The Middle East Channel

The hollow shell of security reform in Bahrain

With the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend ten days away, international attention is once again focusing on the critical situation in the troubled island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Daily clashes continue between protesters and the security services, and the beleaguered Al-Khalifa regime faces a growing international backlash over its treatment of jailed human rights defender ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

With the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend ten days away, international attention is once again focusing on the critical situation in the troubled island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Daily clashes continue between protesters and the security services, and the beleaguered Al-Khalifa regime faces a growing international backlash over its treatment of jailed human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is reportedly nearing death after hunger-striking for more than 60 days in protest at the continuing detention of activists in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja’s declining health and the imminent Formula One Grand Prix ensure that the spotlight will once again be trained on Bahrain, if only for a few days this April.

Led by 1996 Formula One world champion Damon Hill, a number of racing teams and commentators have expressed concern about the wisdom of holding a Grand Prix in the current climate (and its cancellation remains a possibility). Referring to the ongoing repression of opposition protests by the Bahraini security services, Hill suggested that "It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race." He spoke after the youth-led February 14 movement vowed to disrupt the Grand Prix weekend, which appears to be building into a trial of strength between the regime and a re-energized opposition.

Meanwhile, a bomb explosion in Eker on April 9 that injured seven policemen awoke disturbing memories of the violent tactics of the previous uprising in Bahrain between 1994 and 1999. The attack on the security personnel reflected and reinforced the lack of mutual trust and goodwill in the absence of a political settlement, exacerbated by a splintering of both the government and the opposition, as moderate elements have been undercut by more extreme groups on all sides. Part of al-Khawaja’s appeal lies in his emphasis on non-violent resistance, but the bombing indicates that elements of the opposition are taking an extremist turn that does not bode well for Bahrain.

World attention will focus on the policing of protests and the extent (or otherwise) to which the security services have modified their approach to dealing with demonstrators. Yet an intriguing subplot is developing around one of the "supercops" drafted in by the Government of Bahrain to advise it on police reform. This centers around a growing investigation into the role of Britain’s Metropolitan Police in the News International "phone-hacking" scandal in the United Kingdom. The unlikely link revolves around the revelations of the shortcomings in the Metropolitan Police’s initial response to the claims that journalists from the News of the World intercepted the voice mail of members of the Royal Family. In July 2011, they claimed the resignation of its assistant commissioner, John Yates. Four months later, as the Leveson Inquiry launched a wide-ranging review of the culture and practice of the British press and the allegation of illicit payments from journalists to serving police officers, Yates suddenly turned up in Bahrain to advise and assist the government in police reform.

His appointment occurred days after the hard-hitting report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into abuses committed during the crushing of the Persian Gulf state’s pro-democracy movement last year. Yates was joined by the former head of the Miami police, John Timoney. Their appointment was seen by many to be an exercise in damage-limitation as the Government of Bahrain sought to reassure its nervous allies in Washington and London of its commitment to changing its ways. This was especially relevant to the scrutiny of the work of the security services, after the BICI report detailed a pattern of "systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture."

The arrival of Yates and Timoney was intended to signal a fresh start for an organization that is seen by many Bahraini citizens as exclusionary, unaccountable, and deeply partial in its application of law and order. Yet their arrival in Manama raised eyebrows as both men held controversial records, with Timoney coming in for criticism from legal organizations over the heavy-handed policing of demonstrators at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. For his part, Yates had been forced to resign in 2011 over his role in the News of the World scandal, having earlier earned himself the nickname "Yates of the Yard" for his high-profile role in investigating the "cash for honors" allegations against the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006.

Indeed, developments both in Manama and in London since then have cast doubt on the credibility of the reform process in Bahrain and the reputation of one of the men leading it. Although the Government of Bahrain insists that most of the BICI recommendations have been met, closer scrutiny reveals compliance to have been superficial at best. Police violence continues seemingly unabated with numerous instances of brutality against protesters and bystanders recorded on video and circulated on the internet. One such video taken in March showed a policeman lobbing Molotov cocktails at demonstrators in full view of several of his colleagues, who did nothing to stop or censure him. Most notoriously, graphic footage emerged in mid-December of up to 13 riot police officers savagely beating a group of 20 protesters on the roof of an apartment complex in Shakhura.

These incidents cannot be ascribed to the actions of individual officers. The active involvement or passive acquiescence of multiple participants at the very least suggests that a culture of permissiveness remains embedded in police tactics in Bahrain. In addition, the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of tear gas appears to have been accelerated, with entire villages being blanketed in its suffocating fumes. More than 20 deaths have been attributed to tear gas and smoke inhalation since the uprising began in February 2011, with the majority occurring after the publication of the BICI report. With each additional death and documented instance of police malpractice, it becomes harder to suggest that they represent a final spasm of violence rather than evidence of a continuing cycle of state repression of its own citizenry.

Perhaps most damagingly, the culture of impunity within the security services identified in the BICI report has yet to result in any meaningful form of accountability. The regime attempted to deflect the blame for abuses onto to 20 (supposedly renegade) low-ranking security personnel, and a trial began for five police officers — none of them Bahraini — charged with involvement in the death in custody of a blogger on April 9, 2011, which they attributed at the time to "complications from sickle-cell anemia." In addition, the regime appears to have chosen a highly-selective approach to the application of the rule of law depending on whether the perpetrators of the violence were police or protesters. Thus, the courts recently charged 28 civilians with attempted murder for throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. By contrast, and in spite of the plethora of documented video evidence to support the claims of police brutality, just one officer has been investigated over allegations of mistreatment of protesters.

Significant questions therefore remain unresolved as Bahrain moves uncertainly toward its Grand Prix weekend. How widespread the protests become, and how they are policed, will tell us much about the likely trajectory of the next phase of Bahrain’s stunted uprising; so, too, will the political and public response should al-Khawaja succumb to his hunger-strike in the face of worldwide pressure on the Bahraini government  to release him.

In addition, the work of Yates and Timoney will come under international scrutiny as the trenchant criticism of policing tactics in the BICI report mean that they ought to have been among the first issues to be tackled by a regime which claims to have implemented almost all of its recommendations. Yet the problem facing them is that the evidence thus far points to little if any change in the manner of policing, amid a continuing reliance on the disproportionate use of force, both pre-emptively and reactively, to prevent or disperse protests.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the uprising, Yates gave a revealingly frank interview to London’s Daily Telegraph on  February 13 of this year. After hinting that the adoption of peaceful tactics to handle protests might include the highly-controversial practice of "kettling" demonstrators, Yates appeared to disregard any notion that the demonstrators might have political grievances, saying that "This isn’t organized protests, it’s just vandalism, rioting on the streets." This remarkable assertion offers little hope that those in charge of Bahraini political and security-sector reform have absorbed any of the lessons of the past year. Indeed, just weeks later, a similarly dismissive remark by made by the King of Bahrain, that the protesters were just a small minority of the population, brought more than 100,000 people onto the streets in response.

Bahrain’s uprising is far from over, however much the government, its foreign advisers, and international partners might wish it were so. Bahraini politics is polarized as never before as the middle ground is being squeezed by extremists from all directions and positions on all sides harden against compromise. With the Al-Khalifa dynasty being supported by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, it has neither the need nor the inclination to engage in serious dialogue with an energized and enraged opposition. This portends to an exceptionally bleak future for the archipelago, caught between a governing class that will not be allowed to fall and a significant segment of its population that no longer believes they have the legitimacy to rule. 

Yates, meanwhile, faces problems of his own. On March 1, he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry by video link from Bahrain and came in for criticism over his wining and dining of senior journalists from the News of the World and other tabloid newspapers. Six days later, Robert Quick, formerly the senior counter-terrorism officer at Scotland Yard, claimed during his own testimony to the Inquiry that Yates had resisted attempts to hand over his cell phone records over suspicions that he might be leaking information to the media relating to the "cash-for-honors" investigation he was then leading. As the allegations mount in London, the Government of Bahrain may feel that their appointment of Yates has saddled them with an increasingly toxic asset. Regardless of how the rapidly-unfolding inquiry develops, Yates’s troubled role in Bahrain will keep him in the headlines, and, for Bahrainis (and Britons) with longer memories, generate awkward comparisons with his British predecessors that formed the backbone of Bahrain’s security apparatus for much of the twentieth century.

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

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

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