Solidarity Language of Rights 38November 29, 2023

38. Bahrain: The power of direct action – and the cost

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

An activist finds themselves in head-on conflict with their government. Their life is in danger and they make the decision to go into exile. They’re able to find somewhere that will take them in. But what then? Do they sigh with relief and keep a low profile? Do they stay engaged in the struggle but leave the frontline work to others? Or do they double-down on publicly challenging the oppression that drove them from their home country? Bahraini activist Sayed Al Wadaei was jailed for his part in Arab Spring protests and hounded after his release. In 2012 he felt obliged to go into exile. Having secured asylum in the United Kingdom he wasted little time in adopting high-profile tactics to embarrass and shame Bahrain’s rulers, a path that has brought increased personal risk and high cost to his family. Al Wadaei, co-founder of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, spoke to us in August 2023 about the choices an exiled activist faces and how he reacted when his country raised the stakes.    

And in the Coda, a Venezuelan rights investigator on what poetry can do that activists can’t.    

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The Interview

‘Be a megaphone for your friends. Try to facilitate what they want.’

I felt I was the lucky person,” says Al Wadaei. “I left my friends behind bars. They made exactly the same demands I made on the street – we all share the same dream. We all share the desire to see our country not to be corrupt and ruled by a brutal dictatorship. To leave them and just get on with life would be a betrayal.”

The Coda

‘When activism falls short, try a poem’

Lissette Gonzalez leads the investigations and research team at PROVEA, a Venezuelan human rights organization. She knows the tools of human rights activism– the narrative change strategies, the reports and the campaign slogans. As important as that work is, she knows that those outside the world of activism don’t always find that messaging resonant. A poem on the other hand channels what people are feeling and can have greater impact. She makes her case with Rodilla en Tierra, by Oriette D’Angelo.  

Transcript

Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength&Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 38 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to defend human rights. And this time:

The power – and the high cost – of a Bahraini exile’s fearless activism

and in the Coda, a Venezuelan poem on surviving oppression

AA: In the United Kingdom earlier this month, a court found a Conservative member of parliament guilty of a racially aggravated public order offence and fined him 600 pounds. The offence? Telling a human rights activist from the Gulf state of Bahrain, “I hate you – go back to Bahrain.” The activist in question was Sayed Ahmed Al Wadaei, (who, for the record, has been made stateless by Bahrain so going back is not an option). Al Wadaei fled to the UK about ten years ago after a period as a political prisoner, during which he was tortured. Once safely in the UK, he co-founded the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, BIRD, and embarked on a campaign to draw attention to the repression in the country he had left behind. Building a strategy of this kind, there are multiple tools that could be deployed. Al Wadaei and his fellow activists have chosen a very high profile and, it could be argued, risky strategy for someone who has been given asylum and has nowhere else where he has a right to live. So I wanted to hear how he thinks about his role as both exile and activist, and what he can and can’t afford to do. 1

AA: Welcome Sayed.

Sayed Al-Wadaei: Thank you for having me.

AA: So I know for many people, Bahrain is not well-known territory. Can you just talk a little bit about your own start as a rights defender? What happened to make you take this path?

SAW: Yeah. There are events in my life probably have changed me and have shaped what I do for now. In Bahrain, back in 2011, the country witnessed one of its biggest uprising in its history where thousands of people marched to the street and occupied a central area within Manama, we called it the Pearl roundabout. It’s a similar version of what was happening in Egypt at that time. And then Bahrain just like was pretty much ready to have its own chapter. Um, and it was a revolution that had massive participation from the public. It’s the only one probably among the entire Arab Spring where you almost have one third of your entire population on the street, uh, and this was really powerful image. The only difference is the country is so small, the entire population is 1.5 million so it’s a fairly small country. And then we’re talking about like, uh, 700 to 800,000 Bahrain nationals. And if you have over 200 thousands on the street, that’s one third of your entire population are demanding change. This is the moment which was so powerful. I do remember the moments when we, what we would call it, occupy the Pearl roundabout, the first time we marched to it, because there was massive security presence. No one can even think that security will go away if we as people come together, united, chant together, this was the first time I can say on the streets of Bahrain, “’down to the dictator.” And whatever in our mind, we were able to say it without the fear of the state.

AA: And then what happened?

SAW: And then it was a very brutal crackdown. Uh, if you look at me closely, you’ll see a scar on my forehead. This cut is, is a shape of a shoes by police officer. Uh, when I was beaten on the ground, they were kicking me and, uh, I luckily survived the day. Uh, people were murdered on that day. Four people were killed by the police. And then because I spoke out about my own experience, about what I have witnessed on the day, I was thrown in jail, I was subjected to torture. And I was tried by a military court where later I served, um, six months imprisonment in Bahrain jail. Yeah, so it was, this is probably the moment that cannot get away from my memory, all the experience. And I think one of the really worst feeling a human being could suffer is when you hear someone close to you is being tortured, and you just stay as a helpless individual who could do nothing to help them. You can just hear their scream.

AA: In jail?

SAW: Yes. And feel their pain. And then there is not much you can do about them because very soon it will be your turn to get your round. And, and this is really how difficult it was.

AA: So you serve your sentence and then what?

SAW: Yeah, I served my sentence. Um, and then it was no longer safe for me to stay in the country. I was still an interest to the Security, because one of the first things I did is I returned back to the streets to join the protest movement and so on. I was once shot by a gun, uh, gunshot bullets, not from a very close range and I begin to feel like I’m no longer safe. So I decided to flee to London and I, I claimed asylum in 2012 where I remain in the UK until this day.

AA: So extremely, uh, bracing experiences that, as you say, set you on your path. At that moment, once you are in Britain, what’s your instinct?

SAW: I felt I was, to be honest, the lucky person. I left people, my friends, who still behind bars. They made exactly the same demands I made on the street. We all share the same dream. We all share the desire to see our country not corrupt, not be ruled by a brutal dictatorship, by wealthy family that do not want to give people say, and they will dictate how you should live and so on. Many of them remain there to this day behind bars. And I feel like to leave them and just like to get on with life is a betrayal to them. And this is – it became my mission since then, that they’re suffering, I would do whatever in my ability, in my power, to get them out of that jail, and hopefully one day, we continue our struggle towards democracy and the human rights and, and the freedom.

AA: So you’re determined to keep going, but you are now in exile and you are in a country where even if they’ve given you asylum, there is real ambivalence about criticizing anywhere in the Gulf because that spigot of cash and investment and security support is just seen as so indispensable. So I’m curious to know about your strategy. What are the steps you thought you could take that would make a dent in the complacency around you, and to put the regime in Bahrain under some pressure?

SAW: Yeah, this was like a fairly tough mission to start with, this is new territory, like how can you be effective? What can you bring to the table, and so on? And, we thought at that time of setting up a human rights organization. This is when I co-founded with colleagues the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, BIRD. And, uh, our mission is obviously to shed light about what’s going on in Bahrain, but also to influence policy makers in the UK. It’s whether to approach the parliamentarians, to try to get your voice heard in the British media. Britain is very strategic ally to Bahrain, the Bahrainis were under the British colony, and there is this historical link, but the commercial link with the ruling family is something that is so strong and sometimes it means is you have to take some direct action. And I think some of those actions did not work out so well for me. So there was one incident where the king was hosted by Queen Elizabeth to attend the horse show.

AA: The horse show?

SAW: Yeah, at Royal Windsor, and to me, like, this is the person which is responsible for the suffering of hundreds of, of, of his own people and continue to jail them, continue to commit serious human rights violations. And then for UK, not only to receive him, but to give him the red carpet treatment, to be received by the queen, by the head of the state is something that I couldn’t just stomach. So what I did is, um, they were at Royal Windsor, the castle, like the back garden of the Queen’s castle in Windsor. And I took a Bahraini flag and I just wrote like a sign to say, “Why you hosting dictator?” I took my Bahraini flag and I took the sign and then there was a gap. So I jumped the barrier and went directly towards the queen and the king and just like shouted, like, “why are you hosting dictators?” or something like this. And I could see that this moment has ruined the king’s moment with the queen, because this is a moment which they wanted to show – everything is normal, this is a prestigious moment we are having here. And that was ruined upon them.

AA: Okay. You did something which certainly would’ve upset a lot of people on both the British and the Bahraini side. Why do you say it didn’t work out well? I mean, that sounds as though you had a big impact.

SAW: I mean, it was a good impact, but then obviously I was arrested for a few hours for what they call disturbing peace. Um, and then I later on was subject to more brutal targeting by the state.

AA: The Bahraini state?

SAW: The Bahraini state. This is the time when they stripped me of my nationality. So, I became a stateless person, a term that I did not really know much about before that action took place. Because there was no due process, there was nothing. I woke up like reading Bahraini News Agency and I saw 72 individuals are revoked of their citizenship. When I skimmed through the names, I saw my name was listed there. And if it is the case, it means you are no longer a Bahraini national, and if you don’t have any nationality, you are effectively a stateless person. They wanted to take away what links you to the country. And, and that was the start of a journey where I would face reprisals for my action, but I honestly like was completely fine with it. It did not impact me hugely. Um, but then something else happened.

AA: What was that?

SAW: It was another visit by the King of Bahrain. And this time he was invited to go to 10 Downing Street to meet with Theresa May. I learned that he’s coming, and the time and, and all of this. And we organized a, a small protest. As the king’s vehicle enters 10 Downing Street, I thrown myself on his car and one of my friends also did the same. And as his vehicle motorcade just enters 10 Downing Street, I was like, screaming, “Down with the king! Why are you hosting torturers? Why are you hosting dictators?” As the police marched me, or took me to their police vehicle, I was so happy, like honestly, um, because I thought like, the king’s victims – he can hear them directly with no filter, no need for anything, just a direct voice of his own victims showing what it means to go through this process. So I was very happy. I was ready to face any consequences. Luckily there was no further action. I was let go after a few minutes. The next day I meant to receive my wife and my infant child at Heathrow airport. That morning, I did not wake up because of the alarm, it was my mother-in-law calling me. She was breaking in the line, she was crying in the line. She said to me, “your wife has been arrested, and I’m, I’m just heading there to see what is happening at Bahrain airport.” I wasn’t like processing this. Is it’s real? Is it a nightmare? Later I learned that my wife was abused at the airport. She was interrogated. She was dragged at the Duty Free and they grabbed my son who was 18 months, 19 months, by force from her hands. And then she has to go through verbal abuse and interrogation for the next seven hours. And she was told that they will get ‘the animal’ – referring to me, her husband. And then they told her, where would you like us to start, from your family or his family? They said to her, if you speak out, you will face serious consequences and you have to forget about leaving this country again. We will charge you, you will be imprisoned as well if you open your mouth. This is what it means sometimes – not to go through that consequences of your activism alone. What if they come after the closest to you and they want to harm them? What do you do at this step? Whatever you’re gonna say will have a real impact on people that you care about so much. And then I honestly thought the only way I can protect them, if my wife agrees, is I would speak out about her experience, and expose what is happening – because the king at that time was still in London and what happened to her is, by all means, brutal. So I got a researcher from Human Rights Watch. I asked him to independently verify what my wife is saying, how she was abused, and how she was interrogated, what happened to our child and all of this, and get this out to the world. And, like, it was covered by mainstream – AP, Reuters, the Guardian, the Sunday Times. And the story is, uh, is that it’s a clear reprisal – a woman, being denied leaving the country over her husband’s protest. And I think it was also like refugee’s family terrorized, by Bahrain.

AA: And so I mean, I think a lot of people listening to this would be, you know, asking themselves, would I have done that? I mean that threat that had been made to her, were it to be carried through, could just make everything so much worse – maybe I would’ve been quiet. Why, why were you so sure that that was the right thing to do?

SAW: I have a theory which probably people do not like, it’s if someone is committing a crime, the only way you can stop them is by shedding light about what they’re doing at this moment. Because the moment they see the scrutiny, the moment they see themselves on a spotlight, you will see their behavior change. Because this is what I was seeing, someone is pointing a gun on my wife’s head, and they are brutal, they are criminals, and they could carry out their threats. But what she’s experiencing – what if I just like put it on spotlight? I would now see the behavior of that person change. And they couldn’t resist it because a major news outlets placed them under the right scrutiny and now the state has changed their story; now they’re saying: “Oh, his wife was just stopped because of her husband’s activities, and now she’s free to leave the country whenever she wants. I know that dictators or torturers, they don’t like being on scrutiny. And if they are on scrutiny, you will see their behavior can change. And this was our strongest tool. I know they care about their image. I know I can make the king’s visit to London to be very difficult because he’s gonna face the questions about, “why you taking a wife of activist to be a hostage in your country?” And this was not a convenient thing for them to have. We were able to get my wife out after a few days, like, it took three days and she returned with my son back to London. Um, no one touched her this time, it was very free. And this is a moment of reunited with my family and it’s a very powerful moment, because it comes after serious ordeal and those moments counts differently, it’s because of what they really gone through. And then we were returning home and I saw the tweet from the Bahrain embassy. They issued a statement. They said, my wife has been charged with assaulting a police officer, and if she goes back, she will face consequences and potentially imprisonment over this. So they carried out their threat. Later on, they carried out the second threat, that her mother, her brother and her cousin were arrested over politically-motivated charges and they spent time in jail. Like my mother-in-law spent three years imprisonment in what the UN would call reprisals for my activities.

AA: So I mean, it’s clear that you’re dealing with, uh, a very personal battle. You have shamed them and they’re going to retaliate, as you say, the reprisals are clear. I’m curious about how you think about the strategy beyond your immediate personal role in this thing because, as we’re doing this interview, there’s a major hunger strike going on by hundreds of prisoners, in Bahrain. And you’ve got – amazingly – people protesting on the streets. And so it’s clear that it’s not a situation where the only person who can do anything is the exile in London, you’ve got the possibility to help build power through a broader strategy. So how do you think about that yourself? What would you want to do?

SAW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that hunger strike is a historical one. Four hundred individuals decided to go through a hunger strike because of extremely harsh prison conditions, which will include locking them down for 23 hours in their cells a day. Um, and they took this decision. The first move which we took was to ensure that their story is heard internationally. And we managed to get interest in publications like Associated Press, The Guardian – that made their hunger strike as no longer to be behind the prison walls, but rather it’s a story that the public could see, it’s a story in the social media and so on. And, and then mobilize with them, maintain the direct connection, what you’re going through, like, are you negotiating a deal with the prisons? Uh, my job was to facilitate whatever message they would send me and make sure that the world would hear about their suffering, their ordeal. And we also like took part in a protest, the 24 hours of protest outside the Bahrain embassy, sleeping in the street just to express our solidarity and support with them. And these little actions is, is so important, firstly to the prisoners, but also to their families. They could see that their children is not going through this alone. They have brothers, they have supporters, they have someone which could say things that maybe some of them couldn’t say. And I think this is where we begin to be, later on, shocked about the street movement. Because this is a repressive state, a police state; people know, um, their children are already dragged into prison, they know what it means to come on streets to challenge the state. Like it’s illegal to, to do a peaceful protest in the country. Despite all of this, those prisoners managed not only to get their protests behind bars, but also to send a very powerful message to their families. They were calling out from the prison: “We need your support. We can only succeed if you support us. We want you to support us in the streets, and so on.” And I think it was a shock to everyone. No one expected this level of support. Hundreds of people were marching in the streets with slogans for freedom to the political prisoners in the country. And this is, this is the most powerful message, is because it’s about someone taking the action, their families to support them. They have a broader community to support them. And now their message is internationally known, and it, it has compelled governments that usually are silent about Bahrain, like the US government, for example, which, uh, would not say much about the human rights situation in the country, now they are forced to speak to say what we would call “a concern.” But that’s important because this is an ally to Bahrain and they take their message more seriously. So if you ask me like, what’s the strategy? The strategy would remain, to try to be a megaphone to your friends. Don’t talk over their message, just try to facilitate what they want.

AA: Have you been able to secure support from other organizations, NGOs, communities outside of Bahrain to join you? How much solidarity have you been able to mobilize?

SAW: Oh I think we succeeded in, in really great solidarity movement. And some of them became fairly strong on the regime. One of the biggest one is about Formula One race in the country. Um, I facilitated sending letters to Louis Hamilton, the seven times world champion, from political prisoners, three of them. And, uh, Lewis was asked about whether he got the letters and so on, and he said, yes, I received them and, and I want to do what I can to help them. So we managed to secure support from Lewis Hamilton.

AA: A, a major sports celebrity. What, what about organizations? What about other NGOs that are focused on rights?

SAW: We managed to get great support. So we often partnership with organizations like Human Rights Watch and we do joint investigations. In October we did a joint report about the use of death penalty in the country and so on. Uh, we mobilized with a, a group of NGOs like Amnesty, whoever is based in London, we just like have sometimes a, a strategy where we would write a letter together to a concerning government or, or joint statement – things like this. So we have a strong support when it comes to civil society movement. We manage to get a strong cross-party support in the UK Parliament. We act as secretariat of All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf. And uh, I think now despite our small size, when we say something, the media would take us more seriously and we’ll be viewed as a very credible source.

AA: Thank you, Sayed.

SAW: Thank you so much. Thank you.

AA: Sayed Ahmed Al Wadaei is an exiled Bahraini activist based in London. You will find a transcript of my conversation with Sayed and suggestions for further reading on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.

Time for the Coda – our regular chance to hear from a human rights worker about the ways they find inspiration, solace and the energy to stay engaged. Lissette Gonzalez leads the investigations and research team at PROVEA, a Venezuelan human rights organization. She wanted to share a poem entitled Rodilla en Tierra, which means in English, knee on earth or knee on dirt.

Lissette Gonzalez: This poet is called Oriette D’Angelo. She’s a Venezuelan poet. She now lives at the United States because all the immigration that’s been happening in Venezuela. This poem is called Rodilla en Tierra, which would translate to “knee on dirt.” That phrase, Rodilla en Tierra, was very much used by Hugo Chavez when he was our president, and it was like a way of signaling how you should be loyal to the revolution. You have to be bending your knee to the revolution, that meant, to be loyal and it was always told in many discourses from Chavez. So, when she begins with that phrase, she’s somehow rebelling against that loyalty you should owe to the revolution.

Rodilla en Tierra

[Dicen que el primer paso en la caída
es la resistencia]

El mío fue el declive
el doblaje de rodilla
                        a secas

Fémur en tierra
tibia en tierra
autoestima en tierra
patriotismo en tierra
ego de país sostenido en el abono
en estiércol visceral
que nos hace ciudadanos

Rodilla cansada de tanto montaje de tarima
Rodilla cansada de tanta marcha
Rodilla cansada de tanta postura política post-pago de quincena
Rodilla cansada de tanto ministerio
Fémur lesionado de tanta cola
                              tan poca leche
                                 tan poco pan
de ser los pasteleros de un país guardado en la despensa

Tibia fracturada y enyesada
como ligamento de ciudad unida por puentes de azufre
pie descalzo pisando latifundios
ejercitando el músculo de la desobediencia
huella desnuda ante el pavimento
siempre mendigándole la historia

Rodilla calcinada de tanto tocar este suelo
que me quema
y que por dentro
sólo está lleno de petróleo.

KNEE ON DIRT

[They say that the first stage of a fall
 is resistance]

Mine was the drop
Knee buckling 
hard

Femur on dirt
tibia on dirt
self-esteem on dirt
patriotism on dirt
the ego of a country sustained by fertilizer
the visceral manure
that makes us citizens

Knee tired of climbing onto so many platforms
Knee tired of endless marching
Knee tired of endless political posturing overdue

[payday
Knee tired of endless ministries

Femur wounded from so many queues
so little milk
so little bread
of being the pastry chefs of a country locked in the pantry

Tibia, fractured, in a cast
ligature of a city held together by bridges of sulfur
bare foot standing on plantations
exercising the muscle of disobedience
bare footprint against the pavement
always begging for the crumbs of history

Knee scorched from too much touching this ground
that burns me
and on the inside
is full of nothing but crude.

LG: I believe it’s a very powerful poem that shows everybody what are the feelings in Venezuela… the struggle, all the people marching and protesting against the government and towards more democracy and rights in Venezuela. But also the struggle, because the economic situation was so hard: no milk, no bread, standing in line to buy food. And at the same time it’s also the disappointment, the being so tired of trying so hard to change things and being unable to achieve that goal.

LG: The bones that the leg is made of – that’s how she portrays all the suffering in the body because of so many struggles to find food, or to be on the street protesting, disobeying the political system. And I think that it makes the text so powerful because it’s not a political statement. It’s a statement about you, about your body, about your struggle, your suffering. And when I first heard it, it was so, so striking because it wasn’t a political document. It was not a discourse. It was about her, about her feelings, about her suffering. And it can be related to all Venezuelans, how they have been personally affected, what all that has happened in our country.

LG: As human right defenders, we are used to talk very rationally about what’s happening. And we say there are human rights violations and we write reports and we have statistics of what is happening. But if the one who’s listening is not an activist, maybe he won’t understand. He wouldn’t be personally compelled for what you are telling him. But when you use poetry, people can see or can feel what the people are feeling in the struggle.

AA: Thank you Lissette Gonzalez for those reflections, she is the director of Investigations at Provea, the Venezuelan human rights organization, and the poem was Rodilla en tierra by Oriette D’Angelo. Also our thanks to poet Lupita Eyde-Tucker who translated the poem from the original Spanish and read it for us in English – we’ll post a link to her website. I should add that Lissette has just published a book about her father, Rodolfo Gonzalez, a former airline pilot who was arrested on political charges by the Chaves government in 2014 and died while in prison. You’ll find the links to Lissette’s bio, Provea and details about the book on our podcast page, again, Strengthandsolidarity.org.

AA: That’s it for Episode 38… As always, if you have feedback or suggestions, we really want to hear from you, you can write to pod@strengthandsolidarity.org. For now though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu, thanks for listening.