Bahrain: The silent revolution

Muted reaction to Bahrain crackdown on pro-democracy activists is in stark contrast to those regarding Syria and Libya.

Peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain have been brutally suppressed [Reuters]

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was due to be out of prison on February 20. She has been serving concurrent sentences since February 2013. However, she was recently sentenced to a further four months on a new charge of “destroying private property”. 

As Bahrainis mark the third anniversary of the pro-reform protest movement which came to be known as the 14 February Coalition, human rights violations continue unabated in the country. Some 122 Bahrainis have since died from torture, lung infections caused by tear gas, and from live ammunition used by the Bahraini security forces.

Thus far, 1,300 Bahrainis have been arrested in connection with their role in the protests and those still in detention have been tortured and denied access to medical care. Hospitals have been militarised as doctors and nurses are harassed for treating victims of the protests. Thousands of workers have been dismissed or suspended from their jobs for taking part in the demonstrations. 

And while the international community, particularly Western countries, have been quite vocal in condemning atrocities committed against protesters in some countries in the Middle East, when it comes to Bahrain, calls from the West for an end to human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities have been rather muted.

Using the ‘terror’ card

Bahrain is now on the verge of a precipice as citizens’ rights are trampled upon with no recourse to the legal system. The judiciary and police are far from independent and operate with the utmost impunity, leaving citizens who dare condemn atrocities at their mercy. Bahraini authorities ensure that they impose charges against activists and journalists which carry maximum sentences, and which, in the eyes of Bahrain’s allies, portray a country doing its best to ensure that its territorial integrity and internal security are protected from “criminals and trouble makers”.

Inside Story Americas – US double standards in Bahrain

Last year, on September 29, a court in Bahrain sentenced a group of 50 political and civil activists under the country’s terrorism law to jail terms ranging from five to 15 years, for “trying to destabilise the country”, and for alleged links to the “14 February Coalition”. The sentencing of the 50 vividly paints an appalling picture of the state of affairs in Bahrain. 

A show of reform

Though the authorities made timid steps to facilitate reforms by organising a national dialogue with the political opposition, the entire process is defeated by the ongoing arrests and detentions of key political figures who are supposed to take part in the dialogue.

Last year on September 17, for example, the authorities arrested Khalil al-Marzouq, a prominent opposition leader and the assistant secretary general of the al-Wefaq opposition movement, and accused him of inciting violence after he made a speech to a crowd of about 6,000 Bahrainis in which he was critical of the government.

November 2013 marked exactly one year since the country’s Interior Ministry revoked the citizenship of 31 Bahraini political activists as punishment for their dissenting views.

Double standards

The irony about the Bahraini quagmire is that when similar atrocities were committed in Libya, Egypt and most recently Syria, Western countries and especially the US and UK, heavily criticised the regimes in those countries for using brute force to counter peaceful protests, and for reigning in citizens for expressing their views. In the case of Libya, the West effectively pushed for NATO to intervene militarily. In Syria, before the regime made concessions on the disclosure of its chemical weapons, Western powers were on the verge of using military intervention.   

Why then is there a lack of decisive action from the West on Bahrain as atrocities continue? Could it be because of the strategic significance of this oil rich Gulf kingdom?

Bahrain currently hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and is a major source of oil for the US and has enjoyed strong historical ties with the UK government. The strategic presence of the US fleet in Bahrain’s capital Manama, serves as a deterrent for the US to exert sufficient pressure on the kingdom to implement much needed reforms. 

Could this silence also be due to the desire by Western powers to appease Saudi Arabia and counter Iranian influence in the region? In the immediate aftermath of the initial protests, troops from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bulldozed their way into Bahrain to suppress the demonstrations.

All GCC states have minority Shia populations. The Bahraini authorities claim that the protests are driven by sectarian interests and a desire by the predominantly Shia population to oust the Sunni-led regime.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also accuse Iran of instigating the demonstrations and for trying to destabilise Bahrain in support of their Shia brethren. Such claims receive the backing of the GCC members and will of course strengthen the US and UK resolve to maintain the current regime in Bahrain.  

Public exposure

In the absence of strong action from Western powers to curb the on-going human rights abuses in Bahrain, the kingdom’s citizens and civil society are taking on the authorities using peaceful means. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) for example has launched a campaign on November 23,2013, which disclosed perpetrators of gross human rights violations and the culture of impunity that persist in Bahrain.

The campaign, which was dubbed “End Impunity in Bahrain”, made public crucial information about representatives of the Bahraini government who are guilty of human rights abuses since the start of pro-reform protests more than two years ago. According to the BCHR, no government official has been included in the campaign simply on the basis of allegations, but on diligently investigated facts which link them to the abuses.   

After several failed attempts, a national dialogue between the kingdom’s Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa and leaders of the five main opposition parties took place for the first time in mid-January 2014 but atrocities continue as civilians are tortured for their role in pro-reform demonstrations.

The clock is ticking for the international community to exert pressure on the Bahraini authorities to stop widespread violations of the rights of its citizens as such ongoing violations are tantamount to crimes against humanity.

Both powers have a primary responsibility to take advantage of their longstanding relationship with Bahrain and persuade Manama to stop abusing its citizens and implement the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.  

David Kode is the Participatory Governance Coordinator & Policy Officer with the CIVICUS Policy and Research Unit. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Africa’s International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand.