For a while, the king of Bahrain gave the impression he wanted to improve the human rights situation in his country. A study raised hopes of improvement, but they were soon dashed.
It seemed like the dawn of a new era. In July 2011, a few weeks after protests began in spring, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain called in an international investigation commission. It was meant to investigate incidents during the demonstrations, examine accusations against the state's security forces, and make recommendations that would help implement less violent conflict management in the country. The commission set about its work immediately, and presented its results - under the title "Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry" - in November 2011.
The report's authors pulled no punches. They unambiguously accused the state of abusing its powers. They mentioned 13 people killed by security forces, and another five who died under torture. The report concluded with the required recommendations - it called for centers of higher education to teach religious and political tolerance programs, and suggested the development of a national conciliation program offering a platform to all Bahrainis who believed their rights had been violated.
But a report published in June by the "Bahrain Center for Human Rights" (BCHR), suggests that Bahrain has made precious little progress in the eight months since that damning verdict was pronounced. The BCHR's figures are dramatic: four people have allegedly been killed by security forces since the end of March alone. Another 134 have been summarily arrested and jailed. Altogether, more than 500 people are currently in prison for their political views. The BCHR also wrote of the continued use of torture, intimidation, religious discrimination, as well as workers being sacked and students being denied opportunities because of their political views.
Hopes that conditions might improve following Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix in April have been dashed, says BCHR co-director Maryam al-Khawaje. The government is still using force against demonstrators, and unlike in previous years it is now doing so in the open.
According to al-Khawaje, the Bahraini government was initially embarrassed by the international observers' conclusions, but this has long since subsided. "Those responsible now tell themselves that nothing will happen anyway, so we can do what we want," she says.
Maryam al-Khawaja is the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a human rights activist who was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly supporting a terrorist organization. He was eventually force-fed after a hunger strike that lasted several weeks. His daughter sees the government's indifference as a direct result of the international community's failure to criticize conditions in Bahrain.
"All the reactions that we normally see did not materialize," she said. "Whether it's economic sanctions or public condemnation - nothing happened. That's why the government feels immune to criticism. Those in power think they can do what they want."
One policy - holding on to power
Joe Stork, director of the Middle East department of Human Rights Watch, takes a similarly bleak view, though he believes that the situation has improved slightly since the publication of the independent commission's report last November. He confirms that the main recommendations have not been realized, and what improvements there are should be viewed with care.
"One shouldn't compare things with the very dark situation in 2011," he said. "Instead, one should compare them with 2005 or 2006, when conditions were much better than today."
He said the draconian treatment of the opposition movement has an obvious motivation - the ruling family simply wants to hold onto power - without compromise. "They don't want to have to deal with a parliament or a government that represents the people."
The role of Saudi Arabia
The Bahraini government enjoys support for its repressive policy from its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia - the same state that noisily condemns the Assad regime's crimes in Syria. This is unsurprising, since the 200-year-old ruling Bahraini dynasty originates in Saudi Arabia.
Stork explained that the two regimes also enjoy good relations because they are unified by their common interests. "Saudi Arabia does not want Bahrain to develop into a democracy. And there are plenty in the Bahraini royal family who take the same view."
That's why Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to send troops to Bahrain in spring 2011 to help quell the uprising. They reportedly did not play a decisive military role - but they were a strong political signal. "Saudi Arabia was telling the world, and particularly the United States, 'Watch out, leave Bahrain alone! Watch what you say and do, because we don't want to be put under pressure over this,'" said Stork.
Faint hope of improvement
So is there any hope for an improvement in the human rights situation in Bahrain? Al-Khawaja is skeptical. "The government of Bahrain won't even acknowledge that human rights violations are going on," she said. "So how can they stop them?"
Stork agrees. The government, he said, will not shy away from simply denying everything. "That's their way of dealing the problem," he added. Abrahim Mahmud Ahmed Abdullah, Bahraini ambassador to Germany, would not comment to DW on the human rights situation in his own country, saying he did not have time for an interview.
Stork thinks the situation can only be improved through foreign pressure, particularly from Bahrain's other strongest ally, the US. But he admits there has been little movement on that front so far.
Marie Camberlaine, Middle East analyst at the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), points out that human rights organizations have repeatedly called on the international community to draw attention to the human rights situation in Bahrain and to condemn violations. But their efforts have been in vain. "Nothing has happened since February 2011, when the repression of protests in Bahrain began," she said
It seems clear that both national and international human rights activists are expecting a long struggle, hoping eventually to prevail on the international community to make a stand - though they recognize it may take a while.
Author: Kersten Knipp / bk
Editor: Andreas Illmer