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Leading Bahraini human rights lawyer remains cautiously optimistic on uprising anniversary

Violence on the streets won't go further than burning tyres and molotov cocktails, says Mohammed al-Tajer
Bahraini lawyer Mohammed Al Tajer speaks during a press conference in Manama (AFP)

Mohammed al-Tajer is not unfamiliar with the scenes coming out of Bahrain on Saturday. As a long-standing human rights lawyer, he has defended scores of opposition figures and pro-democracy activists and knows full well the images of backs scarred with birdshot, and beaten and bloody faces that come from those facing down the Bahraini police.

“Two years back I was here and we were asked what we can do to stop the violence on the street – at that time it was different, it was the small use of molotov cocktails and other things,” he told Middle East Eye.

“Now there are bombs from time to time in some areas. Now even these peaceful protesters and followers of [imprisoned opposition leader] Sheikh Ali Salman, we can see them doing a lot of, shall we say, challenging the presence of the anti-riot police in their areas – blocking roads, burning tyres, and it seems a daily business where things are going up and at the same time measures are being intensified.”

In spite of his dismay at the lack of reform in Bahrain four years after the beginning of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in February 2011, Tajer maintained that he did not believe it was likely that Bahrain could go the same way as Egypt or Syria, degenerating into brutal nationalist or sectarian violence.

“In a place like Bahrain, I don’t think we will see more violence than the current situation where all these kind of bombs are remote in an area – we don’t know who is behind them. It will not go as far as is happening in other countries in the Arab world.

“It will still be burning tyres and molotov cocktails, but it won’t go further than that,” he added.

But an increasingly frustration among opposition activists in Bahrain that their efforts against the government were not being rewarded with results risked heightening tensions.

“The problem is that losing 166 lives since February 2011, with more people going to jail instead of being released, desperate civil and social life conditions - it means there is always a possibility that things could move towards violence,” he admitted.

Mohammed al-Tajer was first arrested in April 2011, charged with “incitement of hatred against the regime, releasing of false news and taking part in a demonstration”, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR).

His arrest met with an outcry from numerous international bodies, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the latter organisation describing him as the “first defense lawyer detained in more than a decade”.

"The government's arrest of a leading defense lawyer shows that Bahrain is taking a turn for the worse on human rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch at the time. "The authorities should either release Mohammed al-Tajer or charge him now with a recognizable offense."

During his testimony in court he related numerous instances of intimidation from what he believed were the Bahrain secret police.

He claimed that video cameras had been set up in his house and private photos and a video of him sleeping with his wife were circulated on pro-government social media and forums.

While being held in prison, he claimed he was beaten and tortured.

Now released, he continues his activism - but these experiences have made him more cautious, and while he still travels around the world engaging foreign politicians and campaigners, he is more careful about his work in Bahrain, where he still lives.

“I’ve developed a lot of experience dealing with this regime, and I believe that I’m away from these things where they can criminalise me,” he said.

“I never go and protest anywhere in Bahrain, and I’m so careful about tweeting anything that happens. My work is purely as a human rights lawyer and human rights activist.”

As liberals, left-wingers and Shiite Islamists continue to swamp the streets of Bahrain to mark the fourth anniversary of the uprisings, Tajer confessed that he felt that the changes that he and others had been advocating for so many years were not forthcoming.

“The situation is the same after four years, if not for centuries,” he said, referring to the more than 200-year rule of the Khalifa family over the small country.

“The government is not backing down, and they are not adhering to their promises to hold a national dialogue or to improve the situation under freedom of assembly.”

Nevertheless, he praised the efforts of NGOs like his own Bahrain Human Rights Observatory (BHRO) in setting the regional standard for pro-democracy campaign work.

“I think we’ve been admired for our job all over the world. Even very experienced NGOs are admiring this job which we are doing,” he said.

“I think the way NGOs relay messages and report about the violations in Bahrain are so comprehensive in a way. We can’t say we fulfil everything, still we need work to be done - still we are using everything possible for us.”

Though he confessed he couldn’t see “any changes” in the area he has long campaigned to reform, judicial system - “still the judiciary system is being used by the regime to punish the opposition” - he felt that the high visibility of organisations like BHRO and BCHR had facilitated their continued operation in the authoritarian country.

“At least I’m working and some other people are working - Bahrain is a police state, but still NGOs in Bahrain have a room of freedom to work and to speak inside Bahrain compared to the UAE, Qatar or Saudi,” he said.

In spite of the seemingly tireless work by opposition activists within Bahrain to promote their cause, it has often seemed they fight an uphill battle against an indifferent or wilfully ignorant international community.

The decision by the UK, described by Tajer as “totally biased to the regime”, to construct a new naval base in Bahrain, outraged many activists in Bahrain, particularly after British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described the government as “travelling in the right direction” with regard to reform in the country.

The continued noise coming from protesters in Bahrain would, however, Tajer maintained, eventually convince even the UK to do “something more productive than keep talking or issuing statements”, and he noted the expulsion in 2014 of Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for meeting the opposition al-Wefaq party, as a sign that cracks were beginning to appear even in the previously concrete ties with America.

The enthronement of a new king in Saudi Arabia - a country that maintains enormous control and influence in its much smaller neighbour - did not fill him with optimism, however.

“I don’t think [Saudi King] Salman will be different than [former Saudi King] Abdullah. But the next generation of rulers...maybe,” he said. “We always think there should be a lot done in Saudi if we want to have a change in Bahrain.”

Many of those involved in Bahrain’s opposition movement have at times felt like they are facing a Sisyphean struggle to produce reform of a government that seems to be more defensive than ever and which has left the country in a “militarised” state, according to Tajer.

But as the numbers on the street keep growing and with Bahrain still mercifully free of the violence that has gripped some of its neighbours in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tajer maintains a cautious optimism.

“The changes are very slow. It seems that there are other major factors that take part in any changes in Bahrain,” he said. “But I think something will happen, whether this year or next year. It’s a very long struggle you know.”