From the January 12-18, 2012, issue of Al-Ahram Weekly
A leading human rights activist in Bahrain claims that Brazilian tear gas has already killed several children, reports Rasheed Abul-Samh
In the ongoing protests against the Al-Khalifa ruling family of Bahrain, Zainab Al-Khawaja, a leading human rights activist in Bahrain, is angry that government security forces are misusing and overusing toxic tear gas against mainly Shia protesters, and claims that the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas has already claimed the lives of at least two children, including a five-day-old baby girl.
Sajida Awad, the baby girl in question, died in September after Bahraini security forces changed tactics and began tear gassing mainly Shia villages on the outskirts of the capital Manama, after protesters were pushed out of Pearl Square in March and the monument torn down. The tear gas had seeped into the bedroom where Sajida was sleeping, and she inhaled too much of it and died.
"I went to see the family of this baby. She was from Bilad-Kadim village, and they shot so much tear gas in that area that it was impossible to breathe. These are houses of poor people, with cracks (in the wall), and the tear gas easily gets into them," recounted Zainab in an extensive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
"What happened is that Sajida has an older sister who is three years old, and the older sister started suffocating. So the mother and father were actually concentrating on the older sister and tried to do what they heard protesters do which is to put milk and Coca-Cola on her face to try and get her to breathe. And what they didn't notice was that baby Sajida's hands were already turning blue and that she was suffocating as well, and by the time they got her to the hospital it was too late. They tried to resuscitate her but she passed away."
Zainab, who is 28 years old and the mother of a two-year old girl, and who has been jailed many times for her participation in protests, says she is not sure what is in the formula of the Brazilian tear gas, but that it appears to be extra-potent and has caused many protesters who have inhaled it to foam at the mouth.
"Some people think that it is more toxic than just regular tear gas. Because it is not the same as the tear gas that's being used in Europe and in the States, it has some kind of chemical that in some instances has led some people to froth at the mouth and other things. And we're not really sure what's in it, but the reactions people have to it are very scary," she explained, adding that American and French tear gas have also been used in Bahrain.
Activists in Bahrain took photos of used canisters of Brazilian-made tear gas and posted them online. In the photos a Brazilian flag and the words "Made in Brazil" can clearly be seen printed on each of them.
The Brazilian press in December carried several stories about this use of Brazilian tear gas against the Arab Spring protesters in Bahrain, and the Brazilian manufacturer, Condor Tecnologias Não-Letais, denied that it had exported tear gas to Bahrain, but admitted that it had sold tear gas to several other Arab countries, which it refused to identify. It did say, though, that perhaps the Brazilian-made tear gas had been used by the military troops of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, that were called in last March to help put down the revolt. The manufacturer also stressed that its tear gas was non-lethal if used in the correct manner, and that it was not supposed to be shot directly into crowds.
But statements like Condor's do not convince Zainab, who says innocent protesters have been on the blunt end of the misuse and overuse of tear gas in Bahrain.
"Tear gas is killing people in Bahrain. Companies are saying its non-lethal, but if these weapons are killing people you don't sell them to dictators who are trying to kill pro-democracy movements in the Arab world," she said. "A lot of people here haven't been to Brazil, don't know much about Brazil, but what they do know about Brazil is that one of its canisters of tear gas is what killed one of our children, Ali Sheikh, an innocent child who did nothing but be an activist demanding democracy. The Brazilian government should care about their image in the Arab world and their image towards the Arab Spring."
The Brazilian Foreign ministry, Itamaraty, said on Tuesday that it will investigate if there was a violation of the contract in the use of tear gas manufactured by Condor against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain. Condor told Folha Sao Paulo newspaper that it was incredulous upon hearing the news that baby had allegedly died from inhaling its gas in Bahrain, and that its tear gas is used in Brazil and in 40 other countries, following international standards of safety. Earlier, the federal deputy Fernando Gabeira from the Green Party, in Rio de Janeiro, wrote on his blog this week that he did not support the export of tear gas by Brazilian companies, and noted that Brazil still exports cluster bombs despite a ban on them by many countries.
Zainab noted that the Bahrain security forces were now using tear gas that comes in black canisters with absolutely no writing on them or manufacturing dates. "We cannot tell what country it comes from, or who made it," she said. This is perhaps in reaction to the campaign launched against the Brazilian made tear gas.
The misuse of tear gas by security forces, shooting the canisters directly into crowds or at blank-point range at individuals, has also claimed many victims in Bahrain.
"Ali Sheikh was a 14-year-old kid who was active and involved in the revolution of February 14. His hobby was to take pictures, and he used to go to the Pearl Roundabout and after they hit it he used to go to the demonstrations and take pictures and record videos of the protesters," recounted Zainab. "On the first day of Eid last year, after Ramadan, he went out in the morning to a peaceful protest. Some of the kids in his village of Sitra were saying 'we are not going to have Eid when all of our leaders are in prison and being tortured, and being put to unfair trials.' So he went out with a few kids, and the riot police attacked the protest. One riot police car drove behind him as he was running, and shot directly at him with tear gas, and the canister hit him at the back of his neck and he died instantly. The tear gas that killed Ali Sheikh was made in Brazil."
Zainab does not believe that the daily protests against the Al-Khalifa, scattered among the villages, will end soon. She admits that the protesters are split between those who want a constitutional monarchy and those who say the Al-Khalifa have to go.
"I think that the Bahrain government thought that if they brought the Saudis in, and that if they used armies to attack families in villages, unarmed people, peaceful people who are holding flags and flowers, they thought they would scare the Bahraini people enough to get them to go into their homes and just let go of their demands, let go of the revolution, forget about the Arab Spring. But I think they are realising that this is just not happening, that every single day people in villages across the whole country are going out of their houses and shouting 'Down with Hamad'. Maybe on 14 February people were calling for reform, but now they are not, now they are calling for complete change," said the activist.
Zainab is from a family of activists, and they have all paid a heavy price for their beliefs. On 9 April, masked commandos burst into her family's home and beat her father, Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a leading activist and former head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, so badly that he blacked out and needed a four-hour surgery later to treat his wounds. Her husband and brother-in-law were also arrested that day. Her father was sentenced to life imprisonment on 22 June, by a military tribunal. Her husband was sentenced to four years in jail.
"In the Arab world, our problem is not with only one king; the problem is that the whole system is oppressive. So for example, we have hundreds of political prisoners in jail and we don't want them to just be released. Because we know that with the system we have in this country, if the king decides to re-arrest them tomorrow, he can do that. If the king decides to torture them in prison tomorrow, he can do that also. So we want a system that protects Bahraini citizens, that gives them rights and treats them as equals," she concluded.