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Bahraini diplomats confronted with uncomfortable questions

The event at the Bahraini embassy that was disrupted by protesters. (Code Pink)

The Bahraini embassy event that was disrupted by protesters. (Code Pink)

“How dare you criticize Bahrain when our own government tortures people!”

A big middle-aged man was offended that Code Pink activists had just challenged Bahraini diplomats on May 21 about human rights abuses at the Bahrain Embassy in Washington, D.C.  He had just finished shouting: “It is rude to criticize others for human rights abuses when we torture people. Ever heard of Guantánamo Bay?”

Having been the first to challenge the Bahraini diplomats on their government’s appalling human rights policies, I swiftly responded, “You are right. We do engage in torture. Guantánamo must be shut down.” This caught him off balance and he momentarily quieted.

Co-founder of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin, who had let myself and Tighe Barry speak until then, stood up and challenged the man in front of about 70 people and said “just because our own country does bad things is not a good excuse for failing to speak up about abuses elsewhere.”

The middle-aged man, like many others at the diplomatic reception, was stunned. After a delicious meal of samosas and falafel and fresh fruit, along with a presentation extolling the wonders of Bahrain, Americans were standing up asking questions about unsavory matters. Attendees, most of whom had never been to Bahrain, had to contrast the multicultural, tolerant and beautiful aspects of the diplomats’ presentation with people asking about torture, imprisonment, corruption and dictatorship.

We had listened to their presentation without interruption, and then asked questions during their Q&A time. I started by asking a number of questions including: “Why did the Bahraini regime recently jail six people for tweeting?” “Why is the Bahraini regime branded as one of the five worst enemies of the Internet by Reporters Without Borders?” “Why would anyone want to invest in an unstable country where the regime refuses to find a power-sharing agreement with its opponents, many of whom are in jail?”

The Deputy Chief of Mission, Khalid Yousif Al-Jalahma, responded by saying that no country is perfect and that Bahrain is making progress. He also said that the reports that the prime minister was taking a share of new businesses were exaggerated. I imagined that he might be fired or worse were his equivocal response about corruption shared with his bosses in Bahrain.

Then Tighe Barry stood up and forcefully asked: “Why are nonviolent human rights defenders imprisoned in Bahraini jails like Nabeel Rajab?” “Why is the Bahrain regime continuing to torture people?”

Before Al-Jalahma could answer, the middle-aged American man again shouted, “Who are you to speak up about abuses? I served in Afghanistan and carried a gun.” After a short awkward silence, Medea and Tighe both responded by saying that they had been to Bahrain and witnessed abuses.

Finally came the coup de grace from the guest, “you would never speak up to Congress or our own government like this!”  My mouth dropped.  I was sitting there thinking, “you have no idea who you are talking to.”

Forty hours later, with his words still ringing in my ears, I saw Medea Benjamin challenging President Obama and the government of the United States about his drone and Guantánamo policies.

Medea was disappointed with our Bahrain event. The batteries had run out on the camera just as we began asking our questions. She emailed, “Sorry it was not a better action.” I wrote back and told her that I was content with the protest and asked what there was to be displeased with apart from the problems with the tape. Medea replied that, “a lot of the point is getting it on tape so folks in Bahrain can feel supported.”

The middle-aged man, however, did speak an important truth. To speak out about injustices requires a commitment to address one’s own community and society first.

None of us can speak truth to power everywhere and on every topic. Most of us have privilege and come with baggage. But Medea and Code Pink serve as a model for global citizens everywhere as they strive to act with universal consistency for human rights, the rule of law, an end to militarism, and speak truth to power wherever one can.