In Bahrain’s Hour of Peril, Where Does The U.S. Stand?

Protester camp outside the main square. Photo: Yana Kunichoff/Truthout

The United Nations’ top human rights official is calling on tiny, oil-rich  Bahrain to release prisoners detained for joining peaceful demonstrations earlier this year, and to restore the jobs of thousands of people who were dismissed for joining the protest.

Navi Pillay said in a statement that this action should be taken as a confidence-building measure.

Bahrain’s Human Rights activists applauded her statement. Faisal Fulad, Secretary General of Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, said in response, “We have expressed all along that the government needs to show its commitment in order to gain the trust and respect of the people.”

He added: “The reforms agreed to in the National Dialogue, and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) should be implemented immediately and those held for championing democracy must be released.”

Bahrain has been torn apart by peaceful protests met by armed responses following initial demonstrations for democratic rights made by the people during February and March this year. A strong crackdown by the government led to thousands of arrests and trials that took place under military rule during a state of emergency.

It was during this time that the Gulf Cooperation Council dispatched several thousand Saudi Arabian motorized troops to Bahrain to assist the Bahraini government to maintain order and re-establish stability.

Bahrain’s leadership, including the King, has since admitted that excessive force was used during the crackdown and that those responsible will be brought to justice.

To the surprise of virtually everyone, King Hamad appointed an independent commission to investigate the tense situation in the country and make recommendations for bringing the conflict to a peaceful end. Headed by a distinguished Egyptian judge, Cherif Bassiouni, and funded by the government.

According to a new report from Human Rights First, a US-based legal advocacy group, Judge Bassiouni stood in front of the King of Bahrain and largely confirmed what the world’s leading international human rights organizations and media outlets had been saying for months:

Thousands of people were illegally arrested, many were tortured;  detainees were subjected to unfair trials; several people died in custody; dozens had been killed in the streets; thousands of workers and students were dismissed for perceived association with the democracy protests; there were some attacks on expat workers; there had been a series of attacks on Shi’a places of worship.

King Hamad is a Sunni Muslim, as are all the senior figures in the government and in the Royal Family’s circle of friends and confidantes. The majority of Bahrainis, however, is Shia. They have been complaining against discrimination in employment, housing and finance for many years. Bahrain has a large cadre of senior workers imported from abroad.

King Hamad said he was “dismayed” by the findings of the report concerning the use of torture, and pledged reforms.

“We do not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners,” he said.

The King promised to implement a series of recommendations contained in the Commission’s 500-page report. However, since the report’s release, the Bahrain regime has not significantly altered its behavior.

Police continue to attack protestors and funeral mourners. Those imprisoned after being convicted on the basis of tortured confessions have not been released. Those who appear to be detained on the basis of peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression or assembly are still imprisoned.

King Hamad has ordered the establishment of a committee to “follow up and implement” the BICI recommendations. It is expected to report by the end of February 2012 and to make suggestions “including the recommendations to make the necessary amendments to the legislation and the application of the recommendations.” It includes the Minister for Justice.

But human rights activists told HRF some of those on the commission are “part of the problem,” and so “can’t be part of the solution.”

King Hamad has taken a number of steps, largely focusing on personnel. He removed the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah Al Khalifa. The NSA was heavily criticized in the BICI report for its use of excessive force. However, it would appear that Sheikh Al Khalifa has been promoted, and made the Secretary-General of the Supreme Defence Council and a National Security Adviser to the King with ministerial rank.

He has also made two top appointments to the police. John Timoney, formerly chief of police in Miami, Florida, will take on a similar post in Bahrain. He will be assisted by another new hire, the former chief of the UK’s Metropolitan Police, John Yates, who quit amid phone-hacking scandal will overhaul Middle East kingdom’s force.

On December 7, the Bahrain government announced that the King “forgave” a group of athletes who had criticized him and would drop charges against them, although did not say it would free other athletes already sentenced.

Shiite Muslim doctors look back with horror at months of torture and demand a neutral hearing now that they are out on bail pending retrial for their role in pro-democracy protests.

“I can’t talk,” sobbed consultant paediatrician Nader Dawani, recounting how he was forced to stand up for seven days, while being beaten repeatedly, mainly by a female officer.

“She was the harshest. She used to hit me with a hose and wooden canes, many of which broke on my back,” said the frail 54-year-old man.

“They attempted to insert a bottle in my anus,” he recounted.

Dawani is one of a group of medics arrested after security forces in the kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty crushed a Shiite-led uprising inspired by Arab Spring protests that toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

They face a plethora of charges, the most serious of which is occupying the Salmaniya Medical Centre and possessing weapons, while denying access to the hospital to Sunnis as Shiite demonstrators camped in the complex’s car park.

The doctors also stand accused of spreading false news — particularly concerning the condition of wounded protesters — illegal acquisition of medicines and medical facilities, and participating in demonstrations.

Thirteen were convicted by a military court on September 29 and sentenced to between five and 10 years in jail. But before the verdict was handed down, they had already been released and now face retrial before a civil appeals court.

Claims that torture was used against scores of Shiite detainees, including the medics, were upheld in November by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Many Shiite medics who were not arrested, like consultant neurosurgeon Taha al-Derazi, lost their jobs just for being photographed at a demonstration.

The medics insist they are innocent. The commission’s report stated the charges that they inflated the number of protesters injured were unfounded, noting that hospital records showed hundreds were admitted during mid-February.

“All my statements to media were related to the wounded,” said consultant orthopaedic surgeon Ali Alekri, insisting he did not meddle in politics and only led demonstrations against the then health minister who was later sacked.

“Our slogans were clear: sack the minister and his administration for failing to protect medics, halting ambulance movement when needed and giving false information on numbers of casualties,” he said.

“We never called for the fall of the regime,” he added.

Alekri said the medics “need a neutral body,” an “international judicial body” to judge them. “We don’t trust the Bahraini judicial system.”

It was speaking out that got them in trouble, the medics said.

“We are witnesses to the crimes of the regime,” said Dawani, who, like most of his sentenced colleagues, and other foreign and Sunni medics, appear in abundant video footage treating casualties at the SMC accident and emergency department.

Rula al-Saffar, 49, the head of the Bahraini Nursing Society, who faces 15 years in jail, said she treated more than 200 female fellow prisoners who were subjected to torture and did not escape abuse herself.

During five months in custody, Saffar said, “At night they would take me blindfolded. I can smell alcohol fuming with their breaths. One interrogator would say: It is the weekend and we are a group. If you don’t confess, we will sleep with you one at a time.”

Which brings us to the question: What, if anything, has the US been doing about the situation in Bahrain.

The short answer is that the US Government has been largely silent. This has given rise to widespread perceptions among the Bahraini Shia population that America is on the side of the King.

Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, minces no words. She says, “The United States has collaborated with the deadly crackdown on the popular revolution against Bahrain’s despotic monarchy. “People in Bahrain think that the US is in one way or another directly complicit in what’s happening in Bahrain,” she said in a Press TV interview.

The US Government’s rhetorical constipation reflects its attitude toward the stand-off between the Royal Family and pro-democracy activists. Secretary of State Clinton has delivered her almost-stock wish for moderation on both sides and a peaceful end to hostilities through dialogue.

The US sees a number of important relationships possibly being upended by full-throated support for either side. Saudi Arabia is one of Washington’s prime concerns. Bahrain is situation in the Persian Gulf just across a 1.4 mile causeway, over which the Saudi troops rolled in to help Bahrain’s rulers.

One of Saudi’s Eastern provinces is just a few miles from one of Bahrain’s western provinces. Both are largely Shia. And both are oil-rich. The two Shia communities have a long-standing relationship, and the Saudis worry about Bahrain’s violence spilling over into the desert Kingdom.

Nor would Saudi Arabia (or any of the other Gulf states) be thrilled to see a democratic form of government replacing the monarchy in Bahrain.

At this juncture, the US is turning itself into a pretzel to keep from angering the Saudis, who were reportedly upset at how quickly the US threw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus. This concerned the Saudis for a number of reasons; one of them is the question of whether America would treat Saudi Arabia in the same way if pro-democracy forces were to prevail in Bahrain.

Aside from worrying about the Saudis, the US has its own, more immediate concerns: The American Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. That makes stability the top priority for US policy­-makers.

So far, the most tangible help given to Bahrain’s protesters has been the suspension of a scheduled shipment of arms from the US, a position reached after some grassroots and congressional warnings to the White House. The arms shipment reportedly contains weapons used for crowd control.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.

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8 Responses for “In Bahrain’s Hour of Peril, Where Does The U.S. Stand?”

  1. Ahmed BH says:

    First off, I am sick and tired of reading reports that say “Peaceful Pro-Democracy Protesters” in Bahrain. They are not pro-democratic and CERTAINLY not peaceful! I hope the King does not bow down to international pressure and to up the ante in cracking down on these murderers! on these terrorists! on these inhumane animals! I had enough of their BS.

    and what about this — “King Hamad is a Sunni Muslim, as are all the senior figures in the government and in the Royal Family’s circle of friends and confidantes. The majority of Bahrainis, however, is Shia”

    Who said that the majority is shia? MANY of the senior figures in the government are Shia!! Stop using propaganda to ignite a sectarian war, u as journalist can ease the problem but instead ignite it.. sigh..

    I am sick and tired of the riots, of the road blocking, of the molotovs being thrown, of the burning tires in the middle of highways, of the “peaceful protesters” attacking the police and police only respond with tear gas!

    If Human Rights groups want to continue having any credibility, they should talk about how those “peaceful” protesters are ABUSING human rights in every possible way! They are killing policemen, killing expats, killing elder bystanders, attacking sunni students, stabbing people, cutting tongues off sunni imams, kidnapping police, expats, and sunnis .. Where are the human rights groups on this???? Why are they turning a blind eye???

    Hezbollah is a terrorist group known worldwide, the leader of the “opposition” in Bahrain OPENLY supports them! Hezbollah are a puppet for that supreme leader of Iran the “Ayatollah” Koma’iny… They are trained and equipped, WHY ISN’T ANYONE CONDEMING THIS? Help us…………………………..

    I blame Foreign Policy for all this!

  2. Ameera BH says:

    Western authorities do not want this chaos to stop in Bahrain. On the contrary, they want the pave the way to an iranien republic in Bahrain under the pretext of protecting human rights. In fact, there’s no battle for democray in Bahrain. I want the whole world to retain this in mind. The real conflit here is about who is the ruling confession: shia or sunni. Why aren’t these BS international organisations doing anything towards opressions in Syria? why was Iraq torn apart and robbed by Americans? why was Afghanistan ruined? why are palestinans imploring the right of life…just the right of life …and nobody is even noticing them? why were some of the arab spring revolutions “backed” by westerners but not others? why should the Arab world be placed under an ongoing western sponsorship? Come on… we’re sick of it! JUST leave us alone hypocrytes!!!!!

  3. Bahraini says:

    Thank you for the report , at Ahmed , i just hope that you try to look at the other side , GOD will judge you in the end , the protesters are peaceful , even bassiony that with the government said its peacefull , molotph / blocking streets / throughing rocks are peacefull , who are you to say its not peaceful even egypt used these things , saying we attacked sinna is a stupid lie , you dont have a prove , even the cuting toung and killing police dont have a prove , they just bring witness from police , even if its true why do nt you compare the people who got killed and the police you claim they got killed , If you want us to stop blocking streets let us prptest peaceffull liike befor in the pearl roundabot , if you got tired from looking at whats happening then look how the people feel , they get attacked by police everyday while you are at your home that doesnt reach it dven toxic and tear gas , you are not going out everyday protesting for your right , you are just s cowered saying lies while you are sitting in your home , you dont know anything , by the way we are not the freaks who attack students and people , they are the police and the freaks whos with the killer hamad and khalifa , we have proves , we have videos shows he pllice protecting people carrying weapons like knifes and stuff like that , they protect these , they let them attack is , they even said befor they attack they cant protect us which means they know about it , it they cant protect us then they are mot worth calling protecters , they dont even worth calling humens , what you saying is not an opinion , if it were opinion you wouldnt say lies , all you said is from Bahrain tv which were proved they are luers and want people fighting each other by saying sina and shia , it doesnt matter whos more then the other , the things that matters is ti get our rights , we didnt demand anything for the shia , all the demands are for all of us , for saying we attack police , police come to the villages everyday , they claim they protect people , but they are not , they are attacking the people they claim they protect , they attack the protesters , they attack houses. , they enter houses without prometion like if they were folliwing a terrists , they beat the people of the houses , arrest them , steal the house , humiliate , they torture , they rape womens , threat them , they throw toxic and teargas at the houses everyday , they hit t he cars , even if i talked all the day i wont finish the crimes the ruling family and the government did and still doing it everyday , just imagin your wife or your sister or daughter get raped , or someone you know got killed by police whats your reaction ?.. You will thank them for doing that ?.. So if someone use something not peaceful he have the rught because no one is giving the justic to him , just remember that there is a GOD ….

  4. Jan says:

    I’ve just come from #Bahrain twitter and read about the supposed “reforms” of the Bahrain government. Workers are being reinstated as recommended by the independent commission since they were wrongfully dismissed. However, they are being reinstated at a lower salary or at levels they were at many years before.

    This is exactly how the Al Khalifa government continues to work. I left there in August, but nothing has changed and, in many ways, it is worse. Babies are being killed, young boys arrested and tortured and women sexually assaulted. The tear gas used in suburban areas over the last week has been ridiculous.

    The media prints nothing but what Ahmed, above, has said: exaggerations and fabrications. Boys with stones against mercenaries with guns.

    The commission recommended that the opposition have a media outlet. What was announced today? A new, huge media giant from Saudi will be setting up in Bahrain.

    This is how the Al Khalifas work. They are not interested in reform – only power. And they will do anything to keep it.

  5. Bahraini2 says:

    To many Bahrainis the US stand is puzzling. They are still supporting a despotic regimes like the one in Bahrain who had, and still is, committed grave violations of its prople human rights. Over 52 deaths (including at least four killed under police custody), thousands injured, hundreds detained and over two thousands sacked from their jobs. To date villages are being attaked by security forces using excessive use of disproportionate force using tear gas, stun grenades, shot gun, rubber bullets, you name it. And recently they allowed government thugs to harrass people and damage their properties under the watchful eyes of the sedcurity police. The US, and the West, should not keep silent over these atrocities. These wide spread crimes have been reported by international organizations HRW,Amnesty International,MSF,and most recently the UN HR commission and many others. These reports were based on credible sources supported by videos as well as personal interviews with victimes..And most recently, by the UN Human Right Commission
    Typical of most despotic regimes, they try to claim that “outsiders” are behind their peoples’ ligitimate aspirations. For over 80 years and the Bahraini people is struggling for effective and better participation in the running of the country. The prime minister is lingest serving PM in the world forty (yes 40) years in office. There were several uprisings and many sacrifices since then. The Royal Commission BICI reached to the conclusion that they have not seen a shred of evidence of the involvement of Iran into this upring, yet some prople continue to echo the regime’s claim otherwise!!!

  6. linda says:

    Protestors ARE peaceful. They may cause aggravating situations but that, internationally, is an accepted form of protest. Peaceful means NOT KILLING OTHERS. It is the police who kill; the BICI report was extensively detailed on the deaths caused by torture. It was also clear on the deaths caused by police shooting people with bird shot, in the back or the head. To fire tear gas at marchers is wrong. Again, the BICI report, which the King, the FM and others accepted, said that the police used far far too much tear gas. To throw teargas cannisters into homes, followed by firebombs (which is what the police have been doing) has led to deaths. That is not peaceful. Children and older people have been killed by teargas because it is being used wrongly. Women have miscarried because of teargas; over exposure to tear gas leads to respiratory illness, kidney and liver failure and even some cancers. New tera gas with blue gas was used and many many people vomited blood after those were used. Teargas is NOT ‘non lethal’ when used too much, as the police are using it.
    To protest peacefully (remember, that means you can cause difficulties but you must not KILL anyone) is your right, it is, as you should know, article 20 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
    ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’
    Blocking roads is aggravating but having your human rights blocked is an abuse. YOU could be tortured in prison in Bahrain; that is against Human right article 5. And if you know your human rights you will realise you do not get article 21
    Article 21.

    (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
    (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
    (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

    Instead, you are ruled by the will of the Khalifa family. What YOU want is ignored. And if you demand your human rights, you will be tortured. To stop the peaceful blocking of roads, the way forward is to stop blocking the way to self determination so that all Bahraini can have their human rights.

  7. ahmed yousif says:

    The so called peaceful protestors are merely mad killers with no brains to speak of.
    It seems they are very happy to spoil their future and their country merely to please their religious leaders who are getting very rich. Such religious leaders do not let their children to get involved in this dirty work, as they send them to study in UK and USA and Iran/Iraq for religious studies.

  8. MSF says:

    Why has this article been plagiarized from Ali Khalil’s piece in AFP without permission or crediting the source. Shameful “journalism”. Plagiarism is hardly new but perhaps you should rethink “intrepid” before you are sued.

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