Bahrainis demand more than cosmetic reforms

Months after an independent commission presented damning evidence of the Bahraini government's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, thousands press on with a reinvigorated protest movement for genuine reform.

David Elkins

IN March, an estimated 100,000 civilians filled the streets in what, according to observers, were the largest demonstrations the gulf nation of Bahrain has experienced since protests began last year.

The continued crackdown on the near-daily protests since then prompted a UN condemnation on 20 March of the Bahraini security officials' 'disproportionate use of force' to suppress protesters.

On the same day, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, one of the few human rights advocacy groups operating in the country, released evidence of the deaths of two civilians in mid-March from tear gas asphyxiation.

'Since 23 November, when the King received the Bahrain Independent Commission on Inquiry report, there have been 31 civilian deaths that were allegedly caused by unrest, and zero deaths of members of the security forces,' Bill Marczak, director of Bahrain Watch, a human rights watchdog and advocacy group, told Inter Press Service (IPS).

'Three of the deaths seem to be attributable to long-term declines in physical or mental health that may have been caused by unrest before 23 November,' he said.

The Bahraini government has restricted entry for journalists and human rights observers, as independent witnesses continue to document abuses, including torture, arbitrary detention, sexual harassment, beatings, and a growing number of deaths and serious injuries from rubber bullets and tear gas, some of which are supplied by US manufacturers.

'While the US has paused a 53-million-dollar arms sale to Bahrain, other smaller arms sales are ongoing, and the US government still apparently issues licences for direct commercial sales of tear gas and other items to Bahrain,' Marczak said.

'[T]here has been no known investigation of the use of likely US-origin weapons against protesters, such as M113 APCs fitted with .50 calibre M2 Browning machine guns that were used last year. The use of these weapons against unarmed protesters is likely violation of US law, and in violation of the end-use conditions agreed to when the M113s were originally donated to Bahrain at little or no cost in the 1990s and 2000s under the Excess Defence Articles programme.'

Dwindling prospects

The commission was funded by the Bahraini government and chaired by M Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of international human rights law at DePaul University. Despite its findings, which contained unequivocal evidence of human rights abuses and made recommendations for reform, the likelihood for genuine reform or a political settlement seems to be dwindling, according to analysts.

Earlier this year the Bahraini government resumed trials, after indicating that the charges would be dropped, of 20 doctors who were indicted for fomenting armed insurrection against the government and subsequently received sentences from five to 15 years after supposedly forced confessions from torture.

According to Brian Dooley, a Human Rights First observer who witnessed their appeal trials in mid-March, the defendants were not given permission to field all of the witnesses for their defence, this coming after government prosecutors supplied 'unpersuasive' video footage of ambulances that allegedly proves that weapons were 'being ferried to protesters'.

Bahraini diplomats have followed King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's lead in showering praise on the steps his government has taken towards political and human rights reform.

'Over 10 years ago, His Majesty the King instituted a reform process that has brought meaningful change to Bahrain. And despite assertions to the contrary, this process has never stopped,' the Bahraini Ambassador to the US Houda Nonoo wrote on her blog on 21 March.

In a display of good faith, Bahraini officials announced on 22 March that cameras would be installed in prisons to help dissuade abuse of detainees.

'On balance, these steps taken so far and promised are welcome and we should look at them seriously and see how far they go. However, there are a number of problems.They are clearly trying to convince the world that the situation is not as bad as it sounds,' Joost Hiltermann, a regional expert at the International Crisis group, said at a recent conference.

Opposition groups have coalesced around a common enemy in the al-Khalifa government but disagreements over, for instance, whether a negotiated settlement with the monarchy or a complete overthrow of the current government's grip on power will suffice, have embedded a competitive dynamic for the loyalty of the protesters and the various ethnic, religious and political groups in the country.

As entrenched political factions within the Bahraini government, representing Sunni Islamists and supporters of the powerful Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman al-Khalifa, continue to thwart attempts at genuine reform, many are left questioning whether any of the recommendations in the commission's report will be implemented in the foreseeable future.

'One tactic that seems to be used by Bahrain's government to avoid giving up power is to build barriers of fear and intolerance between different groups of people (Sunni vs. Shia, expatriates vs. locals, citizens vs. police) to prevent them from realising common ground and achieving the more effective, accountable and transparent governance that they all want,' Marczak said.

'How does Bahrain begin taking those steps? It's difficult to say, but I think the solution is continued pressure, both through monitoring and other forms of activism, and direct pressure from foreign governments and ordinary Bahrainis.'

Political reform

Several experts remain convinced that regardless of any improvements made in protecting human rights, a lasting solution will be difficult without political and social reforms, including genuine dialogue, government accountability, ethnic and religious integration of the security and military forces and institutional reform of the electoral and judicial systems.

'What we really need is political reform. Even if all these human rights reforms are implemented, we will be back, more or less, to the status quo ante of 11 February 2011. Which, of course, that situation was unsustainable, hence the protests,' Hiltermann said.

'It is a matter both of the international regional situation and the local situation converging in a particular good constellation. Right now I don't see it, frankly.'

In an interview with on 22 March, a spokesperson for the Coalition of February 14 Youth, a decentralised opposition group in Bahrain, echoed the sentiment that deeper changes will be necessary.

'The first and foremost goal that revolutionaries are struggling for is the liberation of our land from Saudi occupation and the overthrow of the al-Khalifa regime, which has lost its popular and constitutional legitimacy,' the spokesperson said.

'Once that is achieved, the people can choose their own destiny and choose the political and economic system that meets their ambitions and aspirations. We will not under any circumstance accept a compromise with this bloody regime that continues to violate our human rights. We are determined to liberate our precious homeland from dictatorship, and build a nation of justice, dignity, and equality for all its citizens.' - IPS        

*Third World Resurgence No. 259, March 2012, pp 40-41