By Courtney C. Radsch and Jennifer Gulbrandson
*Arabic version available here.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English
Amid the political convulsions wracking the Middle East, few prolonged protests have been as ignored by the West, particularly the United States, as those in the tiny Gulf monarchy of Bahrain. Despite the regime’s brutality, which has targeted peaceful protesters, human rights activists and medical personnel, the United States recently signed a multimillion-dollar arms deal (currently on hold) with the country and has remained largely silent amid a crackdown that proportionally surpasses the magnitude of any other in the region. Despite the fact that Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet and has received the coveted designation of ‘non-NATO ally’, the people of Bahrain have the same right to advocate for democratic change as their counterparts in the region.
On February 14, 2011, just days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Bahraini youth held a peaceful demonstration in Manama’s Pearl Square calling for a new constitution that would support economic, political and social accountability. Protesters demanded justice for the victims and perpetrators of arbitrary arrests and torture in Bahrain. Organizers chose this date because it was the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter of Bahrain, a referendum supported by 98% of voters that called for the end of a particularly violent period of Bahraini history (1975-1999) and for constitutional rule in the country. They optimistically viewed the changing political dynamics in the region as an opportunity to advance democratic reform in their own country.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention is particularly disturbing given that Sunni-dominated country’s support for the Sunni-minority Bahraini government’s hardline tactics. It raises concerns that Saudi Arabia is exacerbating sectarian cleavages in a broader attempt to reduce Iranian Shiite influence.
Rather than responding to the legitimate requests of its citizens, however, the Bahraini state violently attacked demonstrators and those who sought to defend them, eventually calling in foreign reinforcements, including troops from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, UAE police, and mercenaries from Pakistan. As a result, demonstrators’ demands escalated from those concerned principally with political reform to those calling for the end of monarchic rule and the removal of the prime minister, who has held power for the past four decades. The September 24 parliamentary elections, which filled 18 seats vacated by opposition deputies who resigned last spring over the violent crackdown, were boycotted by several Shiite groups.
In a country where the majority of the population is Shiite but the rulers are all Sunni, the conflict between the government and demonstrators has taken on sectarian overtones. While many Shiite and Sunni activists work side-by-side for the rights of all Bahrainis, the Bahraini government has stoked sectarian tensions through anti-Shiite campaigns that link human rights with treason, incited violence against Shiites, and carried out large scale dismissals of Shiites from teaching and other professional positions. There is also anecdotal evidence of systematic naturalization of Sunni expatriate workers and among the security forces in an attempt to alter the sectarian balance in the country. This evidence follows substantiated reports of demographic manipulation that initially emerged in 2006 with the leak of a document, allegedly from the government, outlining a plan to alter the county’s demographics through naturalization.
Bahraini State Violence
The Middle East is home to some of the most entrenched authoritarian rulers in the world, including Bahrain’s. In Freedom House’s annual survey of Freedom in the World, Bahrain is rated “not free.” Since 2008, political rights, particularly for the Shiite majority, and civil liberties in Bahrain have declined, and in 2010, Freedom House identified significant negative trends, such as assaults and arrests of dozens of activists and journalists, as well as reports of widespread torture of political prisoners.
Arrests and Military Tribunals
More than 1,600 peaceful political protesters, medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and innocent bystanders have been arrested since the first demonstration occurred on February 14. A government declaration of a “state of national safety” included the establishment of a special military court, which has convicted more than 100 people. On September 27, a Special Security Court upheld harsh sentences—including eight life sentences—for 21 Bahraini human rights and civil society activists. The next day it sentenced 13 medics who treated people injured during protests in Pearl Square to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state; 34 more medical professionals have been charged; and dozens of others have been detained and ordered to stop their work in private clinics. The special court also upheld 5- to 10-year prison terms—in trials that lasted only five minutes—for the heads of the Bahrain Teachers Union because they had called for strikes.
Harassment and Torture
Bahrain has taken harassment of political activists and human rights defenders to a new level by targeting their homes, families, and livelihoods in a systematic effort to intimidate large swaths of the citizenry. At least 2,500 Bahrainis were fired from their jobs in the course of only a few weeks, students were dismissed from university, and journalists targeted in public smear campaigns.
The state has put human rights activists in danger by accusing them of treason and criminal activity and inciting the general public to attack them. Such defamation campaigns have resulted in death threats and physical assaults against male and female activists and forced several into exile.
The long-standing practices of incommunicado detention, systematic torture, secret detention facilities, incitement of violence against activists, and other state-supported human rights violations cast grave doubts on the state’s political will to reform.
The Bahraini government’s repressive tactics and attempts to conceal torture and justify violence against its own citizens are systematic. Although torture in Bahrain has been a growing problem over the past several years, the severity and scope of reports since February have been shocking. The medical professionals arrested and tortured for upholding their Hippocratic Oath, unfortunately, represent a mere handful of the recent torture cases in Bahrain. Serious concerns about the independence of a commission appointed by the king have given little comfort to victims that their torturers will be brought to justice.
Bahrain has been particularly sophisticated in harassing online dissenters and has arrested at least 31 bloggers and digital activists; one died in police custody and another was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Favored techniques include troll attacks, when pro-government bloggers seed violent and sectarian content on social networks and attribute it to the peaceful uprising, and crowdsourcing social media accounts to identify protesters. In particular, Twitter density indicates that the Ministry of Information has focused on co-opting Twitter conversations via ‘hash-tag bombing’ to send threatening and defamatory messages. Service providers are required by law to monitor and record all phone and internet activities in Bahrain, and hundreds of websites are censored, primarily using American-made technology, or taken offline completely.
Superficial Responses to Deep Wounds
The National Dialogue that took place in July was doomed to fail before it began. Despite rhetoric that the process would be inclusive, only 35 out of 300 seats were reserved for all opposition groups (individuals aligned with the regime filled the rest). With the disproportionally small representation of opposition in the Dialogue there was little hope for any meaningful democratic reform, and its failure has further shaken the public’s confidence in the government.
The government is pointing to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to address the human rights situation. The Commission, which is due to report its findings by November 23, could help bring a sense of justice, and consequently, order and stability to Bahrain, if it is allowed to independently recommend reforms and enforce accountability measures. If not, the risks of instability in Bahrain and the region will grow.
Recommendations for U.S. Policy:
Speak out, speak loud. President Obama must continue to apply public pressure on Bahraini officials, such as when he condemned the Bahraini government for “mass arrests and brute force” in a speech at the State Department. The US must speak out firmly in support of the Bahraini people or risk being on the wrong side of history when democracy does come to the country.
Make the $53 million arms package to the Bahrain Defense Force conditional. The US should prevent any military assistance or arms sales—despite “external defense” designations and “end use” discussions—to Bahrain unless the results of the Commission of Inquiry are indeed truthful and independent, and assistance should be tied to progress on addressing the Commission’s recommendations and bringing perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice.
Be consistent in support for human rights and democratic reform. The idea that stability and US interests are best secured by providing unwavering support for repressive monarchies has proven false and short sighted given the recent uprisings in the Middle East. The US should advance its interests and values by being a strategic ally of the Bahraini people and supporting moderates and reformers, rather than unconditionally backing a brutal regime.
The Obama administration should make internet freedom a priority. The president’s condemnations of the Tunisian and Egyptian restrictions on internet and mobile phone networks in the initial days of those revolutions heartened pro-democracy advocates on the ground. The administration should similarly support the right of Bahrainis to express their opinions freely, rather than remain silent when, for example, the Bahrain Interior Ministry said it would punish anyone using new media to post messages of dissent ahead of the September 24 parliamentary elections.
Support Legal and Security Sector Reform. The US should pressure Bahrain to use civilian instead of military courts in cases stemming from political unrest and provide technical support for systems and practices that bolster accountability. Such practices should include unannounced civilian inspections of prison facilities and criminal—not administrative—trials of those charged with torture and murder.