Barricaded in Bahrain
On November 23, Manama, the modern capital of the tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain, was in an uncharacteristically welcoming mood. Foreign reporters—allowed into the country for the first time in months—were swamped with invitations to a “celebration” at a posh royal palace and offered interviews with usually reticent Bahraini officials. The occasion was the long-awaited release of a report about the government’s strong-armed handling of last spring’s popular uprising. Since the report had been requested—and paid for—by the government itself, officials were expecting a few minor criticisms. Then, they reasoned, the country would move on.
Things didn’t go according to plan.
For one thing, the country shows little sign of moving on from the uprising last February and March, in which government forces brutally cracked down on tens of thousands of people—men and women—many of them belonging to the country’s Shia majority, who had taken to the streets for weeks to voice grievances against the ruling family, who are Sunni. At least 35 people were killed, mostly by security forces and pro-government mobs; thousands were detained; and hundreds of activists, political figures and professionals such as doctors, nurses, lawyers and athletes were tried in closed-door military courts and jailed. And there is still widespread fear of more violence.
In fact, the morning the ceremony was to take place, reports began circulating that a 44-year-old man named Abdelnabi Kadhim had been killed under suspicious circumstances in the small, poor Shiite village of Aali, about an hour from the capital. A handful of us went to see what happened. Like so many of “the villages,” as the Shiite towns outside the capital are called, Aali is a dusty collection of two- and three-story houses made of plywood, corrugated steel, plaster, and bare concrete floors. Substandard housing, high unemployment, and a sense of unequal treatment have made Aali one of a dozen or so centers of protest.
According to people in the village, Kadhim’s car had been rammed by riot police as he was driving his wife to work. (By the time we got to Aali, the car had been removed.) Kadhim had been a regular presence at village protests. When the women in Kadhim’s family gathered to mourn his death, riot police fired tear gas canisters into their home. Neighbors showed us the broken glass from the attack. As they described what happened, a small group of young men and women gathered outside Kadhim’s house to shout, “Down down Hamad!” calling for the overthrow of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa.
Moments later several four-wheel drive vehicles full of riot police moved in. About a dozen reporters and villagers, including one of us, scrambled into Kadhim’s house as police fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at such close range the impact tore holes in the walls. We all crouched to the floor, coughing and spitting from the poison gas. Police pounded on the door, demanding we come out. The siege lasted for hours. Activists and journalists inside the house—most of them women—began Tweeting what was happening. One government supporter Tweeted back in disbelief: “Why would gov make such an error on such an important day for them?”
The villagers of Aali remained in their houses, and the riot police eventually fell back. By the time we left Kadhim’s house, officials were preparing their celebration at the palace. We barely made it in time, and attended the ceremony with tear gas on our faces and dust on our shoes.
But the real surprise of the day was the report itself. When at the end of October the commission, known as the Bassiouni Commission after its chairman, Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University, had requested a three-week delay to release its report, many Bahrainis suspected that the report was being “fixed” to bring it in line with the interests of King Hamad.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Bassiouni’s unveiling of the 500-page report took place in a huge red-carpeted reception hall at the palace compound under a series of enormous chandeliers. The king sat to his left; dignitaries and honored guests sat before him in rows of chairs. But Bassiouni did not flinch. The room fell quiet as he read out the commission’s main findings and said words like “rape” and “torture” involving the kingdom’s security forces. He was clear that these abuses weren’t just random acts by a few bad apples. “A number of detainees were tortured,” he said, “which proved there was a deliberate practice by some.” For the first time—perhaps ever—an independent jurist standing before a Gulf monarch publicly accused that monarch’s government of systematic abuse.
The report condemns government security forces for responding with excessive force (it attributes at least 14 deaths to them) and for detaining protesters illegally. It also describes the use of systematic torture, which, in combination with medical negligence, led to five deaths:
The most common techniques used on detainees included the following: blindfolding; handcuffing; enforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses (including on the soles of the detainee‘s feet), cables, whips, metal, wooden planks or other objects; electrocution; sleep-deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape to the detainee or family members; and insulting the detainee‘s religious sect (Shia).
The report further notes that some 4,400 people were unjustly fired from public and private sector jobs (ostensibly for absenteeism but in reality for their alleged participation in the protests), the use of state television and other media to defame protesters, and the demolition of unlicensed Shiite religious structures in the protests’ immediate aftermath. Importantly, the report dismissed government allegations that Iran is behind the protests, finding no “discernible link between specific incidents that occurred…and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
King Hamad did not visibly react–-he delivered a prepared speech that did not directly address the report’s findings. In his own remarks, the King seemed almost defiant, sticking to the regime’s line that Iran is supporting anti-government protests and thanking security forces for restoring order to the country. He extended his gratitude to the Saudi-led troops who—under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—entered Bahrain last March to help the government during the protests. As the king put it, these allies “participated in protecting key installations by deploying the Peninsula Shield Force, without any confrontation with civilians.” After the ceremony, though, the invitations to journalists stopped. Interviews with the Foreign Minister were canceled. Government advisers hinted the report had taken the monarchy by surprise. The warm welcome had ended.
In fact, the report itself was admirably balanced. Against all odds, Bassouni’s team had succeeded in producing a highly detailed, thoroughly professional and, as a result, hugely credible report in less than five months of investigation, analysis, and drafting. In addition to the repressive actions taken by the government, for example, the commission also documented abuses by what it refers to as groups of protesters. In at least one and possibly as many as three cases, it mentions the killing of South Asian expatriate workers by “mob attacks.” (According to the report, “There is a high degree of mistrust of immigrants by the Shia community, partly because they are perceived to be a threat to the job market for Bahrainis, and partly because of their membership in the security forces.”) The report also describes defamatory accusations leveled at pro-government journalists via social media, through a widely distributed “List of Shame.”
The report also notes that the Bahraini government has reversed some of its repressive actions. For example, during the uprising, many medical personnel were detained for allegedly commandeering the Salmaniya Medical Center and turning it into a command center for protesters. But since the summer, all medical personnel and many other political prisoners have been released (though not the main opposition leaders, who have been in detention since the crackdown began in mid-March). Also, many of the public sector employees who were dismissed have been reinstated. (This is not the case, however, for those employed in private enterprises, such as Gulf Air and Batelco).
The government obviously cannot undo the torture its security forces meted out, nor bring those who were killed back to life. Some investigations have been launched, and we will have to see who in the end will be punished for the human rights crimes spelled out in the report. Meanwhile, the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Forces remain in Bahrain, protecting strategic installations but thus freeing up Bahraini forces for internal policing. As such, these foreign troops are providing a security blanket for a panicked regime.
But even if those responsible for the killings and torture can be held to account, it will do little to resolve the social and political crisis that led to the protests in the first place. A gerrymandered electoral system has long ensured that the Shia, the country’s demographic majority, would not come to dominate parliament, while the regime has encouraged the entry of Sunnis, many of them South Asians but also Jordanians and other Arabs, to fill the ranks of the security forces and public sector jobs—at the Shia’s expense. Though he staked out a reputation as a reformer soon after coming to power in 1999, King Hamad has not changed these underlying inequities. Nor has he (or his son, the Crown Prince, who has spearheaded efforts at dialogue with the opposition) been able to overcome the more hardline position of the country’s powerful Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa. The unelected Prime Minister has been in office far longer than the King, and has resisted any compromises with the leading opposition group, the Shia-dominated al-Wefaq, that might defuse tensions.
As Toby Jones, one of the foremost authorities on Bahrain, has said, Bahrain needs a game changer, and the Bassiouni report isn’t it. Dealing with members of the security forces who committed human rights abuses could be helpful in restoring a smidgen of popular confidence in the monarchy. But it won’t heal the many divides now cross-cutting the country: between members of the regime; between Sunni and Shia; or between protesters—some of whom, like the villagers in Aali, have called for the end of the monarchy itself—and licensed opposition groups, such as Wefaq, that in the past have been willing to engage with the Crown Prince on the outlines of reform. The latest attempt at such talks fell apart in mid-March as Saudi tanks rumbled onto the island to buttress the government. Today the Crown Prince is marginalized, surfacing only on visits to Washington or London but invisible at home, while Wefaq is pursuing the politics of the street as long as the regime shows no inclination to enter serious talks,
Reform is overdue, but nobody knows how to break the impasse. The Obama Administration could escalate its pressure on the regime to ensure that it implements the Bassiouni recommendations and uses them to increase political participation and establish representative government. The White House has some leverage: a deal to sell $53 million of military equipment to Bahrain, currently on hold; the Fifth Fleet, whose presence in Bahrain is arguably more important to the regime than to the United States; and the US-Bahrain free-trade agreement, in effect since 2006, which could be suspended. Short of another large-scale crackdown on protesters, however, the US is unlikely to take any sort of drastic action.
Meanwhile, it’s not just the village of Aali that’s erupting in revolt. All around the island, protesters are once again being met with violent responses. On December 18, security forces used tear gas and stun guns to disperse hundreds of protesters who’d attempted to block a main highway for several days. The longer the government fails to respond in a substantive way to allegations in the Bassiouni report—for instance, by sacking key figures believed to be responsible for the abuse, such as the Minister of Interior—the longer such unrest will continue.
Indeed, if there is another round of mass protests in the city center (for example, following more deaths as a result of actions by security forces in Shia villages like Aali) and the regime again resorts to violent suppression, it may no longer be able to maintain the precarious status quo. Even with the continued support of its Gulf allies, it will face criticism from much of the international community, who will increasingly regard its rulers as impenitent, incorrigible, and indeed irredeemable. What happens next is unclear, but there can be little doubt that whatever occurs in Bahrain with its political stalemate and sectarian polarization will reverberate in countries with a similarly volatile sectarian mix, such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as in the neighboring Gulf kingdoms. As for Bahrain itself, whatever way change is going to come, the record that the Bassiouni Commission stitched together so painstakingly suggests that it will not come easily, nor without a good deal of further suffering and pain.
December 27, 2011, 11:35 a.m.