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Interview with Maryam al-Khawaja; Interview with Michael Posner

Aired December 28, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, welcome to our special weekend edition of the program. We focus a lot here on the struggle for democracy that's emerging around the Arab world. But the one going on in the kingdom of Bahrain festers largely under the radar.

When massive protests for reform and democracy began there nearly two years ago, the government clamped down with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf states. The clashes and the daily demonstrations continue, but largely outside the capital of Manama and the ruling al-Khalifa family has yet to introduce meaningful reforms, despite repeated promises.

Just days ago, Bahrain hosted an international security conference and made more such promises. But at the same time, the court kept one of the nation's most prominent human rights activist in jail, though they reduced one charge and slightly reduced his sentence from three years to two.

Many of them have had their citizenship revoked and even doctors and nurses who treated victims of government violence have been convicted of crimes against the state and given lengthy prison terms. And those activists accused the United States of largely sitting on the sidelines.

Bahrain is a Persian Gulf state, directly facing Iran. It's also home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, a key strategic asset in a critical neighborhood. I recently spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, a member of one of Bahrain's most prominent activist families. I asked her about the ongoing stalemate.


AMANPOUR: Maryam Al-Khawaja, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: You work in human rights and so does your father in Bahrain. He was on a hunger strike to protest a life sentence

AL-KHAWAJA: Yes, that is correct.

AMANPOUR: And is he still in jail and do you have any hope that he will get out?

AL-KHAWAJA: He's definitely still in prison. He was sentenced to life because of his human rights activities. His hunger strike was, of course, not only to protest his sentence, but to bring attention to the situation of political prisoners in Bahrain and the conditions that they were going through.

Of course, in Bahrain, we have systematic torture and children as well as adults get subjected to this torture, whether in official or unofficial torture centers. And I don't really have hope, because we don't have an independent or fair judicial system in Bahrain.

AMANPOUR: In 2011, as the Arab Spring was sweeping through the region, it hit Bahrain as well. And yet it's still very much under the radar, so to speak. Have protests diminished? Are they just not in the capital? What is the status of the protest movement there?

AL-KHAWAJA: The protests have continued almost every single day since the 14th of February 2011. They never stopped. The media just stopped covering it.

Now the thing is, is that Bahrain is what I like to call an inconvenient revolution. It's inconvenient to the Arabs and it's inconvenient to the West because of Bahrain's geopolitical and economical interests in the region.

AMANPOUR: So presumably you mean that it's supported by Saudi Arabia and it's supported by the U.S. because of the 5th fleet and what the 5th fleet does in terms of protecting that geostrategic area.

What do you think of the U.S. reaction to the democracy uprising in Bahrain?

AL-KHAWAJA: I think Bahrain sets the perfect example to the failure in the foreign policy of the United States of America. We're seeing a very clear double standards when it comes to standing up for human rights and against human rights violations.

And unfortunately, the message that's being sent to the Middle East and North Africa region today from the United States is that if you are a Western ally, then you will not be held accountable for human rights violations, which is exactly what we're seeing in Bahrain.

The Bahrainian regime today believes that they have international immunity. And the problem isn't in their belief that they have it. It's the fact that it's a reality. They have not been held accountable for the human rights violations.

On the contrary. arms sales continue to happen to Bahrain. There's several countries that continue to do business as usual with Bahrain. And economical interests continue to take place as well.

AMANPOUR: And what do activists there say about the presence of the U.S. 5th fleet?

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, the U.S. 5th fleet was never really a part of the issue. The issue was people going out to the streets demanding democracy and human rights and so on. It's become more of an issue now that people on the streets believe that the United States is, to some extent, complicit in what's happening in Bahrain.

Because the United States continues to sell arms to the Bahrainian regime, because every statement that comes from the United States starts with the sentence, "Our ally and friend."

And because there hasn't been any real consequences towards the human rights violations in Bahrain, people on the streets are becoming more and more frustrated with the United States and their stance towards the situation in Bahrain.

AMANPOUR: Now at the beginning I remember, much like Syria, the Bahrainis were not calling for the regime -- or rather the monarchy -- to fall. They were calling for reforms.

What is the heart of the demand of the opposition right now?

AL-KHAWAJA: The overall demand that you see mostly on the streets today is the right to self-determination. Of course, you have the political societies who are calling for a constitutional monarchy, and you have the people on the streets who are the majority who are calling for the stepping down of the king himself.

And for us as human rights defenders and human rights organizations, for us, of course, our call is not for political change. Our call is for a government that respects human rights, whether it's in the form of a constitutional monarchy or not.

But we do call for accountability. And if we find that there is evidence that the king, the prime minister and the crown prince have been responsible for the human rights violations that have taken place in Bahrain, then they need to be held accountable as well.

AMANPOUR: There is a consensus, a general view, that the crown prince, at least -- young, moderate, Western-educated -- has been trying behind the scenes to work for reform.

And, indeed, the government there says -- and I will quote -- the government there says, "The kingdom of Bahrain has enacted many significant initiatives and reforms. The opposition have refused to particular in discussions about reforms, despite repeated invitations."

Now this is from the ambassador of Bahrain to the United States.

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, of course, if -- we can look at a very good example. The -- Bahrain has the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was commissioned by the king himself, and it was fully accepted by the king himself again.

Now what we're looking at is that the king himself came out to the head of the commission, came out himself and spoke about how Bahrain was not making the progress that they had promised to make in regards to these reforms.

We are looking at a situation, a human rights situation in Bahrain that is deteriorating, not becoming better. Bahrain is not on a slow path of reform. They're going down the wrong path, which is increasing human rights violations and absolutely no consideration for basic human rights.

AMANPOUR: Tell us what the influence of Iran is, because the minute you talk about Bahrain, not only your own government ministers but also the United States and others in the region say that Bahrain is simply -- or rather the opposition in Bahrain -- is simply a client of Iran.

In fact, Samira Rajab, who's the Bahraini minister of information, has said their loyalty -- she's talking about the opposition -- is to Iran leaders and to Iran as a nation, who's protecting and supporting the Shia in the war.

AL-KHAWAJA: Well, of course, if you look at the Bahraini civil rights movement, which dates back to the 1920s, it goes far beyond the revolution in Iran or the current situation in Iran. And so the civil rights movement is something that's very, very old in Bahrain and has no relation to events in Iran.

Now of course what the Bahraini regime is very good at doing is labeling the Bahraini opposition with whatever they perceive as being an international threat at the time. And that's why, in the beginning, all of the opposition was (inaudible) socialist; afterwards, they were communists and then they became Iranian agents, and now they're terrorists as well as Iranian agents.

And they do this very well. Samira Rajab is someone who came out and publicly supported Saddam Hussein. So is she someone that we really want to take as, you know, the right person to be talking about human rights? Or what the opposition stands for or our human rights movement would stand for?

AMANPOUR: How do you think this is going to be resolved?

AL-KHAWAJA: I think that, you know, the situation in Bahrain is not sustainable. And I think the U.S. is starting to realize that they're actually creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they are using the excuse of Iran as a threat to not get involved in Bahrain, they're actually creating a vacuum where Iran can get involved in the future.

And so this is very problematic and I think this is becoming more and more clear the more the crackdown becomes more severe in Bahrain.

I'm not really sure how it's going to become resolved. It's either going to take about five years or 50 years, right? It's either going to come through a very violent revolution that is going to bring about an entire regime change; that's going to take much longer.

Or it's going to come through real international pressure towards stopping human rights violations, which will then open an entire new platform for real reforms to take police.

AMANPOUR: Maryam al-Khawaja, thank you for joining me.

AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: Just a note about the other side: we've repeatedly invited Bahraini government officials onto this program with little success so far. As I mentioned earlier, we did receive an email statement from the Bahraini ambassador to the United States, and we're posting that on our website,

As for the United States' reaction to the ongoing Bahrain unrest, earlier this week I spoke to Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner. He focuses on democracy and human rights, and he recently visited Bahrain as well as other Arab Spring countries.


AMANPOUR: It's been called and it's been dubbed in some print "the inconvenient revolution". The United States is perceived by those protesters seeking reform as not being on the right side of history, and all because of your military necessities and the base of the 5th Fleet in that region.

What do you say to that, that you pick and choose where to defend human rights and where to stay silent?

MICHAEL POSNER, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: I reject that. We are absolutely pursuing both our strategic interests, which are real, and at the same time we recognize the critical importance, both of the human rights agenda and also urging all sides, both the government and the political opposition to come together.

The crown prince said on Saturday it's time to have a dialogue. The Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, said we're ready. We're encouraging that. There needs to be a coming together of a very divided society.

We support human rights. We push for these issues and at the same time we maintain our security interests. We can and should do both.

AMANPOUR: You have a long and illustrious career in human rights, in promoting human rights. And we've talked to Bahraini defenders who are very disappointed with the United States. But they do see it as not standing up enough for the reformers and -- you know, yes, the crown prince has said that he wants to get involved. But nothing seems to be changing for the people of Bahrain.

POSNER: You know, we are absolutely engaged there. I've been there six times and I push very hard, both with the government and the opposition to -- both sides are waiting for the other. There's a sense that time's on our side. And what we've said to them is that this society is pulling itself apart; the street violence is certainly not abating.

And there's excessive violence, both by the protesters and by the police. But this is a critical moment for the society to come together for the government to reach out and say we're ready to negotiate the things that matter to people, the composition of the police, access to health care, education.

At the end of the day, we can't force that change. The change is going to come when people in Bahrain decide they've got to sit down and talk to each other and resolve their differences.

AMANPOUR: Do you buy what the government there says, that the opposition is simply bought and paid for by Iran?

POSNER: You know, one of the things that, again, is true in so many countries in this region is that the notion of dissent, of criticism, is novel. It's not something they've had to deal with. And the first reaction is somebody else must be promoting it. I've no doubt, whether it's Dubai or Bahrain or any of the countries in the Gulf, that if things fall apart, the Iranians will be the big victors.

But I think it's critical for each of these governments, each of these societies to recognize that they have domestic challenges and differences and it's important for there to be a process that allows people to express their differences without being branded.

AMANPOUR: Secretary Posner, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

POSNER: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And when we come back, a comedian who takes the world seriously; himself, not so much. A look at identity and ethnicity post- 9/11.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

"The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" is a worldwide phenomenon. The fake news program, a satire of actual newscasts, is sometimes even more influential than the real thing here in the United States. And other countries like Egypt are so inspired by the show they're making their own versions.

Aasif Mandvi joined "The Daily Show" team six years ago. One of his many titles is Senior Muslim Correspondent. That's meant to be a joke, a send-up. But it also happens to be true. And Mandvi, who was born in India and raised in England and the United States is not afraid to use his ethnicity to make a joke and a point.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aasif Mandvi is brown.

AASIF MANDVI, "THE DAILY SHOW": This color doesn't run from a story (ph).


AMANPOUR: But this "Daily Show" correspondent isn't just going for laughs. In his new play, "Disgraced," Mandvi is taking a serious look at the tensions between Muslims, Jews and Christians that linger still here in the United States since 9/11. I spoke with him earlier this week.


AMANPOUR: Does it bother you when we say fake news?

MANDVI: No. It bothers me when you say news, because that's maybe the word that's a little devious but --


MANDVI: -- but, yes, no, it's -- we are a fake news, I guess. I mean, it's (inaudible) news --


AMANPOUR: -- right into the jugular.

MANDVI: Right. But it is -- we do deal with the real news. We just take a very specific comedic slant on it.

AMANPOUR: So is there any line beyond which you won't take your ethnicity, your religion, your brownness?

MANDVI: Oh, I'll exploit the brownness as far as I can, you know. No, I mean, you know, I think that there is a kind of satire that we're making. We're making a point about the fact that I am brown, Muslim, South Asian (inaudible) and so somehow I am more qualified to cover those stories than anybody else. But you know --

AMANPOUR: And are you?

MANDVI: Probably not.


MANDVI: But I think just for -- I mean, one thing I do -- get to do on "The Daily Show," which I think is actually legitimate, which is that we do cover, like I said, real news stories.

And so sometimes, through satire, I get to sit on that fence between cultures, between East and West and comment on it and just by virtue of the fact that I am ethnically who I am, it gives a different take on it than, say, if a different correspondent was to cover it.

AMANPOUR: What do you make of Egypt, for instance? And you may have met the gentlemen, Bassem Youssef, who's made his own program, very much inspired by "The Daily Show"

MANDVI: No, I think it's great. I mean, you know, satire has existed for a long time. I don't know why we don't have more people copying us in the United States. Maybe that's -- I think there have been attempts, you know. But what Jon does at the show and those writers and -- it's a very, you know, it's lightning in a bottle kind of thing. It's, you know --

AMANPOUR: So let's get serious now (inaudible) serious, because your new play, "Disgraced," which I've seen, which is very, very powerful, breaks just about every taboo. And on the one hand, you're sort of an interface between East and West culture. And here you are in this living room, a Muslim, a Jew, a black woman, a white (inaudible) --

MANDVI: It sounds like a setup for a joke.

AMANPOUR: But it is brutal.


AMANPOUR: The level of stripping away these tribal parts and then getting to the heart of the matter.

Explain to me what you meant in this line that maybe people can understand, when you said to your Muslim nephew that this is not a neutral world, not now, not for you.

MANDVI: Right. Right, right. Well, I mean, I think that is the case for many Muslim Americans and Muslims throughout the world, probably, that the identity of Islam and the way Islam is viewed by the West has changed after 9/11, you know.

And it isn't a neutral world. I mean, you know, you can't -- every time you go through the airport, every time, you know -- I know in my own experience, you know, that when I have family members who are, you know, where the kufi and the thing and the whole -- and when they go out, you know, it is a different way that people perceive them, you know.

So yes, America has a very complicated relationship with the Middle East and the Muslim world. And --


AMANPOUR: Do you see this as -- what inspired you to do this then?

MANDVI: Well, when I read this play -- and Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the play, who's a brilliant playwright, this is his first play and he really doesn't hold back in this play. And it's -- And I -- and he sent me an earlier draft about two years ago.

And I read it and I thought, wow, this is an amazing play and very rare are there roles for brown actors and especially Muslim American actors that sort of deal with the identity issue in this way and in such a sophisticated, nuanced way as this play does. So when I read it, I was like, this -- I have to do this play. And so --

AMANPOUR: How would you sum it up? Because I think the most uncomfortable and the most controversial thing is admitting that, yes, there may be some Muslims who, in the back of their mind, think.

MANDVI: Right. Well, I think -- I think it's not just Muslims. I think what's been amazing about this is that when we've done the play, I feel like Jews and other -- Christians and other people have come up to me and said, I identify with this Muslim character on stage and his own identification with his tribal identity.

And the fact is that, you know, the way we were raised and the things we were taught shape us.

And you know, it doesn't mean that we have to act on them; it doesn't mean that we -- you know, it -- like I think -- but I think those things are there inside of all of us.

And you know, if you -- if you look at the world and those things play out in a living room, as in on this stage, but they also play out geopolitically, our prejudices, our racism, our sense of like what we think we know about the other determine how we respond to them and often determine geopolitical moves in the world.

AMANPOUR: And you're not just a comedian, you are a dramatic actor as well. And you won an Obie award.

MANDVI: I did, yes.

AMANPOUR: For a play?

MANDVI: For a play that I wrote called "Sakina's Restaurant." It was a one-man show where I played six different characters, all within a South Asian Muslim family. And it's interesting, because we did that play way before 9/11 when Americans really didn't know what a Muslim was.

And then subsequently we made it into a movie called "Today's Special," which is out and also -- and that was after 9 /11.

And suddenly the fact that these characters are Muslim became immediately so that in some way politicized by -- not that the movie has anything to do with jihad or anything like that, but it's just these Muslims -- it's about an Indian restaurant.

And you know, but it -- just by virtue of the fact that they were Muslim, it suddenly changed the conversation, you know.

AMANPOUR: It's raw and brutal --

MANDVI: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: -- really, really engrossing.

Aasif Mandvi, I think it's very brave.

MANDVI: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Thank you. Thank you for being here.

MANDVI: Thank you for having me.


AMANPOUR: While we're always looking for humor in unexpected places, you might find it funny to be trapped in paradise. But for one man without a country or a passport, it is no laughing matter -- when we return.




AMANPOUR: And finally, this story caught our attention this week. Imagine a world where there's no place like home and home is no place at all.

It may look like paradise. But for Mikhail Sebastian, it's more like purgatory. For the last year he's been trapped in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, unable to leave and return home to the United States.

In other words, Mikhail Sebastian is stateless and he has ever been since he left his home in Azerbaijan in what was the Soviet Union, forced to flee when the Soviet bloc began to crumble in the 1990s. He sought refuge in the newly independent nation of Turkmenistan. But Sebastian is gay. And homosexuality is illegal in Turkmenistan.

So once again, he had to search for a home and he found one here in the United States with only one catch: since he still held a passport from the Soviet Union, a place that no longer exists, he couldn't travel outside the United States.

Then last December, he was allowed to fly to American Samoa for a brief vacation. But he took a short side trip to Western Samoa, not realizing that that is not part of America. It is an independent nation. And so for the past year, he's been trapped in limbo, unable return to the United States, living with a family of eight and using the wi-fi at the local McDonald's to send emotional SOS.

MIKHAIL SEBASTIAN, DISPLACED PERSON: I did not play to stay here so long. I feel sad because I just want to go home.


AMANPOUR: Indeed, like the other 12 million stateless people worldwide, all Mikhail Sebastian wants is to go home.

That's it for the weekend edition of our program. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.