Bahrain national dialogue talks began again on Sunday as two small parties came back to the table after a token protest against what they called street violence.
Last week saw the commemoration by the opposition in Bahrain of the second anniversary of its Arab Spring protests, demanding a move toward constitutional monarchy and a better deal for the country’s discriminated-against Shiite majority. Shiites say that they don’t get the good schooling, the good jobs, or political power commensurate with their majority status. The mainstream Shiite political party, al-Wifaq, agreed the previous weak to talks with the Sunni monarchy. Some activists were upset with Wifaq’s Sheikh Ali Salman for this move, worried that it gave too much legitimacy to the government’s hard line position.
The government cleverly demanded last week that all the civil groups involved in the negotiations condemn the use of violence. Wifaq declined to sign the statement unless it also condemned police violence against non-violent protesters. Wifaq’s refusal to sign led two Sunni reformist groups to withdraw from the negotiations.
On Thursday, police fired on protesters, killing a 16-year-old boy, and provoking further protests over his death. Later, a 20-year-old was also killed.
Amnesty International has adopted some 22 Bahrain activists as prisoners of conscience. The Bahrain regime, notorious for its arrest and torture of dissidents, denied that it holds any prisoners of conscience. (In fact, the government even charged physicians who had treated wounded protesters). Amnesty’s report on the past two years is available here in PDF.
“Scores of people were arrested and sentenced before unfair military courts (National Safety Courts) on freedom of expression-related charges after they participated in peaceful protests in 2011. Many were subsequently released. For those currently serving prison sentences, the government says that charges related to freedom of expression were dropped and only criminal charges were retained for their appeal hearings. Among those still in jail are 13 opposition activists, including Ebrahim Sharif, Hassan Mshaima’ and ‘Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja; a group of medical professionals, including ‘Ali ‘Esa Mansoor al-‘Ekri and Ghassan Ahmed ‘Ali Dhaif (see background); and the head of Bahrain Teacher’s Association (BTA), Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb (see background). All were convicted of serious criminal offences and sentenced to imprisonment. After Amnesty International reviewed legal documents, including court verdicts, and statements made by the prosecution the organization concluded that none of the activists used or advocated violence and that no convincing evidence had been submitted to justify their conviction. It appears that all of them were targeted for their anti-government views and for having participated in peaceful protests.”
“Other prisoners of conscience have been convicted for acts considered to be a crime in Bahrain, but which do not constitute an internationally recognizable criminal offence, such as calling for or participating in an “illegal gathering”, or “criticizing the rulers of the country”. Prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, for example, was sentenced on 16 August 2012 to three years in prison under the Code on Public Meetings, Processions and Gatherings (Law 18 of 1973) and Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalize any gathering of more than five people who are assembled “with the intention of committing crimes or acts intended to facilitate the commission of such crimes or aimed at undermining public security”. Article 178 has repeatedly been used to punish peaceful protesters taking part in unauthorized assemblies.”
Some civilian dissidents have been sentenced by military courts, which violates international law.
Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar, human rights and anti-torture activist who was jailed for 2 years, tells the story of how he went underground and is in hiding in the islands rather than risk re-arrest.
The US government has been relatively low-key in condemning Bahrain human rights violations. The government leases the US a naval base at Manama as the HQ of the Fifth Fleet, which provides security to Gulf oil exports (some 20% of the world’s total). Also, Washington worries about expansion of Iranian influence, and the Sunni monarchy’s claims that the Shiite protesters have Iran links may give the Obama administration pause. Finally, the Saudi government is a hawk on the Bahrain crackdown, and is influential with the US.
The regime’s heavy-handed tactics may have pushed some Bahrain Shiites toward radicalism. Last week, the Bahrain government announced that Kuwait had helped it crack a budding terrorist cell, with links to Lebanon’s Hizbullah and to Iraq and Iran. Most Bahrain Shiites are peaceful and the majority belongs to the Akhbari school of jurisprudence that rejects the authority of ayatollahs, so the regime’s attempt to tag all Shiites (some 60% of the population) with the radicalism of a few is pure propaganda.