The Middle East Channel

Bahrain’s uncertain future

Bahrain’s uncertain future

The long-awaited report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on Nov. 23 was launched with a blistering attack by its Chairman on the conduct of the Bahraini government and security services. In a televised speech in front of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Cherif Bassiouni stated that the Bahraini authorities had used torture and excessive force during its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters earlier this year. He pinpointed a culture of non-accountability among the security services operating during the state of emergency imposed between March and June, and accused unnamed officials of disobeying laws designed to safeguard human rights. Further, he strongly criticized the pattern of masked men arresting people in the middle of the night and extracting forced confessions — often under physical and psychological duress — and expressed reservations about the use of special security courts to try and convict them. Notably, he stated that the BICI believed that many of the protests did not fall outside the participatory rights of citizens, and that it had not found evidence of any link to Iranian involvement.

In response, the King pledged to create a task force to implement the BICI recommendations, which included a national reconciliation strategy and a further commission to investigate the more than 45 deaths during the uprising* since February. Admitting shortcomings by government ministries, he suggested the report offered a new starting-point for Bahrain in its long process of recovery, and called for national unity. The King also pledged that civilians would no longer be tried in military courts and promised to replace officials found to be responsible for human rights abuses.

Yet the release of the Commission’s findings has again highlighted the deep fissures and diverging narratives over the crushing of Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement. Intended to draw a line under the unrest between February and June, its release occurred against the backdrop of renewed violence and the deaths of two more Bahrainis in suspicious circumstances. The BICI report also took on international significance as the Obama administration linked it to the passage (or not) of a $53 million U.S. arms sale to the country. Hence, in the days leading up to its publication, the ruling Al-Khalifa family embarked on a damage-limitation exercise by attempting to deflect blame onto 20 low-ranking officials in the security services.

The Commission was established on June 29 by King Hamad to "enquire into the incidents" in February and March and their consequences. Rather than being an impartial body set up by an international organization such as the United Nations, it was appointed (and funded) by the Royal Court. Still, Bassiouni and its other four commissioners all had extensive experience investigating human rights violations and war crimes allegations in the former Yugoslavia, the Balkans, and Iraq. During its deliberations the Commission carried out more than 5000 interviews and witness statements, and compiled a list of more than 300 documented cases of abuse, of which they suggested 64 qualified as torture.

Nevertheless it ran into difficulties over the summer as Bassiouni made a series of controversial statements to the media. These appeared to prejudge the Commission’s findings and exonerate senior officials, including members of the ruling family, from responsibility for the widespread abuses that occurred. A statement in July that he had "not found evidence of a systematic policy of torture" caused particular anger among the Bahraini opposition, and fueled concerns about the Commission’s impartiality. As tempers across Bahrain flared in the face of continuing flashpoints, hundreds of people tried to force their way into the Commission’s office on Aug. 15 to give evidence. Faced with an overwhelming volume of evidence, the Commission opted to delay its final report (initially expected on Oct. 30) by three weeks.

Tensions in Bahrain also escalated as the unrest continued throughout the summer and autumn. The security services were linked to the deaths of a further six people after Bassiouni was appointed as the policies of repression continued. Nightly protests continued in villages all over Bahrain and a dangerous polarization of society opened up between the demonstrators and pro-government groups. These assumed sectarian overtones as the security services cracked down mercilessly on the Shiite opposition, while Sunni hardliners used the state-run media to attack the supposed traitors in their midst. More than 500 political detainees, including a number of political opposition leaders, remain incarcerated in Bahraini jails following trials in military courts, and earlier this month, long sentences were handed down to a group of 20 doctors whose arrest and prosecution attracted international criticism.

Although hard-hitting in its tone, today’s BICI report nonetheless falls short in several crucial respects. It does not name individual perpetrators of the widespread violations of human rights that took place. The scale and ferocity of the crackdown cannot simply be ascribed to the actions of 20 (ostensibly-renegade) junior officials, as suggested by the Bahraini government. More than 45 people have been killed, up to 1500 arrested, and several thousand more fired from their jobs since February. Accountability cannot be narrowly limited to those who actively carried out abuses; it must be expanded also to include those who ordered and orchestrated the crackdown. Events in Bahrain did not unfold in a total vacuum. Such evidence that exists points to a chain of command extending upward to senior members of the ruling family implicated both in the abuse of detainees and in making inflammatory statements threatening violent retribution on the demonstrators.

What happens next will be important. To be effective in leading toward a process of reconciliation, the report’s recommendations must be implemented in full, and, above all, be seen to hold high-level decision-makers fully to account. If not, then senior members of the security services and government ministries (and, by definition, ranking members of the ruling family) will be perceived as being above the law and shielded by a culture of impunity. A case in point is the Ministry of Interior, singled out in the report for its systematic practices of mistreatment, and headed by a powerful member of the ruling family, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa. Yet while King Hamad may have promised to enact changes designed to ensure that such abuses will never recur, it is not at all clear whether he — or the Bahraini parliament, shorn of its opposition members since March — wields sufficient influence to make them happen.

Power within the ruling family has shifted away from the King and his reform-minded Crown Prince and toward a group of hardliners clustered around the Prime Minister of 40 years and the security heads. As early as Feb. 16, the King’s relative impotence was demonstrated as the security services mounted a lethal assault on demonstrators camped at the Pearl Roundabout just a day after he had given a televised address expressing regret over the first killings on Feb. 14. Subsequent developments have all pointed to the marginalization of the reforming wing of the Al-Khalifa family, and skeptics will question how and why this will have changed in the report’s aftermath. In this context, the current government will struggle to convince the majority of its population that it has the capability or even the desire to fully confront its recent past.

Even if the reforming element of the ruling class manages to reassert control, it will still have its work cut out given developments in the immediate run-up to the release of the report. Indeed, on Nov. 19, a 16-year old boy was killed after allegedly being run over by a police jeep, and his funeral procession was subsequently disrupted by police firing tear gas at the mourners. The morning of the report’s release was further marked by another "road-related" death as a 44-year old man died after apparently being forced off the road at high speed by the police. The authorities called it a traffic accident but security forces then attacked protesters gathering at the site with tear gas and sound bombs. Heavy-handed actions like these continue to undermine trust in, and the credibility of, the government and its security forces on an almost daily basis.

Going forward, it is clear that Bahrainis face an exceedingly tough challenge. The events of the past year have shattered social cohesion in such a small country. Moreover, they cannot be seen in isolation from deeper trajectories and trends in Bahrain’s recent history. The current bout of unrest pre-dates the onset of the Arab Spring and cannot thus be ascribed to external causes, such as its transformative impact of people struggling across the region or alleged Iranian meddling. Instead, the troubles which began in August 2010 ahead of last October’s parliamentary elections reflect ongoing chasms in conceptions of political legitimacy and the fairness of governance in Bahrain. Opposition demands for reform are based on fundamental imbalances in the distribution of power, and rooted in decades of the politics of uneven and selective development.

The difficulty for the government is that Bahrainis have seen all this before: the uprising in the 1990s was followed by a general amnesty and political opening in 2001 before subsequent measures watered-down the initial promises. The events of 2010-11 marked the definitive end of this cycle of reform and repression. Its memory (and the fact that many of those who chose to engage are now in prison) now makes it all the more difficult to win popular trust and political re-engagement for this next attempt at national reconciliation. There is also a danger that the hollowing out of the middle ground will complicate the next steps. New actors have appeared on the scene, notably the February 14th youth movement, and may be less inclined to operate within older lines of "official opposition." Meanwhile, the polarization of Bahraini society, largely along sectarian grounds, has left a poisonous legacy that continues to shape very different narratives about what happened in Bahrain, and why. It is very unlikely that the release of today’s report will do much to change this precarious situation.

* [Correction: The article previously misstated that 45 people had died "in custody". This was incorrect. It has been corrected to state that 45 people have died "during the uprising since February," which was the original intent.]

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.