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Tough penalties

Tamsin WalkerFebruary 14, 2014

As Bahrainis mark the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that was crushed by government and Gulf troops, a new law says anyone who publicly insults the king will be sentenced up to seven years in prison.

A man sits on the road in front of police, his hands in the air, making the sign of peace
Protesters want equality and democracy and they are prepared to keep on fighting until they get itImage: Ahmed AlFardan

Three years ago this week, Bahrainis joined the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world and took their long harbored grievances to the streets. Their demonstrations were cut short when a Saudi-led Gulf force rolled in to help silence them. And although the foreign tanks and troops have long since left, the silencing has endured.

Since the beginning of 2014, the Bahrain Center of Human Rights (BCHR) has documented 146 unwarranted arrests, many of which were made during the systematic night raids on the homes of those who refuse to drop the baton in the struggle for economic and political reform. That figure could easily rise in the coming days, not least because in the run-up to the anniversary, the penalty for publicly offending King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the Bahraini flag or emblem has been increased to between one and seven years behind bars. The offense also now carries a fine of up to $26,000.

"They are looking for everyone who is fighting for justice, freedom and democracy," Said Yousif al-Muhafda, BCHR head of documentation, told DW. He has spent the past three years travelling his country recording testimony from the thousands of people beaten, harassed and tortured by regime forces.

Said Yousif al-Muhafda in Manama confronted by police
Said Yousif al-Muhafda in Manama. He was alone and on twitter and imprisoned for 35 days for tweeting information the authorities did not approve of information deemedImage: Said Yousif Almuhafdah

Arrested seven times during the same period, the activist accuses the government of "looking for anyone fighting for justice, freedom and democray," and says up to 3,000 Bahrainis are currently being held as prisoners of conscience. They include BCHR co-founders Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab who have been jailed for life, and two years respectively.

Al-Muhafda is certain he would have faced a similar, if not worse fate, had he not opted to flee for safer shores. He made his decision following the response to a BCHR campaign called "Wanted for Justice," which published the identities of officials activists hold responsible for human rights violations. "We named them and attached evidence from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and even testimony from the victims themselves," Al-Muhafda said.

Death threats

He knew the campaign would not meet with a warm reception - not least because his list included members of the royal family and the prime minister of Bahrain, who has held the post for more than four decades. But he had not reckoned with the barrage of tweets so blatantly calling for his arrest, torture and even death.

"A well-known torturer used twitter to threaten to kill me, and he even used his own name and photograph which shows how confident he is in the culture of impunity," the activist said. Accountability is one of the many things Bahraini human rights defenders want to see introduced into their society.

Human rights defender Nabeel Rajab
Bahrain Centre of Human Rights co-founder Nabeel Rajab is currently in prison. Activists are campaigning for his releaseImage: Reuters

Article one of the Constitution of Bahrain says it is ruled by a hereditary constitutional monarchy, but that sovereignty is "in the hands of the people, the source of all powers."

Reda al-Fardan of the human rights group Bahrain Watch argues that little could be further from the truth. The country is divided along sectarian lines, with the Shi'ite majority ruled by the Sunni minority. "All the power is with the king and the royal family, and there has been no accountability in Bahrain in modern history at all."

Positive spin can’t hide reality

Among the most telling stories to emerge from the Arab world in the tumultuous days of early 2011, are those which described Bahraini security forces preventing doctors and nurses from treating injured protesters. Many who did were arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms, and although the majority have since been acquitted or released, Physicians for Human Rights says some medical professionals remain behind bars.

But the government appears to operate on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind basis. Bahrain Watch has published figures suggesting that in the years and months since the revolt, the ruling Khalifa family has paid US and UK public relations companies as much as $30 million to lend its country a sheen so glossy that the mere suggestion of human rights violations would slide right off it. Brian Dooley of Human Rights First says the spin isn’t working.

Protesters meet police amidst a cloud of tear gas
Protests and chemical irritants have become a feature of daily life in BahrainImage: Ahmed AlFardan

"In terms of the PR battle, I don’t think the government is doing very well," Dooley told DW. "I think it is due a refund, because although it makes it very difficult for journalists to get in, it is failing to smother the story."

Given the widespread, if reluctant, acknowledgment that human rights violations in Bahrain are ongoing, and given also that Bahrain evidently cares how it is viewed by the outside world, Al-Fardan says the international community - and the US and UK in particular - is missing an important trick. "We have seen in the past that the government best responds to pressure from international organizations and from its own allies." Like many activists, he would like to see sanctions imposed on human rights abusers.

Pay now or pay later

Yet Dooley, who is author of the report "Plan B for Bahrain - What the United States Government Should Do Next," says Washington has mixed feelings about how to behave toward the Gulf island nation. On the one hand it is an outspoken advocate of the importance of democracy and liberty, but on the other, it has strategic military interests in the country that accommodates its Fifth Fleet - interests it is keen to protect.

The failure to act with conviction suggests that American policy makers believe they have to choose between their national interests and the sanctity of human rights. "I think that is wrong," Dooley said. "I think it is in the US interests to promote human rights in Bahrain because long-term that is what is most likely to bring about stability."

A young man on a bike speeds away from a tear gas attack
Activists say the West should stop trying to avoid the issue and get tough with the Bahraini governmentImage: Ahmed AlFardan

As it is, a continued willingness to supply Manama with arms - of any description - would appear to demonstrate a preference to prop up another dictator in the name of maintaining a shaky status quo. And that, many say, is short-sighted. Not only does it send a message of complicity, which emboldens the regime, but it also increases the likelihood of lasting anti-American sentiment.

Dooley, who describes Bahrain as a problem "on a constant simmer," says he doesn’t believe the US will take any action until the problem has become much worse and possibly so bad that they can no longer be effective in helping to solve it. "It is a question of pay now or pay later," he said.