Bahrain: Days of Rage, Decades of Oppression

by , February 21, 2011

“Bahrain has one of the most advanced medical systems in the Middle East, the best ICT sector in the region, and the fastest growing economy in the Arab world.

“But despite all these accomplishments, the country seems to be missing just one little thing: a doctor who can identify signs of torture.”
Benjamin Joffe-Walt, Nov. 12, 2010

“The regime must fall, and we will make sure it does.”
– A young Bahraini protester outside Salmaniya Hospital, Manama, Bahrain, Feb. 18, 2011

Feb. 14 was Bahrain’s turn for its “day of rage” against the striking social, political, and economic inequities found in the tiny island kingdom. For those familiar with its modern history, however, they know there was no need to dub it such; Bahrainis have long raged against policies of exclusion, marginalization, and sectarianism embodied in the al-Khalifa family’s rule.

To fully appreciate Bahrain’s inherent volatility, it is imperative to understand both its demographics and political structure. Briefly, of 1.2 million people in the Persian Gulf nation, only about 530,000 are Bahraini nationals. Of these, at least 70 percent are Shia Muslims. The king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the al-Khalifa dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for two centuries are Sunni Muslims.

Decades of Oppression

If meaningful, representative, democratic institutions were present in the country, the sectarian incongruity would be a mere footnote. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. The civil, political, and human rights of Shia citizens have been trampled on for decades by the monarchy. This wholly belies the oft-repeated claim that Bahrain is a beacon of democracy and reform among Persian Gulf nations (this rosy picture is also promulgated by the royal family’s stalwart ally, the United States).

The notorious citizenship laws – giving non-Bahraini Sunnis expedited citizenship and voting rights in a backdoor attempt to alter the state’s confessional makeup – is one of many examples of how the monarchy has bred resentment and anger among the majority population. This practice of “sectarian gerrymandering” has had a destabilizing effect on civil society, especially since these foreign nationals are almost exclusively employed in the security establishment.

The disenfranchised, poverty-stricken Shia hold no significant positions in government. Although they comprise 80 percent of the labor force, they are absent from the public sector. They are completely unrepresented in the security services: of 1,000 employees in the National Security Apparatus (NSA), more than two-thirds are non-Bahraini (Jordanians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, etc.) and the overwhelming majority are Sunni. Bahraini Shias constitute less than 5 percent of the NSA and occupy only low-level positions or act as paid informants.

The paramilitary Special Security Forces (SSF) operate under the supervision of the NSA and number 20,000 – 90 percent of whom are non-Bahraini. The SSF does not include a single Bahraini Shia officer.

These security forces, housed in Manama’s upscale neighborhoods, are routinely unleashed on Bahraini Shias protesting their lot (which roiled Bahrain in the 1990s). In essence, they are imported mercenaries serving to oppress the king’s subjects.

In 2006, the Bandargate scandal erupted. The 240-page report was authored by Dr. Saleh al-Bandar, an adviser to the minister of cabinet affairs, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ateyatalla bin al-Khalifa. It detailed how the monarchy hired operatives to rig elections; formed intelligence rings to spy on Bahraini Shias; incited sectarian hatred by disparaging them in the media; and subsidized Shia to Sunni conversions.

Last summer, the government rounded up dozens of human rights workers, religious leaders, and opposition figures who demanded an end to the regime’s habitual use of torture. Twenty-five were charged with “contacting foreign organizations and providing them with false and misleading information about the kingdom.” Half were charged with attempting to stage a coup. In total, 450 were arrested, including the well-known pro-democracy blogger Ali Abdulemam.

Claiming they were tortured by security forces before being put on trial, the government’s expert medical examiner concluded the bruises, wounds, cuts, and burns found on detainees’ bodies were not the result of torture.

Indeed, its specter looms over all those who oppose al-Khalifa rule.

In February 2010, Human Rights Watch released a landmark report titled “Torture Redux: The Revival of Physical Coercion During Interrogations in Bahrain.” It chronicles the routine use of torture and degrading treatment for the purpose of extracting confessions from political opponents. The organization’s 2011 World Report reaffirmed the practice continues. Even more disturbing, Bahraini children have not been spared physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the secret police.

Days of Rage

Choosing Feb. 14 as Bahrain’s day of rage was not done randomly. It marked the 10th anniversary of the referendum on the National Action Charter, which Sheikh Hamad promised would transform the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, and the ninth anniversary of the 2002 constitution purportedly enacting it.

It was a farce. Despite the fact that Bahrain has an elected parliament, real power lies with the upper house Shura Council. The Shura Council has the authority to approve or rescind any legislation passed by the lower house Council of Representatives. Shura members, unsurprisingly, are directly appointed by the king.

Monday’s demonstrators, who acted peacefully by all accounts, were met by riot police firing live ammunition. Scores were injured. The uprising’s first martyr, 21-year-old Ali Abdul Hadi Mushaima, was killed by a gunshot wound to the back. At his funeral procession Tuesday, security forces fatally shot Fadel Salman al-Matrouk, 31, a mourner who had gathered with others in front of the hospital where Mushaima died.

Sensing the potential for unrest, the king granted each Bahraini family $2,650 in cash before protests even began. After Mushaima and al-Matrouk’s deaths, he went on television to express his condolences and promise an investigation into their killing. As in Egypt, the regime’s actions woefully lagged behind events on the ground.

Thousands of Bahrainis occupied Manama’s Pearl Square (also called Pearl Roundabout) Tuesday and Wednesday in reinvigorated protests with the youth at the helm, as was seen in Egypt. They chanted, “No Shi’ites, no Sunnis, only Bahrainis.” Tents were set up and preparations made for a long, peaceful encampment.

Early Thursday morning, while protesters slept, the situation took an ugly turn. Riot police stormed through the camp with clubs, tear gas, and guns, killing five. A handcuffed young man was executed. Others were savagely beaten by police, shouting insults at Shia Muslims in non-Bahraini Arabic dialects and other foreign accents. New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof reports that 600 were treated with injuries at the inundated Salmaniya Hospital. Scores were reported missing. Tanks were called out on the streets, and Manama was placed in lockdown.

It was a vicious attack. Paramedics were assaulted for treating the injured, and ambulances were prevented from approaching the roundabout, their drivers taken out and beaten. The bodies of many were riddled with wounds from birdshot pellets fired at close range.

The following statements of those present come from the initial AP report:

“They were beating me so hard I could no longer see. There was so much blood running from my head. … I was yelling, ‘I’m a doctor. I’m a doctor.’ But they didn’t stop.”

“We yelled, ‘We are peaceful! Peaceful!’ The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us. … They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they’re doing.”

“Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our women were screaming. … What kind of ruler does this to his people? There were women and children with us!”

On Friday, 50,000 came out for prayers, funerals for the dead, and marches to Pearl Square. Yet again, they were met with live fire, this time from helicopters, snipers on rooftops, and troops on the ground. Even those who stopped to pray were targeted. Peaceful pro-democracy advocates and mourners were gunned down on the streets, as this disturbing video shows.

“The APCs came, three or four of them, and started firing shots,” said Mazen Mahdi, a Bahraini photojournalist. “The first was a warning shot in the air. But after that, they just opened fire at the people. … They shot at the ambulances when they came in.”

By Friday evening, the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa (also deputy supreme commander of the armed forces), appeared on state television and said the government wanted a dialogue with the opposition.

Sheikh Ali Salman, who heads al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group in parliament (which has suspended its participation), rejected the offer. He said the army must first withdraw from the streets and the government must leave.

The first demand appears to have been met. Saturday morning, the military pulled out and police fled Pearl Square as jubilant Bahrainis once again swarmed to fill it.

Their demands are clear: the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa – who has governed since 1971 – and his replacement by a freely elected premier, the release of all political prisoners, a new constitution, an end to the systematic discrimination against Shias and all forms of sectarianism, the repeal of the citizenship laws, the dismantlement of the security apparatus, fairness in distribution of jobs and housing, freedom of the press and religion, and an end to torture.

The al-Khalifa monarchy is at a crossroads. The protesters’ demands are reasonable and legitimate. The king would be wise to accede to them and transform Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy before efforts are made to overthrow the entire regime. After Thursday and Friday’s brutal crackdown against peaceful, unarmed civilians, they have left themselves few other options.

Read more by Rannie Amiri