Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In Bahrain’s Hour of Peril, Where Does the U.S. Stand?

By William Fisher

News Analysis

The United Nations’ top human rights official is calling on tiny, oil-rich  Bahrain to release prisoners detained for joining peaceful demonstrations earlier this year, and to restore the jobs of thousands of people who were dismissed for joining the protest.

Navi Pillay said in a statement that this action should be taken as a confidence-building measure.

Bahrain’s Human Rights activists applauded her statement. Faisal Fulad, Secretary General of Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, said in response, “We have expressed all along that the government needs to show its commitment in order to gain the trust and respect of the people.”

He added: “The reforms agreed to in the National Dialogue, and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) should be implemented immediately and those held for championing democracy must be released.”

Bahrain has been torn apart by peaceful protests met by armed responses following initial demonstrations for democratic rights made by the people during February and March this year. A strong crackdown by the government led to thousands of arrests and trials that took place under military rule during a state of emergency.

It was during this time that the Gulf Cooperation Council dispatched several thousand Saudi Arabian motorized troops to Bahrain to assist the Bahraini government to maintain order and re-establish stability.

Bahrain’s leadership, including the King, has since admitted that excessive force was used during the crackdown and that those responsible will be brought to justice.

To the surprise of virtually everyone, King Hamad appointed an independent commission to investigate the tense situation in the country and make recommendations for bringing the conflict to a peaceful end. Headed by a distinguished Egyptian judge, Cherif Bassiouni, and funded by the government.

According to a new report from Human Rights First, a US-based legal advocacy group, Judge Bassiouni stood in front of the King of Bahrain and largely confirmed what the world’s leading international human rights organizations and media outlets had been saying for months:

Thousands of people were illegally arrested, many were tortured;  
detainees were subjected to unfair trials; several people died in custody; .
dozens had been killed in the streets; thousands of workers and students were dismissed for perceived association with the democracy protests; .
there were some attacks on expat workers; there had been a series of attacks on Shi’a places of worship.

King Hamad is a Sunni Muslim, as are all the senior figures in the government and in the Royal Family’s circle of friends and confidantes. The majority of Bahrainis, however, is Shia. They have been complaining against discrimination in employment, housing and finance for many years. Bahrain has a large cadre of senior workers imported from abroad.

King Hamad said he was “dismayed” by the findings of the report concerning the use of torture, and pledged reforms.

“We do not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners,” he said.

The King promised to implement a series of recommendations contained in the Commission’s 500-page report. However, since the report's release, the Bahrain regime has not significantly altered its behavior.

Police continue to attack protestors and funeral mourners. Those imprisoned after being convicted on the basis of tortured confessions have not been released. Those who appear to be detained on the basis of peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression or assembly are still

King Hamad has ordered the establishment of a committee to “follow up and implement” the BICI recommendations. It is expected to report by the end of February 2012 and to make suggestions “including the recommendations to make the necessary amendments to the legislation and the application of the recommendations.” It includes the Minister for Justice.

But human rights activists told HRF some of those on the commission are “part of the problem,” and so “can't be part of the solution.”

King Hamad has taken a number of steps, largely focusing on personnel. He removed the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah Al Khalifa. The NSA was heavily criticized in the BICI report for its use of excessive force. However, it would appear that Sheikh Al Khalifa has been promoted, and made the Secretary-General of the Supreme Defence Council and a National Security Adviser to the King with ministerial rank.

He has also made two top appointments to the police. John Timoney, formerly chief of police in Miami, Florida, will take on a similar post in Bahrain. He will be assisted by another new hire, the former chief of the UK’s Metropolitan Police, John Yates, who quit amid phone-hacking scandal will overhaul Middle East kingdom's force.

On December 7, the Bahrain government announced that the King “forgave” a group of athletes who had criticized him and would drop charges against them, although did not say it would free other athletes already sentenced.

Shiite Muslim doctors look back with horror at months of torture and demand a neutral hearing now that they are out on bail pending retrial for their role in pro-democracy protests.

“I can’t talk,” sobbed consultant paediatrician Nader Dawani, recounting how he was forced to stand up for seven days, while being beaten repeatedly, mainly by a female officer.

“She was the harshest. She used to hit me with a hose and wooden canes, many of which broke on my back,” said the frail 54-year-old man.

“They attempted to insert a bottle in my anus,” he recounted.

Dawani is one of a group of medics arrested after security forces in the kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty crushed a Shiite-led uprising inspired by Arab Spring protests that toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

They face a plethora of charges, the most serious of which is occupying the Salmaniya Medical Centre and possessing weapons, while denying access to the hospital to Sunnis as Shiite demonstrators camped in the complex’s car park.

The doctors also stand accused of spreading false news — particularly concerning the condition of wounded protesters — illegal acquisition of medicines and medical facilities, and participating in demonstrations.

Thirteen were convicted by a military court on September 29 and sentenced to between five and 10 years in jail. But before the verdict was handed down, they had already been released and now face retrial before a civil appeals court.

Claims that torture was used against scores of Shiite detainees, including the medics, were upheld in November by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Many Shiite medics who were not arrested, like consultant neurosurgeon Taha al-Derazi, lost their jobs just for being photographed at a demonstration.

The medics insist they are innocent. The commission’s report stated the charges that they inflated the number of protesters injured were unfounded, noting that hospital records showed hundreds were admitted during mid-February.

“All my statements to media were related to the wounded,” said consultant orthopaedic surgeon Ali Alekri, insisting he did not meddle in politics and only led demonstrations against the then health minister who was later sacked.

“Our slogans were clear: sack the minister and his administration for failing to protect medics, halting ambulance movement when needed and giving false information on numbers of casualties,” he said.

“We never called for the fall of the regime,” he added.

Alekri said the medics “need a neutral body,” an “international judicial body” to judge them. “We don’t trust the Bahraini judicial system.”

It was speaking out that got them in trouble, the medics said.

“We are witnesses to the crimes of the regime,” said Dawani, who, like most of his sentenced colleagues, and other foreign and Sunni medics, appear in abundant video footage treating casualties at the SMC accident and emergency department.

Rula al-Saffar, 49, the head of the Bahraini Nursing Society, who faces 15 years in jail, said she treated more than 200 female fellow prisoners who were subjected to torture and did not escape abuse herself.

During five months in custody, Saffar said, “At night they would take me blindfolded. I can smell alcohol fuming with their breaths. One interrogator would say: It is the weekend and we are a group. If you don’t confess, we will sleep with you one at a time.”

Which brings us to the question: What, if anything, has the US been doing about the situation in Bahrain.

The short answer is that the US Government has been largely silent. This has given rise to widespread perceptions among the Bahraini Shia population that America is on the side of the King.

Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, minces no words. She says, “The United States has collaborated with the deadly crackdown on the popular revolution against Bahrain's despotic monarchy. "People in Bahrain think that the US is in one way or another directly complicit in what's happening in Bahrain," she said in a Press TV interview.

The US Government’s rhetorical constipation reflects its attitude toward the stand-off between the Royal Family and pro-democracy activists. Secretary of State Clinton has delivered her almost-stock wish for moderation on both sides and a peaceful end to hostilities through dialogue.

The US sees a number of important relationships possibly being upended by full-throated support for either side. Saudi Arabia is one of Washington’s prime concerns. Bahrain is situation in the Persian Gulf just across a 1.4 mile causeway, over which the Saudi troops rolled in to help Bahrain’s rulers.

One of Saudi’s Eastern provinces is just a few miles from one of Bahrain’s western provinces. Both are largely Shia. And both are oil-rich. The two Shia communities have a long-standing relationship, and the Saudis worry about Bahrain’s violence spilling over into the desert Kingdom.r uld Saudi Arabia (or any of the other Gulf states) be thrilled to see a democratic form of government replacing the monarchy in Bahrain.

At this juncture, the US is turning itself into a pretzel to keep from angering the Saudis, who were reportedly upset at how quickly the US threw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus. This concerned the Saudis for a number of reasons; one of them is the question of whether America would treat Saudi Arabia in the same way if pro-democracy forces were to prevail in Bahrain.

Aside from worrying about the Saudis, the US has its own, more immediate concerns: The American Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. That makes stability the top priority for US policy­-makers.

So far, the most tangible help given to Bahrain’s protesters has been the suspension of a scheduled shipment of arms from the US, a position reached after some grassroots and congressional warnings to the White House. The arms shipment reportedly contains weapons used for crowd control.