Thursday, June 30, 2011

BAHRAIN: We All Owe Maryam

By William Fisher

Her name is Maryam Alkhawaja.

She is a young Bahraini woman who risks her life every day to send me and other journalists emails about the brutal repression of a long-aggrieved people and the kangaroo courts that are throwing their lives away.

Why does she do it?

She gives a simple answer: Injustice and brutality drives her nuts. She can’t be an observer. She needs to act.

And act she does, one, two, three times a day, all at huge and immediate risk.

Yesterday, her communiqué must have been especially tough to write. With journalistic lack of emotion, she reported the trials of her friends and colleagues. They were among the peaceful demonstrators from Bahrain’s Shia majority who have spent the last three months pushing against the Sunni royal family for basic human rights and a voice in the governance of their tiny country.

Eight of those tried by the military court were sentenced to life in prison. One of those eight was her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, the founder
of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “After the sentence was read, my father raised his fist & shouted “WE SHALL CONTINUE ON THE PATH OF PEACEFUL RESISTANCE!”, Ms. Alkhawaja told the New York Times.

Thirteen other activists were sentenced by the same court to terms of between two and 15 years in jail. Just one of the 21 men sentenced on Wednesday was a Sunni. The state news agency described them as “plotting to topple the government.”

In March, prominent members of the Shiite Muslim community took to the streets, peacefully to demand political concessions from the Royal family. They were met with, first, teargas, truncheons and rubber bullets and, later, with live ammunition fired randomly into crowds of demonstrators, killing and wounding scores.

Discrimination against the Shia majority is sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but it is always present. Shiites are barred from senior posts in both government and business. Housing is redlined. Shiites tend to have been ghettoed into property on the Eastern part of the island, just across the water from the sizable Shia community in Saudi Arabia.

So determined was the King and his entourage to stifle the outbursts, he called in army units from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, courtesy of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

At the military trials, the verdicts were immediately condemned by rights groups who said all those found guilty had been campaigning to end discrimination at the hands of the Sunni dynasty.

Rights groups have urged Bahrain to halt the special military court proceedings, with Human Rights Watch deeming them a violation of international law.

"Most defendants hauled before Bahrain's special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The trials were held despite the government pronouncing the end of three months of martial law earlier this month, which had given the exclusively Sunni security forces extra powers of detention and arrest.

Activists called for protesters to again take to the streets in Manama in defiance of the verdicts and the government, which has vowed to continue a crackdown on dissent.

Up to 30 doctors and nurses from key city hospitals were last week also put on trial accused of subversion and of using government facilities for political purposes. These health care professionals were attempting to treat the wounds created by government security forces during demonstrations. It is thought the government does not want them to be able to see the wounds, making it impossible for them to testify to their severity and nature.

Government security services have surrounded a main hospital, preventing new patients and visitors to enter or leave. Meanwhile, it is reported that security police have been systematically moving wounded patients to another hospital where their conditions can be kept secret. There is no verdict in this trial as yet.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been playing nice with one of the leaders of the Bahraini Royal family. He is Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The 41-year-old royal graduated from American University in Washington, speaks fluent English,. And is said top be the most “Westernized” member of the Royal family.

Prince Salman met last week with President Obama and his national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon,Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Why, asks the New York Times, does the president “engage with a royal family that has led such a brutal crackdown?” Especially, it adds, “Given Mr. Obama’s lofty rhetoric about the historic significance of the
uprisings in the Arab world.”

Partly, the Times writes, “It is an acknowledgment of geopolitical reality. Bahrain’s royal family is unlikely to topple, if only because the Sunnis who rule Saudi Arabia will not tolerate their neighbor being run by a Shiite-led government. Bahrain is also home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. And it is close to Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most powerful ally in the region.” We could go on for quit a time debating the meaning of “ally, ” but that’s for another time.

For now, The Times says, “administration officials are clinging to the hope that, perhaps against the odds, Bahrain’s leaders — or at least the crown prince — may be willing to undertake democratic changes.”

“You have somebody in the crown prince who’s credible, who seems to want to do the right thing,” one senior administration official told The Times.

Leslie Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, which is active in Bahrain, told The Times that the prince is on “a world tour to convince people that Bahrain is turning over a new leaf when in fact the hard-liners are conducting business-as-usual at home.”

According to The Times’ account, the Crown Prince was most upset that the crackdown “had tarnished Bahrain’s image, particularly since the government had worked so hard over the past decade to present Bahrain as an enlightened Persian Gulf kingdom.”

Image? Image? Who talks about image when people are being murdered and thrown into prison for the rest of their lives for the simple demand of a voice in the future of their country?

Image is for PR people, not statesmen.

If the president persists in hanging his hopes for a peaceful resolution on the slender reed of Bahrain’s image, he is going to be disappointed.

But the people of Bahrain are going to be even more disappointed. It would be a fool’s errand to expect anything from them but save the bitterest anti-American feelings. And these may still be around long after the Royal Family is history.

This article originally appeared in Prism Magazine.