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OP-ED: Bahrain Repression Continues Amid Sham Trials and Imprisonment

WASHINGTON, Oct 4 2013 (IPS) - The lengthy prison sentences handed down to 50 Shia activists last week and the refusal of Bahraini courts to hear their allegations of torture once again confirm the regime’s continued repression of the opposition.

Amnesty International in a statement this week decried the unfair trials and sentencing of these activists and the inability of the defence lawyers to present witnesses or to challenge the authorities’ politically motivated charges. Court decisions seem to be pre-ordained regardless of the facts.

"The King's hands-off approach shows he is ruling over a fractious country that is heading toward the abyss."

Many of those convicted were allegedly tortured in prison before trial as “terrorists”, an accusation which the Al Khalifa regime hurls at any Bahraini who criticises regime brutality.

In a recent interview with Al Monitor, the Bahraini foreign minister defended his government’s “serious” commitment to the so-called national reconciliation dialogue and accused the opposition of undermining it.  He said the dialogue is “there to stay,” but just this week the government suspended the dialogue until Oct. 30.

From the very beginning, the government-organised dialogue has been a public relations stunt to buy time and perhaps mollify critical Western governments. It failed because it mostly focused on process, not substance.

Unfortunately for Bahrainis, the deafening silence in Washington and London about human rights abuses has signaled to the Bahraini regime that other regional trouble spots, especially Syria, Iran, and Egypt, at least for the moment trump Bahrain.

The regime continues to encourage the radical Sunni Salafi elements within the ruling family to pursue an unwavering apartheid policy against the majority and remains impervious to international criticism.

Apart from the convictions, the government crackdown has included banning non-governmental organisations from contacting foreign funding sources or diplomats without government approval, arresting Khalil Marzuq, a leading member of al-Wifaq party, depriving a number of Bahrainis of citizenship, and pursuing an anti-Shia sectarian agenda.  These actions have incurred international condemnation and have prompted the opposition in mid-September to pull out of the dialogue.

Restrictions on NGOs finally prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a statement Sep. 19 expressing “concern” about the Bahraini government’s recent restrictions on civil society groups and their ability to freely communicate “with foreign governments and international organizations.”

European governments, spearheaded by Switzerland, privately and publicly have repeatedly condemned human rights abuses in Bahrain.  The recent human rights declaration signed by 47 states is another sign of growing international impatience with the autocratic, intolerant, and exclusive nature of the Bahraini regime.

In recent media interviews, the Bahraini foreign minister criticised U.S. President Barack Obama for lumping Bahrain with Iraq and Syria as regimes that have promoted sectarianism.

“We are different from the other two states, and this is hard to take,” the foreign minister said in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper.

Some media reports have discussed the serious divisions within the ruling family’s two major ideological factions. These include the supposedly pro-reform faction led by the King’s son and Crown Prince Salman; the other is the more conservative and anti-reform faction led by the “Khawalids” within the military senior hierarchy and the Royal Court.

The King views himself as a “constitutional monarch” above the political fray and as an arbiter of family ideological feuds.  This hands-off approach, however, shows he is ruling over a fractious country that is heading toward the abyss.

By replacing his ambassador in Washington, the relatively moderate Bahraini Jewish woman Huda Nunu, with a military officer closely associated with the Khawalids, the King’s “in your face” appointment in effect is telling Washington that his hard-line policies against the opposition would continue.

Whatever game the King is playing is destined to fail in the long run.  He cannot possibly envision a stable and peaceful Bahrain if he continues to allow an extremist Sunni anti-Shia faction within his family to run the country with total disregard of the majority. This is a recipe for violence and chaos. The game is up; the King cannot pretend all is well in his tiny “constitutional monarchy”.

Much like the white extremist faction within the U.S. Republican Party that is bent on disregarding the law of the land and the democratic procedures to effect political change, the extremist Khawalid faction under the auspices of the prime minister is committed to keeping Al Khalifa in power at all costs, even at the risk of tearing the country apart.

If the King is still committed to genuine reform, he should shed his “constitutional monarch” posture and act decisively and courageously.  He could immediately take the following 10 steps:

  • Remove the prime minister, appoint the crown prince or another distinguished Bahraini as acting prime minister, and call for free national elections.
  • Appoint a respected and representative commission to initiate genuine national reconciliation dialogue involving all segments of society.
  • Stop illegal arrests and sham trials.
  • Void the 22 amendments to the law that the lower house of the Bahraini parliament passed recently, which, among other things, call for stripping Bahrainis of their citizenship if they criticise Al Khalifa, whether on Twitter or in person.
  • Remove all vestiges of employment discrimination against the Shia, especially in defense and the security services.
  • Implement the key recommendations of the Bassiouni Commission report.
  • Make new appointments in the Royal Court and the top echelons of the military.
  • Review the court system and revisit the contractual appointments of expatriate judges.
  • Void the recent sentences and arrests of peaceful opposition protesters.
  • Announce the above steps in a nationally televised address to the nation.

The ruling family has waged a sophisticated public relations campaign through traditional means and on the new social media and has hired publicists to present a gentle picture of the government’s abysmal human rights record. The campaign has failed.

Western governments, human rights groups, the European Union, and Western media have not really bought into Al Khalifa’s PR blitz. The Washington Post’s recent editorial condemning Marzuq’s arrest is a telling example of how Western media has come to view Bahrain’s repressive regime.

A recent twist in the Bahraini regime’s propaganda has been to argue that the “Bahraini file” is linked to the “Syrian file” and to the “Iranian file.” Therefore, the Bahraini domestic conflict could not be resolved until Syria is taken care of or until a U.S.-Iran rapprochement is achieved. The regime has been trying feverishly but unsuccessfully to sell this argument to regional and international players and to the Bahraini opposition.

No such linkage exists; grievances in Bahrain go back decades.  A resolution of the Syrian crisis, whether by war or diplomacy, or the possible reintegration of Iran in the international community should not prevent the ruling family from implementing genuine reforms and ending the sate of emergency and Sunni apartheid policies against the Shia majority.

Emile Nakhleh is former Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at CIA and author of “A Necessary Engagement:  Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain:  Political Development in a Modernizing Society.”

 
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