In late 2010, human rights in Bahrain – widely perceived as one of the more liberal o the Gulf States – were under increasing pressure as tensions between the government and its critics increased. The authorities reacted by restricting freedom of expression, closing critical websites and banning opposition publications.
In mid-February 2011, “Day of Rage” protests inspired by unrest in Egypt and Tunisia were met with a brutal crackdown by the authorities in Bahrain. At least seven people were killed and hundreds wounded when security forces used live ammunition, rubber bullets, clubs and tear gas to clear out a protest camp at Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama. Despite the danger, the cycle of protests and crackdowns continued.
Social network sites buzzed with debate and calls to action. Opposition groups and human rights organizations found their bases rapidly expanding, and talk of human rights and political reform filled the air. Women organized women-only marches, and joined men in other protests. Tens of Thousands of people gathered in the streets to challenge the status quo.
The “Day of Rage” protests were planned to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the national referendum that endorsed Bahrain’s National Action Charter – political reforms proposed by the King, Shaikh Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa, to end widespread popular unrest in the 1990s. The reforms paved the way for elections to the National Assembly and for the country to become a constitutional monarchy. However, the reform drive stalled following an opposition boycott of the 2002 elections. The government continues to be dominated by the ruling Al Khalifa family as it has for some 200 years.
Crackdown on protests
In mid-March, the King of Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency and additional troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were brought into the country. Government forces surrounded hospitals and attacked doctors trying to help wounded protesters.
In the following months, the human rights situation deteriorated and the protest movement appeared stifled. In total, at least 47 people died in connection with the protests, including a reported three or four security officials and, according to various reports, between two and eight migrant workers allegedly killed by protesters. More than 2,500 people were arrested, of whom at least five died in custody as a result of torture. At least 4,000 people who stayed away from their jobs during the arrest or were believed to have participated in the protests were sacked or suspended, including nearly 300 from the state-owned Bahrain Petroleum Company. Dozens of students were dismissed from universities, and others studying abroad had their grants suspended.
On June 1 the King lifted the state of emergency and the government withdrew its troops from Manama’s streets – a move apparently designed to reassure international financial institutions and organizers of major sporting events. However, large contingents of police were then deployed and within hours security forces attacked peaceful protesters in more than 20 villages using rubber bullets, stun grenades, shotguns, sound bombs and tear gas.
Many of those arrested faced grossly unfair trials before a special military court – the National Safety Court – set up under emergency rule. In April, four protesters were sentenced to death by firing squad on charges of killing two policemen during the unrest; sentences against two of them were later commuted to prison terms. In June, eight leading opposition political activists were sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government – the charge laid against many of the peaceful protesters. Thirteen others were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. In September, a group of some 20 health workers were also sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, apparently for cooperating with international media covering security force violence.
Hope for reform
On November 23, 2011 the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), set up by royal decree in June, presented its findings to the King of Bahrain. The BICI’s report concluded that widespread human rights violations had taken place – including excessive use of force, widespread torture and other ill-treatment of protesters, unfair trials and unlawful killings – and made a number of recommendations which the King promised to implement.
Throughout 2012, however, the government’s response has only scratched the surface of these issues. Reforms have been piecemeal, perhaps aiming to appease Bahrain’s international partners, and have failed to provide real accountability and justice for the victims. Human rights violations are continuing unabated. The government is refusing to release scores of prisoners who are incarcerated because they called for meaningful political reforms, and is failing to address the Shi’a majority’s deeply-seated sense of discrimination and political marginalization, which has exacerbated sectarian divides in the country.
Photo: Bahraini Shiite Muslim women protestors flash the sign for victory near a cloud of tear gas fired by riot police during clashes following an anti-government demonstration and in solidarity with political prisoners, in the village of Abu Saiba, West of Manama, on December 3, 2012. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images