Bahrain’s leaders talk a good game about reform, but protesters in the streets still face unremitting brutality.
MANAMA, Bahrain – In a house at the end of a maze of narrow streets, I sat listening to a dozen young men as they described their close encounters with the full force of Bahrain’s government crackdown. We were in one of the poor, Shiite villages scattered across the country, which have remained hotbeds for revolt despite the government’s persistent attempts to suppress the uprising that began last year.
The boys wore an assortment of soccer shirts, and those awful rat-tail haircuts teenage boys all over the world think look cool. They said they had been severely beaten by the police in the previous two days. "They beat us until they got tired, then other policemen would take over and beat us more," said one boy.
For all of the Bahraini government’s efforts to show progress on human rights in response to the inquiry it commissioned last year, not much seems to have changed in places like this. The regime touts that "leading international legal, police and other experts" that have been shipped in "to advise on … practical reforms," as Minister for Human Rights Fatima Al Balooshi told the U.N. Human Rights Council. These experts include John Yates, a former assistant commissioner to the London Metropolitan Police Service, and John Timoney, a former police chief in Miami and Philadelphia.
Some in Bahrain’s government may be sincere about reform, but the gap between rhetoric and reality is huge. A new police code of conduct declares "a zero tolerance policy on torture and any other type of mistreatment" and that "force shall be not be used except when absolutely necessary or when it is used in self-defense in accordance with the law." But according to the young men from the village and others I met, these reforms are no more than empty words.
Local human rights activists say hundreds of young men have been taken to secret torture centers over the last few months. Instead of being formally arrested, booked into a police station and mistreated, they say they’re more likely to be simply grabbed by a group of riot police, robbed of their phones and money, and then taken to one of these buildings to be beaten for several hours and abandoned somewhere remote. Trusted local human rights organizations report tear gas attacks on villages almost every night.
Some of these young men told me they had been at a peaceful protest last week to mark the anniversary of the death of one of their friends, who had been killed in the pro-democracy demonstrations last year. "It was a peaceful protest in our village," said one. "About 150 men and 50 women, we were holding banners above our heads, not throwing anything at the police."
According to the young men, the riot police suddenly appeared at the protest and opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas. "They chased us for about 200 yards and cornered about 12 of us in a house. They put us in the kitchen," said one. "They told us all to lift our shirts up over our heads to cover our eyes and stole our phones. They pushed us all into the kitchen and started beating us."
The young men said that about 25 policemen, three at a time, took turns beating the group over the next 90 minutes. "They hit us with rifle butts, broke kitchen plates on our heads, said things about our moms and sisters," another told me. Several showed me severe bruises on their backs and arms, marks they said were from the beatings.
Meanwhile, the police are using tear gas canisters as weapons. There are nightly reports of tear gas being used against peaceful protests and shot directly into people’s houses. It is unclear how the police are supposed to account for the number of canisters they take per shift or to detail how many they used and why. The government justifies its use of tear gas by pointing to a fringe group of protestors who throw steel rods, petrol bombs, and other missiles at the police. The police, however, appear to be using as much as they want, whenever they want — not only against protesters, but also against random civilians.
The following night, I met with some medical professionals just outside the capital Manama as they received calls about injuries from different parts of Bahrain — pleas for advice or treatment. Within a few hours, they received calls about three serious head injuries caused by police-fired tear gas canisters. "It’s shoot to kill," observed one doctor glumly. People who are injured in protests still fear going to hospitals or clinics — worried that they might be arrested, or worse. The main hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, is under heavy security — police and military checkpoints guard the gates, and security officials even enter operating areas. Treating the injured is a risky business for medical personnel, who face prosecution if caught at one of the underground network of first aid posts.
For many in Bahrain, talk of reform and a commitment to changing the government from within sounds absurd. For them, police behavior appears not to have changed at all, except that officers have sometimes taken the torture out of the police stations and into other buildings — although even that is not a hard and fast rule. One 16 year-old boy told me how he and his friends were arrested in mid-February and beaten for several days in the Naim Police Station, north of Manama. Meanwhile, the government is still vigorously pressing charges against people convicted as part of the crackdown — including, notoriously, 20 medics who treated injured protestors.
Despite the ongoing abuses in Bahrain, the U.S. government has only temporarily paused a $53 million arms sale to the kingdom — a deal that includes 44 Humvees of the type used to crush the pro-democracy protests last year. The sale has not been cancelled, just delayed, while the administration waits for an appropriate time to resume it. This is hardly the moment.
Bahrain’s government has lost control of the reform process, sending incoherent and contradictory signals about its progress. One Bahraini official announced last week a deal whereby 15 of the 20 medics being prosecuted would have charges against them dropped. But the deal was denied a few days later at their next court hearing. While the regime has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross into its prisons, it called off last week’s planned visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, postponing it for several months.
Bahrain’s top leadership also continues to traffic in conspiracy theories about foreign-backed plots to overthrow the government, rather than lay the blame for the domestic unrest on their own unrepresentative rule. Field Marshall Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, the commander in chief of the Bahrain Defence Forces (BDF), was quoted in the local press on Feb. 15 as saying a vast array of countries had "mobilized their media, embassies, agents and fifth columns in the Gulf" against Bahrain’s government. He is quoted in the report as identifying the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium as part of the conspiracy. It is presumably into this field marshall’s safe hands — as head of the BDF — that the $53 million worth of U.S. weapons will be delivered.
Real reform must include a genuine change in police actions. More than 160 policemen were convicted by Bahrain’s military court last year for refusing to join the crackdown. They were each sentenced to between four and 12 years in prison. Dropping charges against them — and all the others convicted by the sham military court — would be a start to restoring confidence. So would bringing an immediate halt to torture, and establishing a mechanism to video record all police interrogations, a step recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry last year. An initiative to install high-tech closed circuit televisions into all police stations has apparently begun, but will take many more months to complete. Using even ordinary camcorders until then would send a positive signal of intent.
Bringing more Shiites, who constitute the demographic majority in Bahrain, into the overwhelmingly Sunni police force is also a longer-term necessity. But despite chronic unemployment in the villages, there is little incentive for young Shiites to apply.
My suggestion to the young men I met that they might one day join the police was met with uproarious laughter. As one of them told me, "The police are killing people, not protecting them."