The Middle East Channel

Bahrain’s still stuck

Yesterday, Bahrain postponed verdicts in the controversial trial of 13 high-profile opposition leaders until September 4. Their legal battle may be receiving little media attention, but it reveals much about the uncertain political scene in the strategically important country. Bahrain’s government has not managed to use last year’s famous inquiry by M. Cherif Bassiouni’s commission ...

Jane Kinninmont
Jane Kinninmont

Yesterday, Bahrain postponed verdicts in the controversial trial of 13 high-profile opposition leaders until September 4. Their legal battle may be receiving little media attention, but it reveals much about the uncertain political scene in the strategically important country. Bahrain’s government has not managed to use last year’s famous inquiry by M. Cherif Bassiouni’s commission to draw a line under the events of 2011. As a result, the public remains polarized, though more on political than on sectarian grounds, while the protest movement has survived the detention of key leaders. Meanwhile, the root causes of the uprising remain unaddressed, in the absence of a process of political dialogue and negotiation.

Bahrain’s royally commissioned inquiry into last year’s unrest, commonly known as the Bassiouni report, was intended to be the basis for a national consensus on the causes of and the events during the uprising, as well as making recommendations for human rights reforms. Optimists — in the government, the opposition, and among Bahrain’s Western allies — hoped it could help kick start a much-needed process of dialogue and negotiation between the government and political factions. The report was praised internationally as groundbreaking and progressive, and far more forward leaning than expected.

But despite public relations efforts by the Bahraini government, its recommendations have not been fully implemented. Various practices criticized in the report — from nighttime house raids to imprisonment for offenses involving political expression — are recurring. Promises to hold torturers accountable have resulted in just three policemen being convicted. Opposition groups estimate there are around 1,400 political prisoners while the government says there are none. According to estimates from al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, in July alone 240 people were arrested and 100 injured with birdshot and rubber bullets. The group’s secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman, was wounded with birdshot when taking part in a small demonstration outside his house in June.

Meanwhile, the frustrated opposition shows signs of further radicalization. A small but increasing minority of protesters lob Molotov cocktails and iron rods at security forces and police stations and are looking for new ways to improvise weapons. While the mainstream opposition leaders routinely condemn violence, a rising number of voices online are seeking to justify violence as "self-defense" or "resistance." This in turn encourages a vocal pro-government constituency to applaud the arrests of activists, seeing them all as complicit, even when they are arrested for tweets or for protesting without a permit.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report remains a vital reference point, and is a rare source of leverage for those within Bahrain’s bureaucracy who are trying to push reforms. But there is little traction for such efforts given that almost all of the senior decision makers who oversaw last year’s crackdown have retained their posts. There remain differences within the royal family, the Al Khalifa, over whether to make concessions to the opposition and how to handle any process of dialogue. Such divides manifest in mixed messages, as was seen earlier this year in the case of one of the 13 imprisoned opposition leaders, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini national, who was then on hunger strike. Danish officials at Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council said that they had reached an agreement in mid-March for al-Khawaja to leave Bahrain for medical treatment in Denmark, but this was never implemented.

The 13 men in court this week had been convicted in a military court last year of crimes that included plotting to overthrow the government by force, as well as inciting hatred of the regime, insulting the army, and fomenting sectarianism. Several, including al-Khawaja, received life sentences. All the defendants assert their innocence and have described extensive torture in custody. The Bassiouni inquiry was highly critical of the behavior of security forces, including both "systemic" and "systematic" use of torture. It recommended that civilian courts review all convictions by military courts that had not respected basic fair-trial principles, such as the inadmissibility of "confessions" extracted through torture. Six months after the inquiry report, after international attention increasingly focused on al-Khawaja’s hunger strike, it was eventually announced that the opposition leaders would have this right. However, their lawyers say the court is still using tortured "confessions" as evidence.

Al-Khawaja is not alone, however. One of the more high-profile detainees is Ebrahim Sharif, one of the few Sunni Bahrainis to have been jailed for his part in the protest movement. Before his imprisonment, he was the secretary-general of al-Waad, a legally recognized, secular, liberal opposition society led by a mixture of Sunni and Shiite Bahrainis. It draws inspiration from the Arab nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, when Bahrain’s opposition had a cross-sectarian leadership but primarily enjoyed support from urban Sunni Muslims. Waad is a relatively small movement, in an era dominated by Islamists, but represents an important intellectual elite. Sharif, a former investment banker and latterly a telecoms entrepreneur, is one of the opposition’s most adept economists and an effective critic of corruption. In a 2008 interview with Bahrain Television, he raised detailed questions about the budget of the Royal Court. Not only was he never invited back, but one week later, the information minister — who is in charge of state television — was abruptly replaced.

Sharif’s role in the protests — where he often appeared side by side with Wefaq’s Ali Salman, a Shiite cleric, making joint calls for a peaceful transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy — complicates the widely used official narrative that the protests were sectarian in nature. Although the majority of protesters were Shiites, the youth groups that organized the February 14 protests included both Sunni and Shiites, secular and Islamist Bahrainis, partly inspired by the peaceful mass movements they saw in Egypt and Tunisia. In general, Sunni Bahrainis were treated more leniently during the crackdown, but are also more likely to face family pressure to keep quiet. Sharif, sentenced to five years in prison on charges including insulting the army, is an exception.

The defendants also include leaders of the "Coalition for a Republic," the three groups that decided to call for the overthrow of the monarchy in March 2011: Hassan Mushaima and Abduljalil Al Singace of the Haq Movement and Abdulwahhab Hussein of Wafa (while Saeed Shehabi, the British-based leader of the third group, the Bahrain Freedom Movement, was convicted in absentia). Unlike Waad and Wefaq, these more revolutionary or rejectionist opposition groups have always refused to participate in the half-elected parliament, given its limited powers, and have focused instead on direct action and street protests. Their call for a republic was one of the tipping points in last year’s uprising, representing a red line for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, which sent troops into Bahrain just one week later.

Yet a decade ago, these activists had also tried to build support for a constitutional monarchy. They have been imprisoned repeatedly in the past, including in the 1990s, for their role in the uprising then. When the current Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, came to power, Mushaima and Hussein were among the opposition leaders that endorsed his National Action Charter, a royal charter that promised to reinstate the country’s parliament, but amending the 1973 constitution to include an upper house with purely advisory powers. The king met with Hussein, among others, to win his support. Their endorsement helped to ensure the overwhelming approval of the charter in a popular referendum in 2001. However, in 2002, the king promulgated a new constitution in which the upper house of parliament was made equal to the elected house. The parliament that ensued was also gerrymandered to dilute the Shiite vote. This experience helps to explain the current opposition skepticism about promises of dialogue and reform.

The supporters of the government are also skeptical about the authorities’ handling of these figures, but for very different reasons. Several of the defendants were put on trial in 2009, and again in 2010, on terrorism charges (under a law that defines terrorism very broadly). In both cases, they experienced a legal oddity: they were "pardoned" without being found guilty. This ambiguous use of the royal pardon has contributed to the polarization of views in Bahrain. For the opposition, the political leaders are national figures with a long history of struggle for dignity and justice; they see the previous pardons as a face-saving way for the authorities to back down from accusations for which they had no evidence. For government supporters, they are dangerous radicals who have already been let out of jail too many times; they see the pardons as a manifestation of royal leniency. Thus, both the relatives of the detainees and the most anti-opposition voices share the view that the detainees should not be pardoned — though for very different reasons. Many among both groups believe that the verdict will ultimately be a political decision, as were the previous pardons.

The announcement of the final verdict, expected yesterday, was delayed at the last minute for another three weeks. The judge said the hearing was adjourned because some of the defendants’ relatives chanted political slogans in the court. Locally, there remains much speculation that the case could be used as a political bargaining chip in any efforts to prepare the ground for the fresh political dialogue for which Bahrain’s Western allies are pressing. In a speech later the same day, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, spoke in general terms about the value of dialogue. Opposition groups say there is as yet no concrete offer on the table.

Assuming an offer eventually is presented, Wefaq will have a hard job convincing an increasingly radicalized Shiite street that its preference for dialogue — and its avowed support for the monarchy, albeit with an elected government and with more constitutional limits on the ruler’s power — will bear fruit. Near-daily protests, often involving skirmishes between police and protesters, continue, despite a de-facto ban (i.e. no permits being issued) for the past few weeks. Within the opposition, the popularity of the 13 detained activists has only risen since they went to prison; those who suffer personally often gain credibility that way, a point sometimes missed by the more powerful party in an asymmetric conflict.

UPDATE: The continued political impasse in Bahrain has been further underlined by today’s court decision to sentence Nabeel Rajab, a prominent activist, to three years in prison for participating in illegal protests. Mr Rajab, the president of the banned Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has become an increasingly high-profile figurehead for the protest movement as well as a frequent interviewee in the international media. He is respected by the international human rights community for his long record of human rights work, including co-founding the Migrant Workers Protection Society (a rare, locally-rooted NGO focusing on expatriates’ rights), campaigning on behalf of Bahrainis at Guantanamo and against Bahrain’s use of the death penalty (which is rare, but almost always used against migrants). But his increasingly political statements have made him a thorn in the side of the authorities, and a target for death threats as well as smear campaigns accusing him of racism, sectarianism, violence, being an Iranian agent, being an atheist, and a host of other often contradictory things. Youth protestors admire his outspokenness and his willingness to directly criticise the king for the doings of the government, unlike the more cautious opposition political societies, while anti-opposition factions, including much of the Sunni community, see him as a troublemaker. The three-year sentence for protesting was taken by opposition activists as an indication that, rather than preparing the ground for dialogue and negotiations, the authorities continue to see protests largely as a crime and security issue. However, the ruling establishment is not monolithic and there are a variety of views about how to bring Bahrain out of its political stalemate. 

Jane Kinninmont is a senior research fellow at Chatham House and author of Bahrain: Beyond The Impasse.

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