Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rights Groups Blast Bahrain

By William Fisher
“You can’t say that justice has been done when calling for Bahrain to be a republic gets you a life sentence and the officer who repeatedly fired on an unarmed man at close range only gets seven years.”

-- Judge M. Cherif Bassiouni

These were the harsh and unforgiving words used by the Egyptian judge who headed the commission of inquiry mandated by the King of Bahrain to conduct an investigation and produce a report to identify the causes of and reforms needed to eliminate the violence that has plagued the tiny Gulf nation for the past two years. This is a one-year look-back at what has been accomplished and what has not.

The original BICI report (Bahrain Independent Committee of Inquiry), was funded by, presented to, and accepted by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah himself. It described in pull-no-punches detail the frequent use of excessive force by security forces, the systemic abuse and torture of detainees, mass discrimination and dismissals of workers and students, and grave violations of medical neutrality.

The report “highlighted a culture of impunity prevalent among government officials at all levels, concluding that many abuses could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure."

The BICI report was welcomed by the international community as a potentially critical step toward resolving the country's escalating political crisis. One of the most common criticisms of the report was that while the documentation of the events of February and March 2011 was extremely thorough, the report's mandate and its 26 recommendations to the Government of Bahrain did not extend far enough to resolve the country's political crisis.

Nonetheless, observers in Bahrain and the international community were hopeful these recommendations – if implemented swiftly, sincerely, and thoroughly – could set the stage for genuine national reconciliation and a process of meaningful political reform.

One year later, as tensions in Bahrain continue to escalate, the Commission says any understanding of the current crisis must include an honest, accurate assessment of the progress in implementation of the BICI recommendations.

Now, one-year-on, Judge Bassiouni and his team have prepared a follow-up report. The essence of what is says: “We have strived to carefully carry out such an assessment, although the task was made considerably more difficult by the lack of transparent, relevant information from Bahraini government officials, as well as the very limited access provided to independent organizations, researchers, and journalists.”

The Commission added, “If the government is making substantially more progress on implementing the BICI recommendations than it appears based on publicly available information, then they must more transparently provide evidence to support such claims and allow access for outside observers to confirm such claims independently.”

A number of other organizations have also weighed in with their own investigations. POMED (Project on Middle East Democracy) found that “the Government of Bahrain has fully implemented only three of the BICI report's 26 recommendations. Two other recommendations were impossible for us to properly evaluate due to a lack of available information, and 15 recommendations have only been partially implemented.”

Finally, POMED’s report continued, “The government has made no meaningful progress toward six of the recommendations, which are precisely the most important steps that need to be taken:

· accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe

· human rights violations

· the release of political prisoners

· prevention of sectarian incitement

· relaxation of censorship

· controls on free expression.

POMED added, “Nearly as troubling as the failure to address key areas has been the unrealistic assessment by the Government of Bahrain of its own progress. Bahraini government officials,

including the Ambassador to the United States, have claimed in public statements to have fully implemented 18 of the 26 recommendations. It is difficult to expect the government to make significant progress on the many unfulfilled recommendations while it maintains that most of those steps have already been completed.”

“Even the full implementation of the BICI recommendations would fall well short of resolving the current political impasse in Bahrain. But such moves are essential to national reconciliation and genuine political reform. Meaningful reform that fully addresses the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Bahraini people remains the only path to lift the country out of its current crisis. As such, it is also the only approach that will stabilize the country and secure Bahrain as an ally of the United States in the long-term,” POMED concluded.

Meanwhile, Bahrain’s well-oiled and highly professional in-country public relations machinery daily cranks out and distributes world-wide a daily dose of “good news” about all the human rights progress Bahrain is making. That effort is buttressed by high profile PR consultants – including the same New York-based firm that represents Bahrain’s close neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

Minister of Justice Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa has been the King’s point man for comments from such outside groups as POMED’s He has been serving as minister since 2004 and as such, oversaw the ministry during the events of 2011 and provided legal justification for the demolition of mosques, dissolution of civil society organizations, and persecution protesters on dubious charges of "incitement to violence."

The National Commission issued a March 2012 progress report on the implementation of the BICI recommendations. Following that report, the Minister of Justice established a follow-up commission to continue monitoring and coordination. That commission appears to be similarly dominated by figures within the ruling family and the government, casting doubts on its impartiality. It is led by Dana Al Zayani, a former employee of the Crown Prince's Economic Development Board, and Hussein Alam of the Foreign Ministry.

A second report from POMED (the Project on Middle East Democracy claims the government has shown little will to translate its few positive institutional reforms into real accountability and enforcement of new codes of conduct. While the Bahraini Government is using its PR resources to earn credit for substantial progress toward to complete implementation of the BICI recommendations, security services have continued to arrest activists.

The most prominent activist in the country, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, head of Bahrain’s leading human rights organization, has been jailed for life after surviving a 110-day hunger strike that brought him close to death “The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture.”

Alkhawaja’s youngest daughter, Maryan, remains out Bahrain, usually in Europe, so she can interact with the world media. His elder daughter, Zainab Al-Khawaja, has been in and out of jail main times since abnd before The Abab Spring. POMED (the Project on Middle East Democracy) says the Interior Ministry has reportedly opened investigations into the conduct of more than one hundred police officers, but the investigations have lacked transparency.

It adds that the government recently put seven police officers on trial for the well-documented torture of medical personnel, but international human rights organizations have highlighted scores of additional examples of police abuses that have not been investigated by the Interior Ministry.

Additionally, POMED suggests there is good reason to question Inspector General al-Ghaith's impartiality and effectiveness. Al-Ghaith served as Inspector-General for the Ministry of Interior before the beginning of protests in 2011, during which time he denied documented human rights abuses. The ongoing human rights abuses, perpetrated by security services with impunity, suggests that the Inspector-General's office is not yet effective.

Since March 2011, the tiny Island nation has assumed an importance out of all proportion to its size. It is oil-rich. It provides a clear path to the open sea. It is the contiguous neighbor of one of America’s staunchest allies in the neighborhood, Saudi Arabia. And it is the home of the US Fifth Fleet, which is both a political and an economic bonanza for Bahrain.

The country is ruled by the Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims, A large majority of the rest of Bahrain’s population is Shia. The Shia population claims it is discriminated against in many fields, including, housing, schooling, credit, and justice.

The New York Times writes, “The Obama administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized as inconsistent and sometimes timid. Republicans have blasted President Obama for what they have portrayed as ‘leading from behind’ in Libya. Many Arabs, meanwhile, have questioned why the United States has called for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after months of violent attacks against anti-government demonstrators, while adopting a more measured tone about government repression in Bahrain, a U.S. ally that hosts the Navy’s 5th Fleet.
In an editorial, the newspaper quotes Secretary of State Clinton saying, “Our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans’ lives — including our fight against al-Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy,” Clinton said. “There will be times when not all of our interests align ... that is just reality,” she said.

“That is our challenge in a country like Bahrain,” she said. There, the ruling monarchy has cracked down on Shiite protesters who it says are promoted by Iran.”
The Times goes on to say, “Both she and Obama have reiterated that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.”

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, she added, one of the world’s largest oil producers and a key counterterrorism ally, “we have had candid conversations ... about our view that democratic advancement is not just possible but a necessary part of preparing for the future,” she said.
The Shia of Bahrain have found the US position at best tepid and suffused with mixed messages. What Bahrainis want from the US is a full-throated policy supporting the many against the few.

Given the competing equities facing the US, it seems very unlikely the Bahraini majority will get anything close to their wishes any time soon.


This article originally appeared in the pages of Prism Magazine.