Bahrain Tightens the Screws
Years after promising democratic reforms, Bahrain’s government is going after its critics with a new vigor. How long will London and Washington hold their tongues?
Two weeks ago, as residents of the village of Bani Jamrah in northwestern Bahrain finished their morning prayers and prepared for the long day of Ramadan fasting ahead, the calm was broken by the arrival of a group of masked policemen.
Their quarry was Nabeel Rajab, among the most respected rights activists in the Arab world, and a perennial target of the government of Bahrain, which is both a close U.S. ally and a routine violator of human rights. Long accustomed to such confrontations — he has been arrested multiple times — the veteran activist conducted himself with resignation. “The police knocked on the door, and my father told them, ‘Wait, I’ll just change,’” his son, Adam Rajab, recalled.
“They opened the door, came in, searched the home, and left with my father. When my family asked about the charges, they said it’s nothing; he will be back in two or three hours,” he said.
But it soon emerged that Rajab was not to be released so quickly. On the day after his arrest, his family was informed that he would be held for a week, pending further investigation. On Tuesday, his detention was extended for another eight days despite his lawyers’ request that he be immediately released and his complaints of ill health.
It was initially understood that Rajab’s detention was linked to criticisms of the government he had voiced earlier this year and in 2015. According to his son, the police confronted him with evidence of his alleged crimes a day after his arrest, provoking bafflement from the long-time activist. “He said, ‘they showed me old videos,’” his son continued. “They didn’t even try to produce something that makes sense.”
It may be that the authorities were stalling for time as they put together a more legally substantial case against him. In the end, Rajab was informed that he would face trial for outstanding charges of “insulting a statutory body” and “disseminating false rumors in times of war.” Both relate to year-old tweets he had made criticizing Bahrain’s prison system and its involvement in the Yemeni civil war. According to his lawyer, he faces up to 13 years in prison.
The arbitrarily timed move against Rajab is just a relatively minor piece of what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently described as a new “crackdown” in the kingdom, which has had a long history of suppressing its dissidents. The latest period of repression, which began weeks ago, is the state’s most concerted, and likely most consequential, effort to undermine its political opponents in years. It extends far beyond prominent activists like Rajab.
Several weeks ago, a court extended to nine years the prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition movement. He had earlier been sentenced to four years in jail for making political statements and criticizing the government in public speeches. Human Rights Watch described his trial as “grossly unfair” and observed that “the presiding judge refused to allow Sheikh Salman’s defense lawyers to present potentially exculpatory evidence.”
This month, rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, who had been arrested last year and released in May, fled the country, claiming that the state had threatened her with re-arrest and indefinite separation from her children. Around the same time, rights campaigners were prevented from traveling to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva; the government followed by stripping Shaikh Issa Qassim, a well-known government critic and Shia cleric, of his citizenship.
The latter move was justified by the Ministry of the Interior on the grounds that he had used his position to “serve foreign interests” and promote “sectarianism and violence,” but it elicited a strong international response. A spokesperson of the U.S. State Department said the U.S. government was “alarmed” by the decision, adding that Washington was “unaware of any credible evidence to support this action.” This week, Reuters reported protests near the cleric’s home, “with some men wearing white shrouds signaling their readiness to die.”
Most significantly of all, on June 14 the authorities placed a ban, pending investigation, on the activities of the al-Wefaq movement and seized all of its assets. Like the arrest of Rajab, the edict came “out of the blue,” said Abdullah al-Shamlawi, a lawyer for al-Wefaq; there had been no clear warnings that the organization was in danger of suspension. In October, a court will rule whether the group will face total dissolution by the state.
The elimination of the country’s largest opposition movement would leave the country’s Shia — who represent up to seventy percent of the country’s Muslims — without a political party that represents their interests, spurring alienation and radicalization. It would amount to the most aggressive move by state authorities against Shia leaders since 2011.
In that year, the government’s response to the largely peaceful gatherings associated with the wider “Arab Spring” was to initiate a violent crackdown in which state forces executed protesters in the street, conducted mass arrests, and tortured detainees to death. Many leading activists were jailed, some for life, on the basis of confessions allegedly extracted through torture.
In response to domestic pressures and widespread international outcry the government launched an independent inquiry into the violence, which, after months of painstaking investigation, concluded that systematic abuses had occurred. The kingdom’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, publicly promised that the government was committed to reforms, and since then he has overseen some improvements to Bahrain’s judicial system and law enforcement practices. But the reforms have not been particularly far-reaching. In the five years since the crackdown, the state has continued to jail critics, harass rights campaigners and, according to rights groups, torture detainees.
A strategically important island nation in the heart of the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has long enjoyed friendly ties with the United States and Britain. A new maritime base is being built for the British Royal Navy; the U.S. has parked its fifth fleet near the capital city Manama for decades. Rights groups have argued that a lack of appropriate criticism of abuses by the U.S. and Britain have emboldened Bahraini authorities to continue their repressive acts without fear of damaging important foreign relationships.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has defended his country’s ties to Bahrain by downplaying the abuses. “Bahrain is not Syria,” he told the BBC in 2012, adding that that “a process of reform is underway” in the Gulf state.
The U.S. has been more publicly critical of the kingdom and suspended military aid in the aftermath of the government’s 2011 crackdown. But Washington apparently felt no compunctions about maintaining its naval presence and cordial diplomatic relations. In a sign of the continued health of military-to-military relations, an American delegation met the Commander-in-Chief of the Bahraini Defense Force last week to discuss “issues of mutual concern,” according to the island’s state media.
Indeed, last year, the Obama administration reinstated military aid. The Royal Bahraini Air Force has participated in the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Speaking after military the ban was lifted, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Bahrain’s “meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation.”
Rights groups have dismissed such claims. In light of the government’s renewed assault on its critics, it is “disingenuous of foreign governments to continue to pretend that Bahrain is still on the right path to reform,” wrote Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa researcher, Said Haddadi, in an email. Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s Gulf researcher, said pointedly: “I think it’s entirely incorrect to say there is a reform process in Bahrain. There is a process of managed repression.”
A spokeswoman from the British Foreign Office told me that London was “concerned by the decision to suspend the activities of the Bahraini opposition group, Al Wefaq, and freeze its assets. We encourage Bahrain to respect the rights of political groups to operate and to seek an inclusive political dialogue.”
“We are also seeking to establish the facts around the apparent prevention of a group of human rights activists from traveling to Geneva for the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the arrest of human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab,” she added. Reliable sources have told me that the Foreign Secretary spoke with the Bahraini Foreign Minister in mid-June to discuss the political situation, but did not say whether any criticism of the crackdown was expressed.
Representatives of the Bahraini government and the U.S. State Department have not replied to requests for comment on this story.
Meanwhile, while Rajab has maintained his defiant spirit, his family say they are concerned about the conditions he’s being kept in.
“He is still in solitary, and his health is deteriorating,” his son said, insisting that international pressure could be decisive to the outcome of a future trial. Referring to court proceedings, he said, “it’s just all like for a picture [for show.] What really matters is strong international pressure. If so, he will be released, if not he will stay [incarcerated].”
But he foresees little action from Bahrain’s most important western backers. “The U.K. don’t have a strong stand on what is happening in Bahrain,” he said, observing sardonically that “democracy and human rights in Bahrain will not offer the U.K. a navy base.”
“The U.S. have a better stand, but they are not doing anything except for statements all about ‘concerns,’” he added.
For now, Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activist will be on his own. “Of the last six years,” his son said bitterly, “this is his fifth Ramadan in jail.”
In the photo, demonstrators pray following a protest against the revocation of the citizenship of top Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim in the village of Diraz, west of Manama, Bahrain, on June 20.
Photo credit: MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, June 27, 2016: Nabeel Rajab faces trial for charges that were outstanding from last year; they are not new charges, as the story initially implied.