Increasing repression, trying civilians in military courts, banning political parties - perhaps elections in 2018 offer the only hope
An old Bahraini friend came through London the other day. We had coffee together and we talked about the current situation in his country.
'It is bad, very bad. Everyone has lost hope. No one sees any way out'
“Bill,” he kept repeating, “it is bad, very bad. Everyone has lost hope. No one sees any way out. I have lost hope.”
This from a person who has always striven to remain an optimist, even as the country continued to slip into an ever tightening grip of repression.
It was hard not to share the pessimism. The Bahraini parliament had, near unanimously, just passed a motion that will allow civilians to be tried before military tribunals. Two days after I saw my friend, the Shura Council (the upper house) appointed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa waved through the bill. Now it only requires royal assent to become law.
Tillerson skips human rights report release
My friend had mentioned too that at any moment the regime would move against Waad, a secular liberal political society whose leader Ibrahim Sharif had already served more than four years in jail. Sure enough, on 6 March, the government announced it was taking legal action to shut Waad down.
By that point, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had already declined to present the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, upending decades of protocol that had seen secretaries of state both Republican and Democrat be present at the release of the highly respected report.
Last April, then Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks about the release of the 2015 Human Rights Report (AFP)
The section on Bahrain makes for sobering reading and puts the lie to the Bahraini government claim that it has moved forward and made dramatic strides in reforming the police and the judiciary. To quote from the report:
"The most serious human rights problems included limitations on citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully; … restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association; and lack of due process in the legal system, including arrests without warrants or charges and lengthy pretrial detentions -used especially in cases against opposition members and political or human rights activists. Beginning in June (2016) government action against the political opposition and civil society worsened these problems…
"Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary remained vulnerable to political pressures, especially in cases involving political opposition figures."
Mute White House, mute FCO
There is no question that the ruling Al-Khalifa family – Sunni Muslim in a country with a majority Shia population - was emboldened by the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. Here is a president who cannot be bothered to even mouth the usual platitudes about the importance of fair trials and free speech. Indeed, President Trump has done his utmost to impugn those two pillars of democracy.
The ruling Al-Khalifa family – Sunni Muslim in a country with a majority Shia population - was emboldened by the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House
It is unsurprising then that the Trump administration has had nothing to say about the royal decree on 5 January which restored the powers of Bahrain's National Security Apparatus (NSA) to arrest and detain people. Nor has the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Human Rights Watch in a statement released on 31 January noted that the decree rolled back what it called “one of the few significant security sector reforms introduced after 2011”.
Curtailing the powers of the NSA was a key recommendation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) chaired by human rights law professor Cherif Bassiouni. He was tasked by King Hamad with investigating abuses that occurred in Bahrain in February and March 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring uprising.
The commission found that NSA officers were among groups of hooded, armed security forces who engaged in “terror-inspiring behaviour . . . (which) could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure of the Interior Ministry and NSA”. It also said that these agencies “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody".
In the wake of the Bassiouni report, only a tiny handful officers were ever convicted despite overwhelming evidence against the force. And yet the NSA, which is feared and loathed in equal measure by the majority of Shia, has had its powers restored.
Lingering in court and prison
Meanwhile, a court case is proceeding against Ayatollah Isa Qassim, the highest religious authority in Bahrain's Shia community. He has been charged along with two others with money laundering, harbouring terrorists and other violations that “threaten Bahrain’s security”.
Last year, the government stripped him of his citizenship, claiming that he used his position to “serve foreign interests and promote sectarianism and violence”. He is now effectively under house arrest.
Elections will be held in 2018. Even with Wefaq and Waad banned, there still remains scope and just enough time to form a new political society
Veteran human rights activist Nabeel Rajab has been held on remand since June of last year. He is facing charges that could lead to jail terms of up to 18 years. The charges relate to tweets he made objecting to the war in Yemen and drawing attention to allegations of torture in Jau prison where more than 1,500 oppositionists and activists are held. He is also charged with “spreading false news” in a letter that was published in the New York Times in September 2016. Before being detained last June, Rajab had served more than two years in prison after previous convictions.
Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the already banned opposition political society Al Wefaq, is serving a nine-year sentence after being convicted of incitement against the government. Many other political and human rights activists are either in jail or risk detention and charges if they do not remain silent. Others are in exile.
'Nothing left to lose'
No wonder my friend was feeling hopeless. So is there a way forward? Is there any way out?
Perhaps. Wefaq has previously boycotted elections. That decision was, in my opinion, a mistake because it allowed the government a free pass in parliament. Admittedly, parliament has little say in how the country is run. But little is better than none.
Elections will be held in 2018. Even with Wefaq and Waad banned, there still remains scope and just enough time to form a new political society, one that draws from both Sunni and Shia and is driven by young Bahrainis.
They, more than any others, are paying the costs of more than six years of unrest. They, more than any others, deserve at least the possibility that hope has not been utterly extinguished.
Take the Al-Khalifas at their word. If it is a bluff, call it.
Such a movement is one the government claims it would like to encourage. Take them at their word. If it is a bluff, call it.
For its part, the FCO, which has remained very much on the side lines when it has come to commenting on the current wave of repression, can hardly stand aside and ignore a fresh initiative, particularly one that comes from young Bahrainis.
No doubt those who would encourage and lead such a movement will take flak from certain elements within their respective communities. Given the current impasse that may be a relatively small price to pay.
I said to my friend, “Take the Al-Khalifas at their word. Take what is on offer and see how it can be improved upon.”
The reply came after a thoughtful pause, a long stirring of the coffee: “Why not? We have nothing left to lose.”
- Bill Law is a Middle East analyst and a specialist in Gulf affairs. He tweets @billlaw49.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Bahraini protestors throw stones towards riot police during clashes following the funeral of Ali Abdulghani, 17, whose family says died of injuries suffered in a police chase, in the Shia village of Shahrakkan, south of Manama on 5 April 2016 (AFP)