Comment | With western complicity, Bahrain’s crackdown on human rights continues

In the wake of this week's widely-condemned decision by Bahrain to uphold draconian sentences against prominent activists, the regime's dismal human rights record, enabled by western support, is unlikely to improve any time soon, argues John Lubbock.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, September 8, 2012 0:00 - 1 Comment

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“Freedom to Nabeel Rajab” A protest Wall in Manama, Bahrain – Sep 2012 (photo: nawal/Women News Network)

Bahrain’s decision this week to uphold the sentences of all the prominent opposition leaders and activists was met with international condemnation by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. Even the US has been voicing its discontent over the continued harsh sentences for those criticising Bahrain’s government.

Not that Bahrain’s government is listening. It seems to have stuck its head in the ground like an ostrich while repeating the mantra that it is “reforming”, presumably out of some other orifice.

So the rounds of appeals and protests continue indefinitely, with no end in sight. Bahrain has been stuck in political limbo since 1975 when the then Emir Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifa decided to dissolve the parliament and constitution because it refused to ratify his State Security Law – which allowed detention without trial for renewable periods of 3 years. The attempt by current King Hamad to bring back parliament and the constitution in 2001/2 was disingenuous and has now proved a complete failure.

What President Obama said last year – you can’t have a real dialogue with parts of the peaceful opposition in jail – still stands. But it’s pretty obvious now that the BICI report, commissioned by the King last year, was just another PR stunt designed to present a veil of transparency over a state which has been the personal fiefdom of one family for almost 200 years. All the reforms they promised to make based on the recommendations of the BICI report have been superficial if they have been carried out at all, yet the government claims to have achieved most of them. You might like to compare Bahrain Watch’s assessment of the reforms with the government’s own assessment.

The most important recommendation of that report, to review convictions and release all those convicted because of exercising their rights to free expression, remains unmet. Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the report’s writers, clarified to Human Rights Watch last November that the report intended that the government free them and void their convictions. Almost a year later and the trials of the 13 opposition leaders and all the medical staff accused of ridiculous crimes like giving AK-47s to protesters are still ongoing. The doctors are due back in court next week, on the 11th of September, and Nabeel Rajab, President of Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Zainab Alkhawaja, activist and daughter of BCHR founder Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, are due back in court a day earlier, on the 10th of September.

Nabeel was given a three year jail term a few weeks ago for “inciting illegal protests” and has been in and out of jail on various tenuous charges such as insulting the people of Muharraq island, which were later dropped. Bahrain’s Penal Code, an incredibly vague document which can be put to all sorts of repressive purposes, was clearly criticised by the BICI report, though its recommendations neglected to call for the reform of these laws.

A number of different articles in the code have been used by the authorities in the various charges brought against Rajab. When he was initially accused of insulting a public body, Article 216 was used. This states that,

A person shall be liable for imprisonment or payment of a fine if he offends, by any method of expression the National Assembly, or other constitutional institutions, the army, law courts, authorities or government agencies.

The charges, related to illegal gathering, then used Articles 178-80, which prescribe a penalty of up to 2 years for any gathering of more than 5 people which is intended to ‘undermine public security’. Since the government very rarely issues permits for public protests and tries to keep them away from the capital, almost anyone who makes a political statement in public could theoretically receive a two year prison sentence. Article 165, which is notoriously vague and referred to a number of times in the BICI report, was also used, and states that,

A prison sentence shall be passed against any person who expressly incites others to develop hatred or hostility towards the system of government.

These legal provisions are clearly intended to provide justification for the government’s arrest and prosecution of its political opponents and critics. It is not enough for the government to make a show of releasing some of those charged because they exercised their human rights, while keeping its most prominent opponents locked up on baseless charges of terrorism and continuing to prosecute Human Rights Defenders using the same old, corrupt legal practices. Bahrain’s laws should be brought into line with its international human rights obligations.

Meanwhile King Hamad and the rest of the government have been going about their business as if nothing is wrong in Bahrain. In his last public speech, the King spent a long time criticising Syria’s human rights abuses without the slightest hint of irony.

For its part, the UK Foreign Office doesn’t seem to have a clue what to do, or any interest in actually doing anything. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt repeated the meaningless FCO shtick about being concerned at Rajab’s 3 year prison sentence and the upholding of the convictions against the opposition leaders, while the UK continues to be complicit in providing weapons, institutional support and seems untroubled that our PR firms are doing great business with Bahrain while even shadier companies like Olton provide them with social network monitoring software so they can spy on dissidents and get information to use in possible interrogations.

Against this background, the Arab League’s endorsement of Bahrain’s plan to set up an Arab court of human rights would be laughable if it weren’t simultaneously so utterly tragic. Bahrain’s government really is shooting itself in the foot, sacrificing the country’s economy so that their corrupt family business can continue to plunder the island’s resources.

Just a few weeks ago another teenager was killed by the security forces with shotgun pellets, while the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will hold a hearing on Bahrain on September 19th. Where is all this going? Who knows. But the end of civil strife and government repression in Bahrain seems as far off as ever.

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John Lubbock

John Lubbock is a graduate in international politics and human rights MA at City University, London and research and advocacy officer for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in London. He tweets @jwsal

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Today’s News Links: 09-08-12 | Material Truth
Sep 9, 2012 2:15

[…] With Western Complicity, Bahrain’s Crackdown on Human Rights Continues […]

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