On Valentine’s Day of 2011, thousands of demonstrators flooded the Pearl Roundabout in the heart of Manama, demanding political reforms, a constitutional monarchy, a society without religious discrimination, freedom of the press and a parliament with real powers.
Bahrain, in fact, is a constitutional monarchy where the parliamentary representation has been redesigned to ensure that in Shiite areas, Shiites occupy disproportionately fewer seats in the elected chamber of parliament, in order to prevent them from gaining the majority. The opposition Nationalist Party and Shiite al-Wefaq demanded reforms. Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party, turned out to be more liberal than expected, which is probably due to the fact that its members were aware of the deepening of the political crisis in Bahrain and they needed to find international partners. After few days of protests, the Bahraini regime and its Gulf Co-operation Council partners, led by Saudi Arabia, crushed the protests with overwhelming force and a scary violation of human rights.
The brutal repression was minimized by the state TV while the US and Britain basically were silent witnesses to the brutal crackdown. In one week, seven demonstrators were killed, hundreds were hurt, tortured, arbitrarily detained and beaten. Bahiya Al Aradi was the first ‘martyr’ of the revolution. Fakhria Jassim Al Sakran died after inhaling teargas used by security forces. Jaleela al-Salman, a teacher, was imprisoned and tortured for over 5 months. Roula al-Safar, head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, was sentenced to 15 years in prison along with 20 other medical workers for treating injured protesters during the uprising against the regime.
On March 15, 2011, the government sent 1,200 Saudi Arabian troops in tanks and other armoured vehicles across the causeway to Bahrain to help crush pro-reform protests there, apparently at the invitation of Bahrain’s ruling family. The following day, a three-month state of emergency was declared (revoked on June 1), and the armed forces were authorized to use extreme measures to end the protests. The crackdown by the Sunni regime was denounced by all the major international non-governmental organizations and also on the basis of such complaints the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry – BICI – was established in June. The Commission was tasked with investigating and reporting on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011, regarding abuses and tortures perpetrated by the police. Over time, as the West gave less attention to the country’s happenings, the dialogue with the opposition, started in March of 2011, was merely reduced to marginal and bureaucratic matters, to the point that the opposition decided to submit its resignation.
According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report, published in November 2011, the Al Khalifa regime took extreme measures, perpetrating tortures and other crimes against political activists, politicians, and protesters during February/March 2011 demonstrations.
In May of 2012, Nabil Rajab, president of the nonprofit Bahrain Centre of Human Rights which promotes respect for human and civil rights in the country, was jailed for giving an interview to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, where he denounced the violence against the protesters and accused the international community, especially the United States, for repeatedly overlooking what was happening in Bahrain, unlike what it had done for other Arab countries in similar circumstances
One more blatant human rights violation by the Bahraini government occurred on November 7, 2012, when the Ministry of the Interior decided to revoke the nationality of 31 Shiite opponents “according to clause (c) of Article (10) of the Citizenship Law which permits the re-evaluation of nationality when a holder of Bahraini citizenship causes damage to state security”.
As a consequence of this decision, those of the 31 who had no dual passports became stateless overnight. In July of 2013, the Bahraini government toughened “anti-protest” laws by revoking the citizenship of those who carry out terrorist crimes. These law violations are described in vague and general terms in order to include among them peaceful criticisms and lawful demonstrations against the regime. Bahrain’s main opposition group has also criticized an Arab League decision to set up a pan-Arab human rights court in Manama, saying the Gulf Arab state was the “black hole of human rights”. Bahrain’s Shiite Islamic al-Wefaq movement said Manama’s hosting of the court casts doubt on the credibility of the tribunal. “Al-Wefaq revealed that there are more than 55 types of human rights violations that have been perpetrated by the regime in Bahrain against citizens, including natural and fundamental human rights”. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) official also criticized the decision to place the court in Bahrain. “The establishment of a glitzy new court won’t disguise the fact that Bahrain has a dismal and worsening record in that regard”.
It is unthinkable, in fact, talking about human rights in a country like Bahrain where women do not posses any decision-making power, where they are not allowed to drive cars or, more simply, they cannot even sign a document unless under the control of a male tutor. In the country there is a widespread practice of polygamy and little girls are forced to be child-brides and have sex with men up to 30 years older than them. It will take the implementation of cultural, ideological and social reforms before talking about human rights. In October 2013, in order to stop any further shipments of tear gas, misused by Bahrain’s government, Bahrain Watch launched a campaign entitled “Stop The Shipment”, calling on South Korea to block the sale and the shipment of more than 1.6 million tear gas canisters, used indiscriminately and inhumanely by police to end protests. Activists say the police have killed between 90 and 100 protesters. More than 30% of deaths have been attributed to the misuse of tear gas or of sticks of dynamite. According to Human Rights Watch, since 2011 the Bahraini security forces have repeatedly misused tear gas to suppress anti-government protests. The Guardian reported that Alaa Shebabi, one of the founding members of Bahrain Watch, has said a legal initiative is underway to classify tear gas as a chemical weapon. (M.B.)