Nabeel Rajab: Tyrannical regimes like Bahrain’s are buying the silence of democratic governments

Nabeel Rajab during a protest in London in September (Photo: Milana Knezevic)

Nabeel Rajab during a protest in London in September (Photo: Milana Knezevic)

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s leading human rights activists and the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was set to deliver the following speech at the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum. However, Rajab is currently imprisoned on spurious charges, including some linked to his tweets. Instead, the speech was read out by BCHR Vice President Said Yousif Almahafdah on his behalf.

My name is Nabeel Rajab, and I am writing you from my island country Bahrain, where I am in a prison cell. It was my intention to join you in person today at this exceptional forum and I was looking forward to meeting you human rights advocates and defenders of free expression, thought, and belief. However, I am now behind bars once again.

This is the fifth time that I am being jailed over the past four years. During most of my time in prison I have been completely isolated from the outside world. I am being punished not because I have committed a crime, but because I have defended the human rights of the oppressed and deprived ones, and because I have engaged in exposing the crimes of Bahrain’s rulers and the dictators of the Gulf region.

My people are still living under a repressive regime that rules with an iron fist. A regime that prevents journalists from exposing abuses and rampant corruption; a regime that stifles the voices of intellectuals and advocates of reform and democracy. We, as a nation, are prevented from having ambition, dignity, or even dreams of freedom. Dreams have become crimes in my country of Bahrain, which, on a per capita basis, has more prisoners of conscience than any other country in the world.

I do not want to focus on myself and the suffering that my family and I have gone through, I am just one of the innocent hundreds whose fate is to be behind bars or in exile, simply for speaking or writing about our suffering. Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, are only known for being rich in oil and gas, for possessing the largest arms market in the world and for their wealthy sheikhdoms who hold investments in Western countries. Very few people know or talk about the fact that there are thousands of political detainees and prisoners of conscience in these countries, or that these countries are great violators of human rights.

The reason for the absence of this painful truth is that our authoritarian regimes have profitable economic ties with Western governments. Democracies in the West help whitewash our regimes, in order to obtain a share of their oil wealth. Western politicians choose narrow economic interests over the human rights of millions of oppressed people in the grip of tyranny in Bahrain and beyond.

Dear friends, as you can see we are not just the victims of autocratic regimes, we are also victims of the democratic West, a democratic West that supports and empowers our regimes and equip them with the tools and weapons they need to repress our people.

Regimes like Bahrain are wealthy and very generous in buying the silence of democratic governments and their media outlets in exchange for contracts and investments. The time to say enough with the silence and hypocrisy has come! The time has come to tell Western governments, do not build your interests and luxury on our people’s misery. Please, consider that human rights should be the foundation of any commercial contract or economic interest.

We appreciate the global and Western commitment against militancy, extremism and terrorism, whose greatest ideological, social and financial incubator has been our region. However, we should not ignore the fact that one of the causes that leads to extremism is the absence of human rights, and the deprivation of any space for youth to express their aspiration for freedom, and the suppression of any calls for reform or opposition. Dissent has been crushed to such an extent in Bahrain that the place for our country’s dignitaries and reformers is now prison or exile. We cannot defeat extremism without promoting freedom, having free and open debates, and involving the people in decision-making. If this will not be done, all efforts to combat militant extremism are meaningless.

Dear attendees, you are the most influential people in the world, you are capable of helping us bring to our region the change that we seek. You can make those changes through what you say and what you write, or if you support civil society and human rights groups. Thus, you are in part morally responsible for supporting the human rights movement in my country Bahrain and in the entire Gulf region. I hope you can consider supporting human rights and pro-democracy activists who work day and night in risky and difficult circumstances. We call upon you to pressure Western governments to respect justice and human rights standards — the same human rights standards that you would work for within your borders.

One excellent example of this kind of support is the way the Norwegian government has sponsored this event. I thank the Norwegian government for giving me a platform to speak, as well as for demanding that my government release me. I also thank Norwegian civil society groups and all of the human rights defenders in the audience that, from across the world, are in this same struggle.

I hope to meet you all soon.

This speech was originally published by Bahrain Center for Human Rights.