Thursday, 9th February 2017

Bahrain: Bleak outlook for the opposition

It is six years since Bahrainis followed the lead of North African protestors who had launched the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings against their autocratic leaderships. The anniversary of ‘Bloody Thursday’, when in a night-time raid the authorities crushed protesters camped at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, comes on 17 February. The Saudi/UAE Gulf Co-operation Council intervention began on 14 March. Six years on, the uneasy standoff continues between Shia communities and their often imprisoned leaders and a regime whose default now is to opt for authoritarian responses, rather than promoting the more pluralist politics that marked the start of King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa’s reign. This is reflected in a series of judicial cases that have exacerbated tensions between the majority Shia community and the Sunni Al-Khalifa rulers, in the wake of the execution on 15 January of three Bahrainis convicted of terrorism offences (GSN 1,030/4).

This sour mood is reflected in measures of governance. Bahrain fell to 70th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, with a score of 43 – down from 50th place in 2015, when it recorded a score of 51. Meanwhile political tensions are acted out in those few Shia villages not battered into submission, in prisons and the courts. Two more men, Mohammed Ramadan and Hussain Moosa, are facing the death penalty. Convicted of killing a police officer in December 2014, both allege torture while in detention; having exhausted all legal appeals they could be executed at any time. Citing the torture claims and arguing the allegations were not properly investigated, advocacy group Amnesty International has called for the death sentences to be commuted.

At the same time, a court case is proceeding against Ayatollah Isa Qassim. The embattled Shia community’s highest religious authority, he has been charged along with two others with money laundering, harbouring terrorists and other violations that “threaten Bahrain’s security”. Last year the government stripped Sheikh Qassim of his citizenship, claiming he used his position to “serve foreign interests and promote sectarianism and violence”. The money laundering charge is said to relate to Qassim’s role in the Shia practice of khums, a donation made to clerics who then redistribute it to religious and charitable causes.

Many other political and human rights activists are either in jail or risk detention and charges if they do not remain silent. Over 70 Shia clerics have been questioned by the authorities since June 2016 alone, with nine currently serving prison sentences for violations of Bahrain’s harsh anti-terrorism laws. Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the banned opposition Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, is serving a nine-year sentence after being convicted of incitement against the government (GSN 1,016/4). Veteran human rights activist Nabeel Rajab has been held on remand since last June (GSN 1,018/16). He is facing charges that could lead to jail terms of up to 15 years, which relate to tweets he made objecting to the war in Yemen and that drew attention to allegations of torture in Jau prison where more than 1,500 opposition activists are held (GSN 1,016/4). Rajab is also charged with “spreading false news” in a letter published in The New York Times last September. On 23 January, the trial over the tweets was postponed for the sixth time to 21 February and a hearing on an older case relating to televised interviews was postponed to 8 February.

This hectic judicial activity underlines the dominance of those Al-Khalifa who advocate a tough line against dissent. But it comes at a cost. Anger in Shia towns and villages is at its highest level since the 2011 uprising, with near nightly protests and riots that in January saw an off-duty officer killed and a protester left comatose after being shot in the head by police.

The government intends to follow a trajectory of increased repression. On 5 January, the National Security Apparatus (NSA)’s powers to arrest and detain those suspected of terrorist offences were restored by royal decree. In a statement released on 31 January, another international advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, said the decree rolled back “one of the few significant security sector reforms introduced after 2011”. Curtailing the NSA’s powers was a key recommendation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by human rights law professor Cherif Bassiouni. He was tasked by King Hamad with investigating abuses that occurred in February-March 2011 (GSN 913/5).

Advocacy groups will continue to campaign, but with President Donald Trump in the White House and Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state, not to mention the UK government’s priority for domestic headline-making post-Brexit trade deals, western government pressure in support for human rights activists and opposition politicians will likely be limited. That is good news for government hardliners who will take the silence from Washington and London as a sign of acceptance, if not approval, of their continuing crackdown on opposition voices.

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