Released From Jail, Bahrain's Freedom Fighter Rides Again

Released in late May after two years in prison, Nabeel Rajab has taken his cause to foreign capitals. But will the West challenge the oil-rich nation's human rights record.

Nabeel Rajab in white
Nabeel Rajab in white
Hélène Sallon

PARIS — It's only been a month since he was released from a Bahrain prison, and Nabeel Rajab is already right back in the fray.

Rajab had been convicted of provocation and participation in illegal protests, which had begun in Bahrain in the middle of February 2011 in the capital of Manama, as the Arab Spring's pro-democracy movements swept through the region.

A longtime activist, and singular leader of the Feb. 14 Uprising, the director of the Bahrain Center of the Human Rights (BCHR) is busy remobilizing his army. From Beirut to Geneva, Copenhagen and Paris, where Le Monde was able to meet him on June 28, in between the 60 year old's visits with several Bahraini activists forced into exile.

“It is right there where the human rights movement in Bahrain ended,” he says with a sigh. Beyond those who fled are some 3,000 activists, or simply protesters, still in jail back in Bahrain.

But since his release, every step comes with the same determination as three years ago, recalling the 150 deaths in the crackdown on protesters, mainly among the country's 600,000 Shia citizens.

“There is no Shia family that doesn’t have someone in prison or in exile,” Rajab said.

His own activism has made him a frequent target of authorities. Already arrested several times during 2011, he was targeted by defamation campaign run by the government media. He was sentenced to three months in prison for the first time on July 9, 2012 for posting a tweet critical of the regime.

He told us about his two years in cell. Isolated, he was separated from other political prisoners. A back injury that came after a 2006 beating by police got worse in prison, but he clarifies that he "was not tortured" during his recent incarceration.

Beating marks on Rajab's back — Photo: Bahrain Center for Human Rights

Others were not as lucky. In the cell several meters away from him, lived Abdel Hadi Al-Khawaja, cofounder of the Bahrain Center of Human Rights, sentenced to life imprisonment by military court in June 2011. He was the target of physical, psychological and sexual torture, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

“Thousands have been tortured, and some even to death. They did nothing to me because they knew that I had great influence on people and I’ve got many contacts with human rights organizations,” he added.

On Twitter, the prisoner 048, as he calls himself, is followed by more than 230,000 people. "That’s one third of the kingdom’s population!” Amnesty International put him on their “Prisoners of conscience” list, and the United Nations singled out his jailing as “arbitrary detention.”

Foreign pressure

By the time he was set free, he found himself in a wounded country. “The number of prisoners has doubled. The majority is sentenced for their part in demonstrations or for criticizing the king on Twitter. They are regarded as terrorists,” he says.

None of the recommendations made by the Bahrain Commission of Independent Investigation created by King Hamad has been implemented. In fact, the Commission has violated its constitution during the insurrection in 2011 by its excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture. Instead, an anti-terrorist law has been voted on August 2013 that includes new limits on freedom of speech and assembly.

Political cartoon featuring Rajab — Author: Carlos Latuff

Rajab says the past three years was a systematic marginalization of the Shia population, conducted by the Sunni monarchy that has been in power since the 18th century. “In the courthouse, all the judges were Sunnis, same for the prison. It was like a Nazi camp,” he says.

For years, he has battled the economic and social discrimination against his community, especially against the king's policy to naturalize foreign Sunnis. “They brought in people from Pakistan, from Jordan, from Yemen and Syria. And they employ Sunni tribes for their police and army," Rajab says.

He adds that the Shia don’t have access to most of the jobs in public sector, while new neighborhoods and cities are all built for the Sunni, as education grows more and more segregated.

“It’s apartheid," he says.

This marginalization still leads to daily protests in Shia villages. “No one talks about it because the media is run by the government. People are killed, but you'd never find out,” he said. But activists like him still continue their fight in the country. “I know it is dangerous, but fear won’t stop me.”

The only thing that worries him is the thought of being separated from his children. “The king wants to set us against the Sunnis, but we don’t have any problem with them. We only have problems with the ruling class,” Rajab said.

For him, only foreign pressures could help end the repression, though on that front he is not holding his breath. "When it comes to Bahrain," he says, "economic interests with the Gulf countries keep France and other European governments silent."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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