Update on the situation in Bahrain

This article was published in The Independent-Blogs
Bahrain: One year on
14 February 2012
I am used to endless lies and criticism from the BNP and its favourite blogster, as well as Islamist ideologues who hate my work on anti-semitism and the off-shore press obsessed about Europe. But this is the first time that a government, Bahrain, has sent a 17 page letter to the British Government telling William Hague to shut me up.
In a 17-page open letter to British Foreign Secretary William Hague,  Bahrain Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa accuses me making several “demonstrably misconceived” statements about the political situation in Bahrain without visiting the country. It is true I have not been to Bahrain recently but I don’t need to go to Syria or Iran or North Korea to know there are serious human rights issues in those countries..
The latest news from Bahrain remains ever more worrying. There are regular pro-democracy demonstrations which are severely repressed by the police. In a new tactic, the police are raiding individual homes and throwing tear gas canisters inside. Amnesty reports that as many as 30 people may have been killed as they choked to death in confined spaces.
Last month 24-year-old Yousif al-Mawaly was arrested, tortured and then dumped in the sea. Photographs of his body seen by the BBC appear to show abrasions and bruises consistent with beating. Human Rights Watch report that Bahraini riot police beat a prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as he was leaving a peaceful protest last month. Rajab said that the police attacked him using their fists and batons at about 8:30 pm, as he was walking toward his car:
“I noticed a number of riot police behind me. They were all in uniform. They started beating me and I fell on the ground. I told them that I was Nabeel Rajab, hoping that they would stop, but they kept beating and kicking me.”
The Interior Ministry stated on its Twitter account that riot police had found Rajab “lying on the ground” and transported him to the Salmaniya Medical Complex for treatment.

The Bahraini government has refused to allow independent human rights observers from entering the kingdom, on the first anniversary of the Bahrain uprising on 14 February a year ago. The ruling Khalifeh family are trying to kid the international community that they are willing to move on human rights. They attach great store to the Bassiouni Commission which reported in November  on the widespread killing and torture after the democracy uprising that began a year ago. The 500 page report itself is valuable but few if any of its recommendations have been implemented. Some low-rank police officers have been suspended – including five Pakistani and two Yemeni police officers. But the men at the top of the royal family who authorized the brutal crackdown or even senior officers who oversaw torture and killings are still in place.

The Bahraini government are now hiring human rights lawyers or former police officers including Commander John Yates, who had to leave Scotland Yard in disgrace, to come to Bahrain and assure the world that all is well. But women doctors and nurses are still on trial after they were arrested in their hospitals treating the wounded last year. Dr Fatima Haji, for example, was charged with, acts of terrorism, stealing blood from hospital and harming the public by spreading false news. She was sentenced to five years in prison on these turmped up charges worthy of Stalin’s doctors plot trials.  The Bassiouni Commission called for the release of all political prisoners – democracy protesters who simply tweeted or attended meetings but took no part in violence. Again the Khlaifeh regime rejects this key recommendation and refuses to negotiate with the opposition to create a balanced human rights commission that can investigate and punish those responsible for last year’s and end the continuing violent repression of human rights.

The Khalifeh elites try and paint the dark hand of Iran behind the protests and it is true that there is now an ugly Sunni-Shia split with a turn to violence, including throwing petrol bombs at the police, by the extreme end of the opposition. But the Khalifehs have brought this upon themselves by their own refusal to allow the educated Bahraini citizens to move towards a more democratic system. Local mayors say they do even have the power to build a footpath. Despite lip service to increasing democracy and a fortune spent on overseas PR companies or buying in prominent westerners to say things are not all that bad Bahrain remains the privately-owned torture-permitting polity of a royal family and its retainers who cannot live with modernity.

Foreign policy realists point out that compared to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is freer and more liberal. The West in the shape of the US and the UK has major military interests there. Just as Russia will not criticise Syria which buys arms from Russia and allows the Russian Navy a warm water point, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, so ready to denounce repression in Libya (not today’s repression of course but that of Gaddafi) or Syria is utterly silent on Bahrain beyond the minimal tight-lipped expression of support for the so-called reform and dialogue efforts of the torturers and killers. Diplomats in other EU countries have noticed this double-standard in UK foreign policy and are commenting on it openly.

It is clear that the Grand Prix cannot and should not take place there while the stench of tear gas and the cries of those tortured hangs over Bahrain. The politics are a disaster with both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran looking down their own lenses at tiny Bahrain. But that cannot excuse continued torture, tear-gas killing and holding political prisoners in jail. In the 1970s, similar arguments were made by realists about the military juntas of South America with their penchant for torture and dropping opponents out of helicopters into the sea. In the 1980s, the Conservatives supported apartheid South Africa as a force for stability. The left often found excuses for communist regimes despite their human rights abuses.

Arab nations are now joining world history. As their populations became urbanised, educated and open to the world the absurd medieval rule of a handful of monarchs and princes, or kleptocratic dictators like Mubarak, Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, or Ben Ali became unbearable. What comes next may be very ugly especially as the Mullahs and the Military forge alliances to create a Pakistanisation of politics. There has always been huge amounts of money to be made especially in London for the agents who serve these states. But things are on the move and writing letters to the Foreign Secretary complaining about an MP who raises these issues is a waste of ink.

Bahrain has a short period to see if the ruling dynastic group can find a way to some constitutional settlement with opponents who reject violence.  That is what British officials, human rights lawyers and other should be arguing for. But it may be too late.