Abrar Foundation 15th August, 2011
Chairman:We would like to show our gratitude to all those who have helped us since the revolution on February 14th until today and most importantly we are gathered to celebrate a date which is banned in Bahrain. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary since the British left Bahrain- so it is in fact our independence day.
I have an excerpt here from the Waicross Journal in Georgia, 1971. On August 14th on the front it says :”Bahrain declares its independence day”. It is illegal to celebrate or demand that August 14th is the national day because the ruling family did not want the British to leave Bahrain and the struggle for liberation in the 1960s that forced the British out is not taught in schools. The Al Khalifa regime does not want the people to know about this date.
Instead the Al Khalifa regime celebrates September 16th as its national day to coincide with the day that its former ruler, Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa was crowned king. Now the question is 40 years on have the people of Bahrain been liberated. That is the question that we should be asking ourselves. Many indications point to the fact that we are worse off now despite independence, than we were 40 years ago when we were a British colony.
So where do we go from here? Who do we hold accountable for our current situation in Bahrain. Many people say that as citizens of the UK we should point the finger at the British authorities and hold them accountable. We are worse off now than we were 40 years ago when we were a British colony. We have had the same prime minister in Bahrain for the past 40 years since the British left, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, he is the longest serving unelected prime minister in the world. We have a self declared king since 2001 who wrote a new constitution and forced it on the people.
Since Britain left in the 1970s we had a head of security who was a Brit, Ian Henderson. Under his authority many people were killed and tortured.
And finally there is the whole issue of arms sales. The media brought it to our attention that many of the arms which were sold to Bahrain were sold by the UK. The Bahraini authorities used these arms to attack innocent, unarmed protesters.
So the build up of all of this for the past 30 years led to a mass revolution not only in the 90s but most recently on February 14th when the people decided the enough was enough. They took the streets to demand reforms and a real democracy.
Some people demanded the fall of the regime: others demanded a constitutional monarchy. These protests were met with great brutality and the full force of the Bahraini and Saudi forces. Over 40 people were murdered, thousands were injured, sacked from their jobs and arrested for participating in these protests including doctors, sportsmen, politicians and teachers and other professionals.
Dr Saeed Shehabi: Bahrain Freedom Movement: Forty years on and where are we? The British legacy remains. We are still living under what the British had left behind whether it is as Ahmed mentioned, Ian Henderson, whether it is the unequivocal support for the hereditary dictatorship or whether it is the arms sales and the support for this dictatorial regime on the international arena.
However we are in greater trouble now because of the Saudi invasion. The Saudis are there, they entered the country on 15th March and they have remained in the country ever since. They have not shown any sign of leaving. They have no desire to leave for the time being. They are there.
So here we have a country under occupation, whether we like it or not. A foreign country has come into our land and it has remained there. If the British had left that legacy I think today they are responsible. They should shoulder part of the responsibility for what is happening in Bahrain.
Just to go back and to understand the mechanism and the reality of what is happening today. If we go back to the British era. The British era started in the Gulf towards the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century. The first treaty signed between the British and the local sheikhs was in 1820.
Some people ask why were the British in that region in the first place? The British were there because of their interest in the Indian ocean. The East India Company used to run the biggest commercial fleet between the UK and India. At some stage, especially in the 17 and 1800 hundreds those fleets were attacked by pirates. It happened that those pirates came mostly from what used to be called the Pirate Coast.
The Coast of Piracy is between the United Arab Emirates and Oman. It used to be called officially the Coast of Piracy. Some of the sheikhs were known to be pirates. The British went there in order to protect the East India Company from this piracy but gradually the British were sucked into local politics. They could not just remain on the high seas.
Today there is a lot of piracy going on off the coast of Somalia and because of the modern technology there are big British and American and all sorts of boats which are fighting against the Somali pirates.
In 1820 the British entered into the first official agreement with the local sheikhs. According that agreement any sheikh who signed it would cease piracy and would consider himself to be committed to fight against piracy. If you read that agreement it is so humiliating. If you read the agreement it says that I (the local sheikh) give solidarity to Her Majesty the Queen and Great England – something of that language. I will give an undertaking not to let any foreign power to use my land. I will not enter with any other foreign power into any agreement without the agreement of her majesty. It is like a slave writing to his master.
Between 1820 – 1971 (150 years) that is the length of the British protection for that region. Bahrain had a dispute or was under the claim of Iran. Iran had laid claim to Bahrain for decades before, for a long time. In 1968 the British decided that they would leave the Gulf, all the regions east of Suez in 1971. The Labour government was in power and they were having a lot of trouble. India, the jewel in the crown of the British had already left the empire so the British had a lot of economic difficulties.
The Labour Party said that it had a lot of economic problems and it would leave all regions east of Suez. That was in 1968. Sheikh Zaid, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, asked the British to stay. He asked them how much it cost them and they told him their presence cost $12million a year. He said he was ready to pay it but they British said ‘no’. They had taken the decision that they would leave.
At the same time the Shah of Iran who was laying claim to Bahrain announced at a press conference in Pakistan that he was ready for the first time to accept the wishes of the people of Bahrain. What they decide I will agree he said. So in 1970 the United Nations sent a fact-finding mission to assess the situation. They sounded out public opinion. They did not have a plebiscite or referendum. They just went to clubs, mosques and social places to see what the people of Bahrain wanted. The United Nations team came back and said that the people of Bahrain wanted freedom, liberation and independence but they qualified it by saying provided we have a modern state in which we are partners in government. That was the understanding.
So when the British left in 1971 there was subsequently an election in which a constitution was written. That was the first, legal, popular mandate given by the people of Bahrain to the rule of Al Khalifa.
If you go to the Foreign Office documents you will see that the people of Bahrain never accepted them as rulers. They were protected by the British it was considered that the Al Khalifa were the local agents of the British.
We have to understand that the British ruled the region through a special system. They had what was called the political resident who was living in Iran in 1947.Then he moved to Bahrain. So we had the political resident and under him were the political agents. So you would have a political agent in Bahrain, a political agent in Qatar in Doha, a political agent in Muscat and in Abu Dhabi and also in Kuwait. So you would have five or six political agents and they were accountable to the political resident who would be accountable to the India Office.
So these agents were the effective rulers, not the Al Khalifa. The Al Khalifa were the executioners of the policy. In 1923 the Al Khalifa supported by the Al Dawasar who came from Saudi Arabia waged a reign of terror against the Shia. They would kill three of four people every night in Sitra and in various towns. The Bahrainis protested and objected to the British. So in the end after a lot of protests and so many petitions the British decided that enough is enough and the ruler would be changed.
Who was the ruler? His name was Issa bin Ali Al Khalifa. He had been ruling Bahrain for almost 55 year from 1869 until 1923. And why was he ruling Bahrain? Because his father had been killed by his uncle and he was banished to India. So the British reacted angrily against his uncle and they removed him from power and they brought this Isa bin Ali from India to Bahrain to rule.
After 55 years they told him enough is enough you have to go. The Foreign Office documents describe in detail what went on in that meeting between the political agent who was called Major Daily and the sheikh, Sheikh Isa Bin Ali. He said I have been told by my father to obey the British. And now after all this service and all my trust in you this his how you treat me, you remove me from office.
Major Daily told him look we are removing you for several reasons. You are too old. After 55 of ruling you are 75 now so we want you to take leave. Secondly we are bringing your son to the throne. We are not throwing you are. Thirdly we are keeping your family in position. And don’t remember that we brought you from India where you had been banished? Don’t you remember that we protected you all these years? Don’t you remember how much support we have given you over the past 50 years? In the end he was removed from office.
I am trying to tell you that the British were not just the supervisors of the situation. They were entrenched into the local politics. From 1926 until after his removal they brought the new sheikh Hamid. He said I cannot rule? The British adviser was Charles Belgrave who remained from 1926 until 1957. There was a revolution from 1954 until 1956 until the trilateral attack on Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. On that day when the attack took place the Bahrainis went out in anger. It was a very big revolution like today. They went out in anger and they attacked British interests in Bahrain for the attack on Egypt.
The British were so angry they attacked them, they arrested all the leadership of the revolution – four Shias, four Sunnis and they exiled three of them to St Helena. It is like Guantanamo now. It was a small British protectorate – a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of now no where. Nobody goes there. Until today they don’t even have an airport. They are only served by ships.
So the three Bahrainis remained there from 1957 until 1961 when a British court ruled that they their banishment was illegal so they were allowed to come to London. If you go to the newspapers of 1957 you will see the three musketeers in Trafalgar Square feeding pigeons. They were happy after four years on that island where Napoleon was in exile and died.
Now where to we go from this. The British withdrew from 1971, we had a constitution but that constitution was short lived only for two years. Then the present prime minister suspended it. For the next 25 years we lived under black tyranny of the current prime minister who has been there ever since. For 40 years he is still sitting on our chests. Until today he is the one who is still hatching plots against the country. He is the one who called on the Saudis to invade and he is a very hard man. But he is not worse than the king himself.
When we say we are saying we are marking the 40th anniversary of liberation or independence. Why is independence day not considered the national day? Bahrain is probably the only country where independence is not considered to be the national day.
In Kuwait and the UAE independence day, the national day, the day they British left. It is like that throughout the Gulf except in Bahrain. The national day is 16th December while the British left on August 15th. They do not want to give credit to the peoples struggle of the 50s and 60s.
We were involved in that struggle. I was a young boy but I was in the street in 1965 against the British and 67 and 68. They don’t want to recognise the people of Bahrain could have ousted the British colonaialists. It suited Britain’s interests to leave but it was also due to the struggle. They wanted to convey the message that they did not want to recognise that the British who had been there for 150 years had eventually left. This means that if the Bahrainis continue their struggle against the Al Khalifas they could eventually win. The could eventually turn the tables.
They did not want to recognise that the peoples will which is capable of changing a situation, or turning the whole situation upside down. So until now we cannot have our independence day as our national day and we have to celebrate the day when a tyrant became a ruler. That is the day on December 16th. That is why for the past 25 years they would celebrate what they call the national day at the Dorchester and our boys would be outside in the cold shouting slogans against the regime.
We had a revolution. Again there has been a very powerful counter revolution led by the Saudis against Bahrain, against Libya, against Yemen, against Egypt. The counter revolution is active against all the Arab revolutions. It is led by the Saudis. Neither Egypt or Tunisia is immune or is outside the influence of the counter revolution.
So there is a counter revolution. It is against our interests, it is against our revolution and the people have paid dearly. However the only message on this 40th anniversary is that the spirit of revolution is still there. It hasn’t evaporated. Maybe people like me, the elderly people have given up. But I can assure you that last night and tonight and the following night there will always be those young boys and those young women like Ayat who we will listen to shortly. They are determined to be liberated from oppression, from colonialism, from occupation. If they managed to force the British out they could easily manage to force the Saudis out.
The Al Khalifa are not unique, they are not undefeatable. The Al Khalifa are as weak as any other dynasty which has ruled as who rule has ended by whatever means the people have chosen. The message is that the struggle will continue, the revolution is not going to subside until real change has been achieved. That is the message from our people to you, especially those of you who have stood up against repression against suppression and in support of the pro democracy activists in Bahrain.
Thank you for listening and God bless you all.
Chairman: There is now a skype call from Bahrain from Ayat Al Khuramsi. She is a poet and a student at the faculty of teachers in Bahrain and she rose to prominence during this revolution. On 23rd February 2011, the first days of the 2011 Bahraini uprising when the protesters were camping in Pearl Roundabout, Ayat came to the podium and read her poem that was critical of the government policies and the policies of the current prime minister. On 6th March earlier this year she read a poem which criticised the king. One verse was addressed to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa included the lines “we are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. Don’t you hear their screams?”
On March 30th Ayat was arrested and subjected to severe abuse and torture but due to international pressure she was subsequently released on13th July. Mohammed Sadiq who will address us campaigned for Ayat’s release. He has an MA in diplomatic studies and has been involved in a number of human rights campaigns for Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq and most recently Bahrain where currently heads the Justice for Bahrain group whose main objective is to raise awareness about human rights violations in Bahrain. One of his most successful campaigns for Ayat Al Khuramsi who will join us on skype shortly.
Mohammed Sadiq, Justice for Bahrain: I would like to thank our brothers and sisters who have supported our campaign for the last few months. The first time I came across the issue of Bahrain was in the 90s. I was walking down Hyde Park and I saw Dr Shehabi and his comrades taking pictures out of torture. I thought this could not be happening in Bahrain. Bahrain is a rich country, these people are just making propaganda.
I heard about what was happening in Bahrain after the Egypt and Tunisia. I did not have time to react to what was happening there. But when Bahrain came onto our tv screens I was shocked to see this happening to a small country like Bahrain with less than one million people. We saw the Saudis invading this tiny island and we thought we have to do something.
A group of students and professional people joined in and we formed the Justice for Bahrain group with a small number of people. I was asked why I was raising the issue of Bahrain. I did raise issues regarding Palestine and Lebanon during 2006 and regarding Iraq against the war.
I know there is a minority of Bahrainis living in the UK and it is our duty to help out. Bahrain failed to get media coverage at the start of the revolution for some political reason or for other reasons. Our job was to exert a double effort to gain the momentum and to get the coverage in the media. So with our friends, supporters and campaigners we joined forces to organise a number or events, protests and campaigns to raise awareness about human rights violations in Bahrain.
We started with the general campaign against imprisonment in Bahrain. We campaigned for a young guy Shams 15 years old who finally gained coverage in the Manchester United Magazine during the football match with Chelsea which was seen by 80,000 people.
This was successful so we thought what next? We started campaigning to free female detainees in Bahrain and our role was how to attract media attention to our campaign. We thought we had to give it a name and that name was Ayat Al Khuramsi. I was personally touched by what happened to Ayat and how they treated her and arrested. They tried to humiliate her image by publicising her pictures without her scarf and putting her picture on a dating website.
We thought his was a very sensitive case. Our campaign started with our brothers and sisters here with the media campaign, protesting, contacting human rights groups and contacting a number of people. I contacted Khatham Peshawari. That story was picked up by the Independent reporter Patrick Cockburn and we got a front page story.
I was surprised. I thought we would get half a column or a small column. Someone called me and asked me whether I saw the article. I had not seen the front page. I really checked and I was amazed.
From there our campaign has grown bigger and bigger. That front page story made an impact on her sentence and on how she was treated in prison. After that I they started treating her differently and showing her some small respect. Not because they respect her but because they were worried about how the media were going to handle this situation.
It was expected that Ayat would be sentenced to five years in prison and we thought this can’t be. They sentenced her to one year but we felt she can’t be sentenced to even one day because she is innocent. There was an appeal and she was released due to the help of everyone here: the emotional, financial and moral support and even the support of just praying for her release.
Because of the media campaign Ayat has drawn the attention of the Freedom To Create organisation in Singapore and that organisation nominates artists such as Ayat for an award called the Freedom to Create Award. That award is for people who have faced imprisonment, torture or similar pains due to their artistic work, such as a poem or a drawing. Ayat has been nominated and we are waiting for the decision to be made, hopefully by September.
Justice for Bahrain is still continuing the campaign for other prisoners in Bahrain such as Jalila Salman. She is a member of the teaching committee and also Dr Roula Safar. She is the head of the committee in Bahrain. We want to give a personal touch to the campaign with each individual who we are campaigning for. So we still your help and support with our campaign.
The media says that around 240 people have been released from prison. Our aim is to raise the awareness of human rights violations not just because of what happened in February but because of what has been happening for the past 40 years and so on.
Our aim is to continue to raise awareness about the situation in Bahrain. We have a number of friends who have been sentenced to prison, their father has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
What we hear now about the Bassouni committee which has come to the conclusion that the torture in Bahrain is not so widespread. I think they are either blind or they haven’t been to Bahrain and have not seen the pictures on t his wall which show how the people have been tortured and the army is allied with the occupation forces killing our innocent friends in Bahrain.
The international community is paying more attention to other countries such as Syria or Libya and they are ignoring a tiny island. I believe this tiny island will show to the world how committed they are to their freedom. And we are committed to supporting their freedom. We are committed to supporting their cause. As we did for Ayat we would like to do for the rest of the prisoners.
Chairman: I think a lot of young people can take inspiration from Mohammed himself and Justice for Bahrain. I am sure many people in Bahrain are thankful for all of your achievements and all of your efforts.
[Sype call to Ayat Al Khuramsi]
Ayat Al Khuramsi: Peace be you. I would like to thank everyone who helped with the campaign both for me and for Bahrain in general. The external pressure that was put on the Bahraini government secured my release. I hope will continue with your campaign to secure the release of Jalila Al Salman and Roula Safar.
Question: What crime do you commit to be imprisoned and tortured?
Ayat Al Khuramsi: I was accused of insulting the king, inciting hatred and undermining the regime, simply by reading a poem.
The people in Bahrain are committed to the struggle for their freedom and their basic rights and the people are still protesting and still rallying. On a daily basis they have different events, candle vigils. They have a campaign every single night and are still asking for what they first asked for in February. People are still rallying in the streets and hopefully they will be stronger with your help. At the moment Bahrain does not have a media voice. You are its voice and you are the people who speak for Bahrain. Talk to your friends, talk to your MP, talk to the media and show them what is happening in Bahrain. I am still writing poems describing what his happening.
Comment: Please consider that she is speaking from Bahrain and is not free to describe exactly what is going on.
Question: How do you see the future of Bahrain and the future of the struggle?
Ayat Al Khurmasi: I am optimistic for the victory of the Bahrain uprising. We are still shouting down with Hamad. Thank you.
Chairman: Our thanks to Ayat Al Khurmasi. She is very brave for speaking out in Bahrain while people are still being arrested and oppressed. Over the audience. Are there any questions?
Question: You mentioned the struggle against the British in the 1960s when you were a young boy. Was that an armed struggle or a peaceful protest.
Saeed Shehabi: In the 50s it was conducted by the nationalists and the leftists. Mainly the Arab nationalists at the time. And of course there were some religious elements in the revolution of 1954 – 56. It the 60s it was mainly conducted by the leftists. Some of them were contemplating the use of some violence. That is why Henderson was brought in in 1966. Later in 1969 according to one of the documents one of Henderson’s big successes was the arrest of Abdul Rahman Naimani. He was a nationalist leader and considered to be a leftist. He has been in a coma for the past three years. He is one of the great people who Bahrain has seen. In 1969 he was coming back from Abu Dhabi and according to Henderson he was arrested. This was considered one of Henderson’s successes. He allegedly had some grenades a pistol in his luggage.
Prior to that in 1968 there was a bomb that was allegedly put under the car of three special branch officers. One of them was Jordanian. He was called Mohammed Muhsin. This was attributed to the National Liberation Front. It was used as a justification for the mass crackdown against the leftists. That was mentioned clearly in the FCO documents.
I think the 60s were a watershed of the struggles of the anti colonial era. There was a little bit of violence but not very much apart from amateurish acts. The violence was committed by the authorities against the people. When we were protesting in 1965 for no reason 14 people were killed in those protests. We were protesting against the dismissal of about 500 employees from the oil industry. So at the time there was a little bit of violence mainly by some members of the left but nothing much.
Question: What about the US fleet? Do you think there is a chance of it leaving the country?
Saeed Shehabi: You have to know that the US fleet was brought to Bahrain after the British withdrew in 1971. In the 1980s they built a big base, the Issa airbase. It was supervised by the Pentagon. All the specifications were sent directly to the Pentagon. They were giving all the specifications. Now the Americans are using the sixth fleet but they are aware that the Bahrainis are considering them as complicit in the atrocities. We cannot see the Saudis occupying Bahrain without the approval of the Americans. We know that one day before the Saudis came Robert Gates was in Bahrain meeting with the officials. He could not have just been by passed and over ridden in the decision to let the Saudis cross the border.
The US is now beginning to get the message that the Bahrainis are aware and became very much against America and what they see as its role in the atrocities that have taken place.
Question: I have heard that Iran has been involved in the uprising. I wonder if anyone here has any proof about that?
Saeed Shehabi: For a full month the authorities repeated that Iran has no hand in the revolution. But after the Saudis came they had to say something. How do you justify the Saudis coming? You have to say something. Journalists asked if the 1,000 troops would be capable of standing up to an Iranian assault on Bahrain. They could do nothing if the Iranians really wanted to come. They are a joke. At the moment the Bahrainis are being attacked by the Saudis.
Last year when we had a meeting a staff member from the Gulf Daily News was there. He said you want to overthrow the government. I said in all of my life I have never concealed my desire and wish and prayer to God please remove this cancer from us. I would like to see this Al Khalifa removed. We have said this in the presence of the ruling family themselves. When we met the king we said unless you change the people will change you. I don’t think that we need the Iranians to tell us to overthrow the government. When this is happening to us and when Ayat is treated the way she has been treated you do not need anyone to tell you to rise up against your dictator.
In fact we want Iran to play a role. Iran is a big country. It should play a role not to come and invade Bahrain but to tell the UN and to ask the Saudis to leave. The presence of the Saudis in Bahrain is offsetting the balance of power in Bahrain.
[Video of the suppression of the uprising]
Chairman: We would like to give a few gifts to people we believe have helped the Bahrainis since the start of the protests.
Gifts were presented to: Mohammed Sadiq, , Seraj (organiser of the first protest), Aliyah (Saeed Shehabi is from South Lebanon. I thought she was a Bahraini but she is more Bahraini than the Bahrainis), Abu Hamid (Saeed Shehabi : He attended more demonstrations than myself), Abu Bashir (Saeed Shehabi: He is a veteran brother from 1979 onwards he has always been against one dictator or another) Massoud Sharaja, Fatema and her sister Ayat, Carline Paris (maker of Al Jazeera documentary), Abdul Muhim, Abrar Pices, Mr Awari and his family (Saeed Shehabi: he is always there protesting outside the Saudi embassy with the whole family and he comes all the way from Northolt, every Wednesday our friends our outside the embassy from 4pm – 5pm during Ramadan and 4pm – 6pm after Ramadan), Brother Haider ( a protester outside the Saudi Embassy), Anwar Rizvi (who has helped a lot with the Justice for Bahrain campaign).
Chairman: Thank you very much for attending. Now it is time for prayer and food.
Saeed Shehabi: I think all of you who are here are supporters and deserve much more than what we are giving the brothers and sisters. You deserve every respect because you are humans, you have that dignity and feeling of humanity towards your brothers whether they are in Bahrain or anywhere else. Your presence itself makes you stand out as people of conscience. So we really respect and love you and our people will never forget what you have done for them .