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Bahrain: Struggle for democracy continues

In spite of dedicated opposition, Bahrain's pro-democracy movement threatened by rising human rights abuses since 2011

Nadeen Shaker , Thursday 11 Jul 2013
Bahraini anti-government protesters kneel in the street and gesture toward riot police in Manama (Photo: AP)

Bahrain’s opposition has had a trying two years as it vies for a spot amongst the Arab Spring uprisings.  Freedom of speech repression, torture, and denied entry are just some of their grievances. Indeed, since the struggle for democratic reform began, Bahrain’s human rights record has fallen to record lows, threatening the opposition’s gains.

Opposition fights back

Just months before protests broke out in February 2011, Ali Alaswad, a member of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, was busy proposing reforms bills to the Council of Representatives. His experiences in parliament, however, pushed him to deem it "powerless."

"Ministers refused to be held accountable, and pro-government MP’s teamed up to block any reforms," he tells Ahram Online. 

Seeing no results, Alaswad resigned following mass protests in 2011.

"Our demands are along the lines of basic democratic norms anywhere in the world," says Alaswad, "We want an elected government that represents the will of the people, a fully independent parliament with full powers […] as well as an independent judiciary."

At the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, Alaswad took the same calls for reform to the pro-democracy demonstrations of 14 February 2011.

Greater political freedom for Shias, who swelled the ranks of demonstrators, was also demanded. The Al-Khalifa family, who hails from the Sunni minority, has been ruling over a Shia-majority population for almost two decades. The regime has tried to portray the calls for freedom as a Shia Iranian-backed movement.  

Protests were soon squashed by troops from Saudi Arabia, UAE, and other Gulf countries acting at the behest of the Bahraini regime.

A three-month state of emergency was then enacted, during which the government racked up a long list of human rights abuses.

Some 1,850 professionals, mostly Shias, were forced from their jobs.

Opposition leaders were also heavily targeted, with Hasan Mushaima, Abduljalil Al-Singace, Ibrahim Sharif, and human rights activist Abd Al-Hadi Al-Khawaja each sentenced to life in prison.

A little more than two years later, the situation has not improved.

Notable human rights issues include "systematic torture, arbitrary arrests, kangaroo trials and harsh sentences, excessive use of force against protesters, [and] extra-judicial killings" Maryam Al-Khawaja, acting president of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), recounts.

Al-Khawaja documents arbitrary house raids, which are widespread.

"House raids generally occur between one and four AM ... [when] masked security officials in civilian clothing, sometimes accompanied by riot police in uniform, break into the home," Al-Khawaja tells Ahram Online

Those who write anti-regime statements on Twitter are also subject to arrest.

In May, the BBC reported that six were jailed for insulting the king on Twitter.  Each was given one-year sentences for "freedom of expression misuse."

An amendment to the penal code – now awaiting the king’s ratification – would sentence king-offenders to five years in prison, in addition to a 10,000 BHD fine (US $26,400).

Torture is another major issue in the energy-rich country.

The February 14 Network – a youth group dedicated to "exposing oppression against the people of Bahrain" – released a 15-minute video portraying various incidents of torture in detention, including beatings, electrocution, and lockups in freezing chambers.

The Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, tasked by the king to investigate the events of February and March 2011, called for investigations of 300 torture allegations.

Pursuant to the commission’s recommendations, the government set up a special investigations unit, modified the penal code to tighten penalties on torture, and opened two ombudsman offices to oversee violations committed by the security apparatus.

However, such efforts have fallen short.

In its 2013 annual report, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR) called the government’s efforts to combat torture a mere "declaration of intent," showing no fruitful results.

New restrictions

AUC sociology professor Amy Holmes’s name appears next to New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez on a list of those barred from entering Bahrain. She had imagined herself too "low-profile" to be considered a threat.

Bahraini authorities told Holmes that she required a security clearance to enter the country, citing a previous visit for research purposes in 2010.

Holmes spent nine hours in the airport before deciding to turn back.

"I tried to call the US embassy. They said it was a 'domestic issue,' and, in terms of national sovereignty, the government had the right to decide who is allowed in the country."

"The US is afraid to criticise Bahraini authorities. I was given no official reason why I was not let in," she said.  

"Though there are many such cases, what is strange about mine is that I am an academic, " Holmes added.

According to Bahrain Watch, there have been 221 entry-denials since 14 February, 2011. Amongst those barred are foreign journalists, NGO members, politicians, trade unionists, aid workers and activists.

Another newly-imposed restriction strikes a blow to free assembly.

A proposed amendment to the Public Gathering Law bans demonstrations near "lively places, and places of a security nature," requiring that organisers first pay a security deposit of up to 20,000 BHD (US$53,000), according to Human Rights Watch

Future prospects    

Because of the light media presence in Bahrain, the government has the "diplomatic and political space to intensify a crackdown on protestors,"  University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani says.

Alaswad believes there is a running agreement amongst Bahraini authorities that "the only option to deal with the opposition is repression."

While a first attempt at national dialogue in July 2011 was unsuccessful, a new round is taking place. Alaswad has cautious hopes that the outcome is sent to a popular referendum for vote.

Because Bahrainis largely stand by the opposition, both Alaswad and Al-Khawaja have faith that the people will initiate democratic change – especially in the context of regional transformations.

"Already we have seen a "Tamarod" movement start up in Bahrain, clearly influenced by events in Egypt," Alaswad says, "When people rise up and force change, it gives confidence to others in the region that their struggle can bring about victory too, as we saw in the beginning of the Arab Spring."

According to Al-Khawaja, Bahrain’s future depends on the regime gaining international accountability.

"The Bahraini regime went through a phase in which they committed wide spread violations and saw that there was no international accountability. And as long as international impunity continues for the regime, the human rights situation will continue to deteriorate," she says.


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