In Bahrain, Valentine’s Day is a day of struggle

In Bahrain, Valentine’s Day is a day of struggle

While Americans celebrate the annual Valentine’s Day ritual of flowers and chocolate, in Bahrain, Feb. 14 marks the two-year anniversary of the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms against the regime — and blood has already been shed.

It was two years ago today,  on Feb. 14, 2011, that protesters encamped in the Pearl Roundabout in Manama and began the Bahraini version of the Arab Spring. Three days later, the authorities conducted a night raid on those protesters in what became known locally as "Bloody Thursday," and the violence and tension continues to this day.

"Today is the anniversary of the uprising," Jalila Al-Salman, the vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Society, told The Cable today in an interview. "There is a real strike in Bahrain today as a peaceful objection of to what’s going on there."

Early in the morning, around 2 a.m., protesters in villages all over Bahrain barricaded the entrances of their neighborhoods as part of a plan to hold a nationwide strike, she said. The police came through around 4 AM to remove the barricades but new ones were set up by around 6 a.m., and shops and restaurants inside the villages did not open. After morning prayers, the villagers started protesting.

"There are rallies all over Bahrain right now and the riot police are spread all over Bahrain to face that. We are expecting injuries all over Bahrain today," she said. "This is just one part of what’s happening in Bahrain. It’s not a new thing, it’s a continuation of what’s been going on in Bahrain for two years on a daily basis."

As of Thursday morning , there was already one death as a result of police clashes with protesters. Hussain Al-Jaziri, 16, was killed by a police officer using a shotgun in the village of Daih, according to Mohammed Al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who also sat down Thursday for an interview with The Cable.

"I just spoke with his father by phone," Al-Maskati said as he displayed gruesome photos of the boy’s gunshot ridden body. The police prevented the boy’s friends from taking him to the hospital and he died while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he said. "The ambulance driver said it was already too late."

At last December’s Manama Security Dialogue, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa  told an international audience that the tension and violence in Bahrain had largely subsided.

"You are aware we had our own experience with the so called ‘Arab Spring’ last year," he said. "While relative calm has returned to the kingdom, there are many wounds to be healed on all sides."

"I don’t know how they can say that, of course it continues," said Al-Salman. "There are marches every day all over the country."

The government initiated the latest in a series of dialogues with the opposition two weeks ago that was encouraged by the Obama administration.

"The United States welcomes the start of Bahrain’s National Dialogue. We’re encouraged by the broad participation of Bahraini political groups in the dialogue," outgoing State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Feb. 11. "We view the dialogue as a positive step in a broader process that can result in meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of all of Bahrain’s citizens. We believe that efforts to promote engagement and reconciliation among Bahrainis are necessary to long-term stability."

But Al-Salman and Al-Maskati said the dialogue is not a fair process because participation is weighted heavily toward civil-society representatives that are connected to the government. Also, government and police action against peaceful protesters have continued despite the dialogue.

"After the dialogue was announced, the government arrested 45 protesters in one march," Al-Maskati claimed. "And this week, the security services raided several villages to track down and arrest leaders of the protest movement." (This information could not be independently confirmed.)

Al-Salman, Al-Maskati, and Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, are in Washington this week to ask the Obama administration to stand up for human rights in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is serving a three-year jail sentence for insulting the regime.

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, called for respect for human rights in all countries affected by the Arab Spring.

"In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can — and will — insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people," Obama said.

Al-Salman and Al-Maskati said the U.S. government is not acting on Obama’s promise with respect to Bahrain.

"The basic thing we need from the U.S. is to change their foreign policy toward Bahrain. They haven’t gained anything from the policy over the last two years," said Al-Salman. "They have to push for a solution to the crisis … if they really care we have to see that in practice."

The activists noted that Secretary of State John Kerry is new in office and this presents an opportunity for new measures to pressure the Bahraini regime, perhaps through targeted sanctions against human rights violators. Kerry has yet to mention Bahrain since taking office.

"It’s a good time to tell John Kerry that you need to change your foreign policy toward Bahrain. Words without actions aren’t effective anymore," said Al-Maskati.