Maryam al-Khawaja
Maryam al-Khawaja

British diplomatic efforts on the Bahraini crisis have not worked out and the only way forward to stop human rights violations in the Gulf kingdom is to initiate a discussion on diplomatic and economic sanctions, Maryam al-Khawaja, activist and acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), told IBTimes UK in an exclusive interview.

After an unprecedented meeting with the Foreign Office in London, Maryam has acknowledged that the UK's diplomatic method "is not working".

"We're going to need a little more time to convince the UK government that they actually need to do more about stopping the human rights violations," she said.

"They believe in using the diplomatic methods, of putting pressure on the Bahraini government, but it's been obvious after one year and a half of continuing violations that the diplomatic method is not working so we have to start looking at what does work."

However, she welcomed the foreign affairs select committee's decision to hold an inquiry into human rights abuses.

Maryam, whose father Abudlhadi and sister Zainab are in jail for their role in pro-democracy protests in the tiny island kingdom, also called for the Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah and the prime minister Khalifah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"As a human rights defender I believe that the king, the PM and the crown prince of Bahrain should be put on trial, albeit a fair and independent trial under international standards," she said.

"If the Bahraini judiciary cannot provide that, then it should be the ICC. They need to be put on trial, and if found guilty of crimes they have committed during the past year and a half, then they need to serve time behind bars."

The 25-year-old activist slammed the Bahraini government's claims that significant reforms had taken place in the kingdom.

Constitutional changes 'superficial'

In a letter to IBTimes UK, Fahad AlBinali, Bahrain's spokesperson for the Information Affairs Authority, argued: "The recent ratification and implementation of the constitutional amendments last month granted greater legislative and monitoring powers to the elected chamber of parliament".

The amendments include "further oversight and scrutiny over the government", he wrote, for example the new ministerial appointments that can "reject the entire government".

However, Maryam dismissed the change as "superficial" when set against "nonstop human rights abuses on the ground".

"If we are still looking at things like extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, use of excess force, children in prison, kidnappings, systematic torture - what would it matter to the public or the human rights defenders if they have made a few changes to the legislative law?" she asked.

"If the human rights violations are still going on the ground, any political discussion right now will not probably have much of an effect," she added. "To guarantee the best outcome of any political discussion, you need to stop the human rights violations on the ground first."

That marks a difference with the Bahraini opposition leader and MP Ali Alaswad, who in an exclusive interview with IBTimes UK maintained that only political reforms could force Bahrain's regime to respect basic human rights principles. "First, there should be political reform" leading to democratic elections, he said.

He added: "If there's an elected and accountable government, the prime minister, for instance, can be questioned in parliament. This is not possible now."

Sulmaniya Hospital occupation

One of the main problems of Bahrain remains division along sectarian lines.

With a Sunni monarchy, relying on a largely Sunni power base, the majority Shia population has for years been disfranchised and left on the margin of the country's political life.

The government has mainly depicted the protests as Shia-led and based on sectarian demands.

In his letter to the IBTimes UK, AlBinali said the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) established that Shia doctors successfully occupied Sulmaniya Hospital, with medics who "moved in and out of their roles as political activists and medical personnel".

It resulted in many sections "taken over and controlled by medical personnel, resulting in difficulties in the emergencies section".

Maryam dismissed those accusations as "nonsense". "The BICI report said there was no occupation of the Sulmaniya hospital," she said. "How can you occupy such a huge complex when you are 20 to 25 doctors? Realistically anyone who looks at the case know that it doesn't make any sense."

"If they have cases when they have real evidence that someone has committed a crime, if they are able to provide them with a fair and independent trial according to international standards then they should be accountable," she added.

Molotov cocktails

Maryam also replied to a common accusation by government officials that protesters used Molotov cocktails to target security forces and bystanders.

AlBinali stated in the letter that "adolescent rebels" who fight in the name of democracy "are harmful to innocent bystanders and police officers, and public and private property as well as themselves".

But Maryam said the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights does not condone violence - although some distinctions had to be made. "You cannot equate young boys throwing Molotov cocktails and stones with police using systematic excess of violence," she said.

"If you ask me when the last protester was killed by Bahrain I can give you a precise date:  it was a 16-year-old protester shot with bird guns two weeks ago and he died in the streets," she continued.

"When was the last police officer killed? I asked a police official during a live interview. He refused to respond, because he knew the response would be more than a year ago."

Zainab al-Khawaja

Maryam's sister, Zainab al-Khawaja, was arrested for the fifth time on 2 August on charges of tearing up a picture of the king.

"During her trial her lawyer tried to use an extract from the BICI report and the judge told the lawyer that the BICI report was a thing of the past and now we have to look towards the future," Maryam said.

Bahrain's spokesperson for the Information Affairs Authority said that Zainab had been arrested "for blocking a commercial and congested multi-lane road near the capital at night, obstructing the freedom of others, as well as endangering herself and others in the event of her causing an accident".

Those charges date back to Zainab's first arrest on 21 April 2012, when she staged a lone protest in the middle of a road, however.

"There's one video where she's sitting in a roundabout. That's not obstructing traffic, she's not even defying the law of gathering, she was by herself," Maryam replied.

"She got dragged, beaten, punched, slapped, handcuffed and dragged from the other side and put in their car.

"We believe that Zainab, Abdulhadi and Nabeel Rajab and all the human rights defender who are targeted in Bahrain are targeted solely based on their human rights activities, not because they have actually committed a crime," she said.