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Bahrain's Crackdown On Activists Extends To Twitter


From Syria we head now to Bahrain, where a prominent human rights activist is back in detention this time for what he's been writing on Twitter. The U.S. says it's looking into the case and continuing to encourage Bahrain to allow free speech. Activists say the U.S. isn't pushing its ally hard enough.

NPR's Michele Kelemen spoke with a Bahraini human rights advocate who was in Washington, D.C. this week to remind U.S. officials that activists are still under pressure a year after Bahrain cracked down on anti-government protesters.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Maryam al-Khawaja says she lives in self-imposed exile, afraid she'll be arrested or disappeared if she ever returns to Bahrain. Her father is a prominent activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who recently ended a hunger strike in prison. Maryam says he told her that he wasn't meeting either of his goals of the hunger strike.

MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA: The main reason was - as he put it - freedom or death. He became at a point where he wasn't going to die because they could keep him alive indefinitely because of the force feeding, and at the same time he wasn't about to gain his freedom either.

KELEMEN: Khawaja's sister, Zainab, has also been picked up by police numerous times.

AL-KHAWAJA: The way that the government of Bahrain is now doing things is that they do a test and run system. So what they do is they'll arrest the person. If there's too much international attention to the case, they will release them. And that's what they did with my sister several times. So, they would arrest her, there would be a huge fuss about her arrest and then she'd get released.

KELEMEN: The most recent time, she says, people were so used to this that there wasn't as much of a fuss and Zainab spent more than a month in jail. Now, Khawaja says the director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, is experiencing the same troubles. There are several cases against him and she says he was re-arrested after he criticized authorities on Twitter and in a television appearance. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. is seeking information about the case.

VICTORIA NULAND: You know how strongly we've been engaging with the government of Bahrain about the importance of allowing freedom of expression, working through the issues in the country in the spirit of national dialogue.

KELEMEN: But Khawaja says the U.S. has been uneven in its statements about Bahrain and she points out that despite U.S. concerns, Washington has continued to sell arms to the tiny Gulf nation that is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

AL-KHAWAJA: The message that's being sent is that if you are a U.S. ally, you can commit as many human rights violations as you want and you won't be held accountable internationally because you are United States ally. But if you're not, then the United States will take a stand.

KELEMEN: At the State Department, Nuland says she rejects that argument and says the U.S. has been taking Bahrain's human rights record into account in its arms deals with the Gulf nation.

NULAND: While we have gone forward with the aspects of our defense relationship that help Bahrain with its external security, with its ability to defend itself from external aggression, we continue to have a pause on the export of materiel that could be used for crowd control, internal security, et cetera.

KELEMEN: Nuland also says the U.S. thinks Bahrain has made progress on its reform effort, though it has more work to do. After last year's crackdown, the king ordered an outside panel to make recommendations on how to improve the country's human rights record. Khawaja says there are few signs the government is implementing those and she worries that the world has lost interest.

AL-KHAWAJA: I know that in Bahrain, it seems like the situation isn't as grave, the human rights violations are not as widespread because the numbers are not that big. But I feel like it's also important to look at Bahrain for what it really is, is that it's a population of 600, 700,000 people. So when you have around 750 political prisoners in prison today, it really is a large number according to the population in the country.

KELEMEN: And she says while her country may not be in the news much anymore, she and other activists are continuing their struggle. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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