassan, both of whom have been jailed for their work and now live in exile. This past February, Bahrain revoked citizenship of 72 Bahraini citizens (including Abdulemam), many of whom are journalists or bloggers.

Today, US President Barack Obama will meet with the crown prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, whose family has ruled the island nation since the 18th century.

In the letter below, Sayed Yousif AlMahafdah asks President Obama to “be the voice of the people of Bahrain” and stress the importance of protecting human rights for all Bahrainis in this meeting. AlMahafdah is the Vice President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a non-profit organization based in Bahrain and Denmark. AlMahafdah is in Berlin, where he has been forced to live in exile since October 2013, after being a target of arbitrary arrests and torture for his human rights work in Bahrain.

Dear President Obama,

Martin Luther King linked the fight for freedom, equality, and justice for African-Americans to the struggle of people around the world face: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Today I write to you about the struggle of my people in Bahrain.

In Bahrain, we have suffered from injustice and inequality for decades, and we’ve been fighting for our rights for even longer. The royal Al Khalifa family and their government target and suppress all voices that express the slightest opposition to their many violations against their people.

The government authorities have constantly and systematically focused on targeting Shia Muslims. The government demolished 38 Shia mosques in 2011, they allow hate speech against Shia to go unchecked in the media, they have imprisoned thousands of Shias and continue to use excessive force against Shia protesters. Shia are not allowed in the army, or to rise to important government positions. We are treated as second-class citizens.

The struggle and sufferings of the people of Bahrain are not unlike the struggles of African-Americans under Jim Crow-era laws, or the struggle of black South Africans under apartheid.

Let me tell you the story of my friends in Jaw Prison, Bahrain’s largest long term sentence prison for men, where the treatment of prisoners reflects the discrimination of Shia outside the prison walls.

On 10 March at Jaw, hundreds of Shia men and children were subjected to collective beatings, torture, and starvation. Prisoners used smuggled phones to upload photos of their torture to social media. Guards attacked the Shia prisoners and mocked their sect. The guards deprived them of practicing their beliefs and performing prayers. Some families have not heard from their imprisoned loved ones for weeks.

In addition, the authorities prosecute anyone who dares to report these crimes. Most recently, they arrested my colleague, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. He faces up to 10 years in prison for posting tweets about these and other human rights violations. The torture and abuse is continuing as I write. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to stop it or even care.

Despite of this discrimination, we aim to achieve equality, freedom, and democracy, which we deserve as much as any other people. We believe in Martin Luther King’s words, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” To take Dr. King’s words for Bahrain: “Our goal is freedom, [we] believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of [Bahrain] is freedom.”

We urge you to walk in the steps of US rights champion Martin Luther King and support our struggle. Be the voice of the people of Bahrain when you meet our crown prince.


Sayed Yousif AlMahafdah
Human rights defender and a former political detainee in Bahrain
Vice President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights

Global Voices Coverage of Human Rights in Bahrain

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