Jim Loughran of Front Line Defenders at today’s embassy protest.

The Men Behind the Curtain

Today I joined the protest organized by Front Line Defenders outside Bahrain’s London embassy to call for the release of jailed human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who was tortured and given a life sentence by a military court seven years ago.

No-one from the embassy came out to engage with us, but men inside were peering out from behind the curtains, seeing that Al Khawaja hasn’t been forgotten, knowing there are people across the world calling for his freedom.

Thirty years ago I used to protest outside South Africa’s London embassy, where the staff also looked out at us standing in the rain, and gave us an occasional mocking wave. Like in Bahrain today, we wanted an end to torture, a halt to executions and the release of jailed human rights activists.

Unless Bahrain’s government radically reforms it will also crumble suddenly, and two things will happen at its embassy in Belgrave Square.

The South African embassy staff used to ridicule us, but theirs was a nervous laugh. We knew, and they pretended not to know, that their apartheid system would one day collapse. None of us could predict exactly when, or quite how fast the end would eventually come.

But when the collapse came it was abrupt and dramatic, as it was in the Soviet Union. We’ve seen all this before. Unless Bahrain’s government radically reforms it will also crumble suddenly, and two things will happen at its embassy in Belgrave Square.

First, the staff will panic when they realize the violent regime they’ve been working for has toppled. There will be a rush for the paper shredders and a frenzied destruction of evidence showing the part they played in the years of repression.

Second, the diplomats will claim they had nothing to do with the torture or the death sentences, or the executions or reprisals against the families of activists, or the jailing of peaceful protesters, or the attacks on medics, or government corruption, or of any human rights abuses.

Bahrain’s embassy officials won’t be judged on what they say then, but on what they do now.

We were the good guys, working within the system, trying to stop bad things from happening, they’ll say. We were the quiet reformers. We didn’t work for the Ministry of the Interior or the National Security Agency or Bahrain’s Defence Forces, we didn’t torture anyone to death.

We’ve heard all these excuses before from diplomats of other dictatorships who spent years denying or systematic violence. It’s weak and unconvincing. Bahrain’s embassy officials won’t be judged on what they say then, but on what they do now.

Not all of Bahrain’s problems can be solved overnight. The economy is in freefall and years or sectarianism and polarization could take a generation to heal. But some things can be fixed immediately, and if the men and women workign at the embassy want to protect their future reputation they should publicly call for the release of human rights defenders Naji Fateel, Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and all the other peaceful dissidents wrongly sent to jail. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. They should do it today. No-one knows how long their government has left, but when totalitarian systems fall it happens suddenly and totally.

On October 7, 1989 the dictatorship of East Germany celebrated 40 years of rule with parades in Berlin, with torchlit processions and a show of tanks. A month later the regime had collapsed, its officials scrambling to burn files showing their part in the repression.

In South Africa, support from the White House and Downing Street wasn’t enough to save the apartheid government, and it won’t be enough to save Bahrain’s ruling family.

I’m asking those twitching the curtains today to worry for a minute about what happens if your privilege and power is swept away this year, or this month. Stop hiding behind the fabrications, stop apologizing for torturers, and come out and tell the truth. Your future you will thank you for it.