Friday, March 18, 2011

Obama: Get Out of Jail Free For Saudi Arabia and UAE in Bahrain

By William Fisher

President Barack Obama said on Friday that he was “deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.” He said the United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur.”

Then he went on to say, “ We express our condolences to the family and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations. Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly.”

He concluded: “The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”

But many observers said there was something missing from this picture: There was not a word about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose troops earlier this week rumbled over the 26 km causeway separating Saudi Arabia from Bahrain, to help Bahrain’s ruling family to maintain its grip on power in the face of growing protests and demands for economic democracy.

In what has lamentably become characteristic Obama behavior, the President ignored the two 900-pound gorillas in the room. One of those gorillas, Saudi Arabia, is said to be close ally of the U.S., a major supplier of its oil, a recipient of much U.S. military aid, and a steadfast partner in the so-called “war on terror.”

The other gorilla is Bahrain itself, thought (until very recently) to be a reliable U.S. ally, like Saudi Arabia, an intrepid warrior on terror, and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The United States provided around $20 million in military aid to Bahrain in 2010. The slap on the wrist Bahrain received from the American President today is not likely to require medical attention.

Prior to the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. viewed Bahrain as a reasonably enlightened Arab state. During a visit to Washington in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raved, "Bahrain has demonstrated that multi-ethnic, multi-confessional societies can address their challenges through peaceful reform and representative institutions."

Cables by US diplomats claimed that King Hamad "understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression." Several of the 2009 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Manama characterize King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as an enlightened and deeply pro-American ruler who, since assuming the throne in 1999, has fostered reconciliation with the Shi'ite Muslim majority and has undertaken serious political and economic reforms,” Reuters reports.

As for The House of Saud, it evidently gets a pass on Obama’s assertion that “people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly.” In Saudi Arabia they have no such right. And the country’s aging king is currently in the process of trying to buy off his people with announcements of massive appropriations for job creation and job training, plus substantial individual money gifts for every Saudi citizen.

So far, that strategy appears to be working -- despite some announcements and preparations for a “Day of Anger” in the Kingdom, and some minor skirmishes between police and would-be democracy demonstrators.

Should that strategy show signs of weakening, there is little doubt about what the Saudis would do to quell any rising sentiment for a more equitable, representative government.

Meantime, Reuters is reporting that Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy asked the State Department to probe whether Bahrain had broken a U.S. law that prohibits aid to foreign security forces who violate human rights. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is the author of that legislation.

Bahrain is now under a state of martial law, after fresh violence left as many as eight people dead.

Amnesty International revealed evidence of the Bahraini security forces’ systematic use of excessive force in cracking down against protesters. In a new report, “Bloodied but Unbowed: Unwarranted State Violence against Bahraini Protesters,” the organization documents how security forces used live ammunition and extreme force against protesters in February without warning and impeded and assaulted medical staff trying to help the wounded.

The report, which is based on first hand testimonies given to an Amnesty International team in Bahrain, comes as the country is gripped by further violence, after Saudi Arabian and UAE forces entered the small Gulf state three days ago and Bahrain's King declared a national state of emergency.

"It is alarming to see the Bahraini authorities now again resorting to the same tactics that they used against protesters in February but on an even more intensive scale,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“It appears that the government has decided that the way to deal with protests is through violent repression, a totally unsustainable position and one which sets an ominous example in a region where other governments are also facing popular calls for change," he said.

Dr. Hani Mowafi, a US medical doctor who was part of the Amnesty International team, found a pattern of fatal and serious injuries during February’s violence showing that the security forces used live ammunition at close range, and apparently targeted protesters’ heads, chests and abdomens.

They also fired medium-to-large caliber bullets from high-powered rifles on 18 February.

The worst violence before today took place early on the morning of 17 February, when five people were killed. Witnesses told Amnesty that, in scenes that would be repeated on 16 March, tanks blocked access to the Pearl Roundabout as police used shotguns as well as tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, many of who were camping there.

One witness told Amnesty International that on 17 February riot police were shooting from different angles, including from a bridge over the roundabout, while protesters desperately ran for cover.

Among the injured were people clearly identifiable as medical workers, who were targeted by police while trying to help wounded protesters at or near the roundabout.

"All the actions of the security forces against protesters since February must be fully and independently investigated. Those responsible for ordering and unleash lethal force against peaceful protesters must be identified and held to account.”

"There must be no impunity for unlawful killings, assaults and other abuses against both protesters and medical staff."

Amnesty says it has identified some of the ammunition found in the aftermath of the raid on Pearl Roundabout on 17 February. It includes US-made tear gas canisters, US-made 37mm rubber multi-baton rounds, French-made tear gas grenades, and French-made rubber “dispersion” grenades, which fragment into 18 pieces and produce a loud sound effect.

The organization called on governments who supply weapons to Bahrain to immediately suspend the transfer of weapons, munitions and related equipment that could be used to commit further human rights violations, and to urgently review all arms supplies and training support to Bahrain’s military, security and police forces.

Following the Bahraini security forces’ use of unwarranted force against protesters, the UK government revoked some licenses for arms exports to Bahrain, and the French authorities have suspended the export of security equipment to Bahrain.

Amnesty’s report charges that “mass peaceful protests demanding political reform have shaken the Gulf state of Bahrain since mid-February. In response, the security forces initially sought to suppress the protests with brutality, killing seven protesters, injuring hundreds of others and assaulting paramedics.”

It adds, “Proper, transparent investigations that ensure accountability and justice for the victims, and a strong government commitment to respect human rights are needed now.”

Bahraini protesters today told Amnesty of bloody scenes on the streets as government security forces stepped up their violent crackdown on demonstrations and blocked access to hospitals. Government forces also surrounded hospitals and attacked doctors trying to help the wounded.

At least six people were reportedly killed in the capital Manama amid continuing protests as the army used tanks to flatten the peaceful protest camps set up in recent weeks to demand reform in the Gulf state.

"The distressing reports and images coming out of Bahrain today provide further evidence that the authorities are using lethal and other excessive force to crush protests, with reckless disregard for human life," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director.

"Wounded protesters have also been prevented from accessing medical attention by government forces. The Bahraini authorities must immediately put a stop to this bloodshed," he said.

Security forces attacked the mainly Shia protest camp at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout camp early on Wednesday.

Family members of those wounded at the roundabout and people trying to approach the area told Amnesty International that the army opened fire on them without warning.

"I was walking towards the Pearl Roundabout… We were 5km from the roundabout when we were shot with live ammunition - one shot came one meter away from me. There were two tanks in the street and a helicopter above us," said Nabeel al Rajab, director of the banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Amnesty is also receiving testimonies from medical staff who were prevented from treating the victims of violence. For example:

"We are waiting to do something and the army is not allowing us. We know there are hundreds injured and they are not allowing them to come here," said one doctor at the central Salmaniya hospital who did not wish to be named due to safety fears.

"A doctor went to the gate this morning trying to come in and the army beat him. They also threw tear gas and another type of gas at the emergency entrance of the hospital."

In a funeral procession today to mourn a dead Bahraini pro-democracy demonstrator, anti-government participants shouted, "down with King Hamad." The crackdown that killed this activist was targeted to mainly Shi'ite protesters, which angered Iran.

Bahrain’s ruling family are Sunni Muslims, while a large majority of its people are Shia. The Shia majority contends it is discriminated against in terms of funds for public works projects and government jobs.

Virtually all reputable human rights organizations are condemning Bahrain’s violent military crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.

Neil Hicks of the New York-based Human Rights First group, said “The militarization of the conflict in Bahrain will lead to further violence and violations of basic rights and freedoms. It will not address the underlying causes of the unrest – institutionalized sectarian discrimination, the absence of representative government and the lack of legal protections for basic freedoms of assembly, and association. ”

“Suppression of dissent in Bahrain with the backing of the Gulf Cooperation Council runs the risk of extending unrest to other countries in the Gulf region with sectarian tensions, including Yemen and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia,” Hicks said.

The organization called on U.S. government officials to condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and urge the Bahraini government to initiate wide-ranging negotiations to implement necessary political reforms.

“In light of disturbing reports that security forces are blocking medical treatment for the injured, that interference in the provision of necessary medical treatment should stop immediately. In addition, the U.S. needs to intensify its outreach to the government of Saudi Arabia to make clear its objection to the violent suppression of dissent in Bahrain or anywhere in the Gulf region,” the organization said.

Hicks concluded, “Inflaming sectarian tensions in Bahrain will not ensure stability in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

For the past decade Bahrain has promoted itself as a liberal state in an
authoritarian neighborhood, on the basis of reforms by King Hamad al-Khalifa, who took power in 1999. These reforms included holding elections - though for a parliament that lacked authority - and largely abolishing torture.

The Bahraini government insinuates whenever possible that its Shia citizens, upwards of 65 percent of the population, would turn Bahrain into an Iranian client state if so allowed.

But independent observers have for several years been raising concerns about the country's return to the dark practices of the past.

In February 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the revival of torture. A trove of reports by government doctors backed up victim accounts that security forces were again suspending detainees by their arms and legs and using electro-shock devices.

In August, the government instituted a crackdown that began with arrests of opposition activists on charges of being part of a "terror network" and soon extended to the arrests of hundreds more, including children, many on vague or non-existent charges.

The government dissolved the board of a human rights group that had suggested detainees should not be abused.

Authorities blocked websites of opposition parties, including Al Wefaq, which won a majority of votes in the October elections.

As for the "terror network," the testimony of government agents regarding
information allegedly provided by unnamed sources made clear that the defendants were being tried for political opinions rather than for any criminal acts.

Authorities denied these defendants access to counsel or their families, and
most defendants alleged that security officials abused them to elicit confessions.

The government denied these allegations, but hasn't explained the defendants' wounds displayed in open court.


By William Fisher

Last week, as he accused outside agitators of planning a pro-democracy “Day of Rage” demonstration in Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal told a press conference in Jeddah, “The kingdom does not interfere in the affairs of others and will not allow for anyone to interfere in its own affairs.”

Sunday, an estimated 2,000 Saudi troops rumbled across the 26 km causeway separating the Kingdom of Saud from its neighboring kingdom – Bahrain, ruled by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah.

The Saudi troops were soon followed by some 500 others from the UAE, the United Arab Emirates.

As the Saudi and UEA troops were transported to an undisclosed location, (Euronews: 0155 PST, March 14, 2011) reported: “In one of the most violent confrontations since troops killed seven protesters last month, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up demonstrations against the kingdom's royal family. Witnesses said rubber bullets were also fired by police.”

In the Euronews video of the Sunday confrontation, a police officer is seen firing a tear gas canister point blank into the chest of a protester.

Why are the Saudi and UAE troops in Bahrain? Were they invited or did they invade? They were almost certainly invited. Bahrain is gripped in its worst unrest since the 1990s. For the past several weeks the Shi'ite majority has held demonstrations to rail against what it terms discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority.

So the official mission of the foreign troops is ostensibly to protect Bahraini government buildings, key military and oil installations, and the financial district of the capital, Manama. The financial district is reportedly occupied by several hundred Bahraini pro-democracy protesters, who have blocked off the streets in and out of the area.

But Bahrain has its own 30,000-strong military and would be capable of taking on these chores without foreign help. So arguably more important mission of the Saudi and UAE troops is symbolic: to help the country’s rulers, who are Sunni Muslims, maintain their grip on power by frightening protesters, largely members of the Shia majority, into participating in negotiations as proposed by the regime.

Bahrain’s rulers have recently laid out six main issues to be discussed in talks. These include establishment of an elected parliament empowered to affect government policy; fairly demarcated electoral constituencies; steps to combat financial and administrative corruption; and moves to limit sectarian polarization.

But the Bahraini Crown Prince revealingly did not mention one of the opposition's primary demands -- the prime minister's resignation. The reform opposition has not wavered in its demand that the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, step down.

All reports to date indicate that the Saudis were invited by that very same Prime Minister, one of the hard-liners in the ruling Khalifa family. He is reportedly opposed to any substantive negotiations with the demonstrators.

Moreover, they were invited only hours after the departure from Bahrain of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who met with Bahraini leaders and urged genuine political reforms instead of what he called "baby steps," that, he said, would not be successful in diffusing the tense situation.

Dr. Jean-Francios Seznec, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, writing in “Foreign Policy” yesterday, says the Bahraini invitation is a direct slap in the face to the U.S.

The pro-democracy forces in Bahrain consist of members of the Shia majority plus some of the poorer Sunnis. The majority Shia country is ruled by a Sunni royal family, which controls virtually every aspect of Bahraini life.

The Sunni v. Shia dimension of the struggle over reform has inevitably drawn in Shia Iran, which has characterized the Saudi and UAE forces as having invaded a sovereign nation. They said it was “unacceptable.”

Saudi Arabia's decision to send troops to Bahrain will almost surely have an impact on its relations with the United States. How serious an impact is unclear. Historically close, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have recently been slogging through some diplomatic mud, with Saudi Arabia disapproving of America’s treatment of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The Kingdom’s advice to President Obama was to support Mubarak even if his forces started to kill demonstrators. Obama chose another road.

At home, Saudi Arabia has so far managed to quell public demonstrations through a strategy of direct grants to Saudi citizens, billions of dollars in new government employment programs, and a massive police presence. The Saudi foreign minister said last week his nation would “cut any finger that crosses into the kingdom.” A major part of the current pro-democracy narrative as conveyed on State TV, radio and in print, is that the demonstrations sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa are being instigated by “outside forces.”

Various Internet sites have called for a Saudi “Day of Rage” on March 11 (which did not happen) and March 20, with nationwide demonstrations. But public protests are banned by the Saudi authorities, and publicly identifying with demands for political reform also remains risky and can lead to harassment or detention.

On February 25 there were peaceful marches in the Shia towns of Safwa and Qatif in the Eastern Province. Residents of al-‘Awwamiyya, an adjacent small Shia town, held a silent vigil the same day calling for the release of the so-called “Forgotten Prisoners,” nine Shia Saudis detained without charge or trial for over 12 years over unproven allegations of their involvement in the 1996 attacks on U.S. military targets in Khobar that killed 19 Americans.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said from Cairo, “Saudi Arabia should rescind its categorical ban on peaceful demonstrations and release the more than 20 protesters detained on March 3, 2011, in the eastern town of Qatif.”

Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries in the Middle East and North Africa that ban protests as a matter of principle; Oman is the other. Saudi Arabia is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protect the right to peaceful assembly, but in 2009 the country acceded to the Arab Charter for Human Rights, which also guarantees this right.

“By banning all protests Saudi rulers are telling their countrymen and women that for all political purposes they are not citizens and have no right to participate in public affairs,” said Whitson. “Saudis have had enough of unaccountable rulers telling them to do as they are told and shut up.”

According to Amnesty International, “In the five years since he ascended the Saudi throne, King Abdullah has loosened the reins stifling Saudi society. But his reforms have been largely symbolic, with few lasting institutional changes.”

The group says that, under King Abdullah, Saudis have become freer to criticize the government or societal norms, but those who cross lines such as questioning the role of religion or singling out princes for criticism face harassment or jail.
It adds that women have become more visible in public and in the workplace. But even an adult woman still requires her male guardian’s written consent to make decisions about marriage, work, education, health care, and travel. Abdullah allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, but has left the guardian system as a whole intact.

As for the Saudi military presence in Bahrain, Prof. Seznec of Georgetown puts it this way:

“Any troubles caused by Bahraini Shiites will only provoke further Saudi intervention. Ultimately, the island risks falling under de facto, if not de jure, Saudi control.

“The Saudi intervention, however small, is therefore a major step backward for the region. It represents a major slap in the face to the United States, a defeat for the liberal Shiite and Sunni elements in Bahrain, and ultimately a catastrophe for the entire Khalifa family, both the liberal and conservative wings, who may have just surrendered their power to the giant next door.”

Egypt: Hated Security Service Dismantled

By William Fisher

Egypt’s State Security Agency – responsible for the unspeakable torture of thousands and the deaths and disappearances of thousands more – has been

Arguably the most hated and feared symbol of the corrupt three-decade rule of strongman Hosni Mubarak, the agency, in the words of one of the leaders of the pro-democracy uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule, "invaded the life of every Egyptian."

The announcement of the agency’s end was made by the country’s new Interior Minister, Maj. Gen. Mansour el-Essawy, and was greeted with cautious glee by pro-democracy forces. Their delight was tempered by questions about what would succeed the security service and whether any of the service’s officials or operatives would be prosecuted.

The Associated Press reported that El-Essawy said the government plans a new agency that will be in charge of maintaining national security and combating terrorism. He said the new agency would operate according to the constitution and laws of the country and would respect human rights.

The end of State Security was one of the leading demands of the pro-democracy movement. After Mubarak stepped down on February 11, Egyptians forced their way into the agency’s Cairo headquarters and other provincial offices and took documents that they say were being shredded or burned to conceal evidence of human rights violations.

Some of those documents have been shown on State TV and posted on Facebook and Twitter. Several members of the pro-democracy movement said they found documents containing information regarding “disappeared” loved ones.

Reformers have complained that several of their group were detained and roughed up by the Army on their way to the Security Services headquarters. While the government has apologized for this behavior, protesters are demanding that these soldiers be held accountable.

Due to the so-called Emergency Law, the state security agency was subject to virtually no legal restraints. It had the power – which it frequently used – to arrest and detain without cause, and to deny detainees access to family or lawyers.

Egypt’s once-powerful and feared interior minister, al-Adly is currently on trial for brutally crushing the peaceful protests that led to Mubarak’s downfall.

Four senior Interior Ministry officials and three security officers have been arrested in connection with the deaths of demonstrators during the January 25th revolution. The former head of Cairo security, and the former head of public security affairs, and two others, are accused of attempted murder and misuse of public funds. Officer Wael Komy is accused of killing 37 protesters, while two other officers are accused of killing tens. The exact numbers have not yet been confirmed.

International and local human rights watchdog groups have traditionally condemned al-Adly, who served as minister for 14 years, for using torture against political opponents in a systematic manner

According to the Associated Press, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who worked on a Facebook page that rallied hundreds of thousands of Egyptians behind the protests, tweeted, "As much as we are happy that State Security is now dissolved, National Security, the new entity, must be under real judicial supervision."

Meanwhile, Egyptians were preparing to participate in a referendum on Saturday to decide whether to accept or reject the constitutional amendments proposed by the interim military government. The amendments would make it easier to form political parties and enter political campaigns, but many observers think the amendments don’t go nearly far enough, while others believe the country needs a new constitution, not an amended one.

A number of leading players in the pro-democracy movement are urging their followers to stage protests in Tahrir Square after Friday prayers to oppose the referendum and call for a new constitution.

The National Association for Change, the organization founded by Presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, is urging rejection of the amendments.

In general, groups supporting the referendum and the amendments tend to be those that are best organized, including the Muslim Brotherhood and what is left of Mubarak’s party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). Opposition is coming from the pro-democracy movement.

In what has been described as “a sign of hope” for improved relations between the police and human rights watchdogs, the newly appointed Minister of Interior met with a leading Egyptian human rights activist on Monday.

Bahey al-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), said he met with al-Essawy for an hour and described the meeting as “very positive.”

"The minister was clear and sincere in his criticisms for the approach of former minister [Habib al-Adly],” Hassan told the newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm.

During the meeting, Hassan suggested that the ministry conduct an internal investigation into abuses alongside criminal investigations that are already taking place.

“I also proposed the establishment of permanent institutional channels for dialogue between human rights organizations and the minister’s office, as well as horizontal communication channels with district security offices in the provinces and police stations that do not involve the minister’s office,” added the CIHRS director.

A human rights activist meeting with the minister of interior is a rare sight in Egypt.

Hassan added that he would soon present a memo to the minister containing CIHRS proposals for security reform and ideas on the institution’s relationship with human rights groups.

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now in Egypt and planning to travel to Tunisia later this week, a prominent human rights advocacy group is urging her to “make clear that the United States is committed to ensuring a peaceful transition to democracy in both countries and that the success of these transitions is a high priority for U.S. policy despite other problems in the region and around the world.”

The New York-based Human Rights First (HRF) said, “A peaceful and democratic transition of power in Egypt and Tunisia is far from a foregone conclusion.”

“Secretary Clinton must demonstrate that America plans to remain engaged in these developments despite other events throughout the Middle East and that it is invested in working with the people of Egypt and Tunisia toward a successful transition,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks.

“During this visit, she should pledge America’s willingness to provide economic and diplomatic support toward that end. She should also reach out to independent civil society activists to indicate the United States’ support for their vital role in producing governments that will govern to serve the best interests of the people.”

HRF’s specific recommendations for Secretary Clinton include:

•Reiterate the strong support of the United States government for peaceful, democratic change in both countries and praise the progress that has been made towards that end.
•Commit to providing short-term economic assistance to compensate for the losses suffered during the uprisings.
•Meet with interim authorities, as well as a broad range of opposition political forces. During these meetings, deliver a consistent message to all that the United States will respect the outcome of a peaceful, transparent democratic process and work with any elected government committed to upholding the rule of law, respecting the human rights of all and responding to the needs of the people.
•Meet with independent civil society organizations, especially human rights and democracy promotion organizations, and encourage their role in monitoring the performance of state institutions. Pledge enhanced U.S. support for their work.
•Commit to developing a substantial package of favorable trade agreements, debt forgiveness and other long-term economic support to be negotiated with responsible government officials and private sector representatives.
•Pledge assistance in tracing and repatriating funds unlawfully expropriated by former leaders.
•Urge that transformation takes place in an atmosphere of peace, transparency and respect for the rule of law.
•Support efforts to hold to account those responsible for serious violations of human rights under previous regimes or during the transitional period; recent reports of the involvement of military personnel in detaining peaceful protesters and beating and abusing detainees should be investigated, and those responsible held to account.