POMED Notes: Voices from Bahrain: Anniversary of the Uprising
On Wednesday, Freedom House hosted three Bahraini human rights activists to discuss the situation on the ground, prospects for political reform, and U.S.foreign policy in Bahrain. Speakers were: Maryam Al-Khawaja, the head of the Foreign Relations section of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Husain Abdulla, director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, and Jalil Al Radhi, a Bahraini activist who has fled the country. Dr. Robert Herman, vice president for Regional Programs at Freedom House, moderated the event.
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Maryam Al-Khawaja gave an overview of the current situation in Bahrain, elaborating on the mass arrests and use of force that came with the march toward Pearl Square in Manama on the February 14th anniversary of the uprisings. She said the government has not shown significant levels of reform, citing that torture, kidnappings, raids, arbitrary arrests, and the use of excessive force is still prevalent. Instead, she stated, the only actual change that came about from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) report is that the government now has a tool to cover up actual violations on the ground while claiming that reform is happening.
Husain Abdulla discussed some steps that need to be taken in order for the Bahraini government to move forward from the protests. Abdulla said the government must show positive gestures and show that it genuinely wants reform. First, the political prisoners must go free to their original posts without condition. Additionally, the war against physicians must stop, religious buildings need to be rebuilt, and the media campaign that the government is using as propaganda must come to an end. Abdulla argued that the government cannot have a serious dialogue with the opposition while most of the movement is sitting in prison; nor can it have a serious solution toBahrain when it is spending millions to buy arms and use them against its own people. If there is not a serious political process toward reform inBahrain, Abdulla said, the situation will only get worse.
Jalil Al Radhi shared his personal experience and trauma before fleeing Bahrain. His brother was tortured to death while detained in a Bahrain prison. He said his family reported his brother missing but did not hear back for weeks until finally the family was called to identify a body. The autopsy did not match the marks on the body, he said, and though a second one was conducted at the request of the family, it was still incorrect. There was a gunshot wound in his brother’s leg that had gone undocumented. Radhi also said that almost every bone in his brother’s body had been broken, an obvious sign of beating, but only a crack in the skull was documented at the hospital. His family, who is still in Bahrain, still gets harassed with teargas and late-night raids.
During Q&A, questions were raised about how the situation could be resolved and how external organizations could provide support. Al Khawaja said the situation must be understood in its current state before any solutions can be posed. Firstly, religious factions do not play a role in the real narrative; the government targeted the majority of Shia protesters and not Sunnis, which cause the sectarian divide that the Western media has picked up. Abdulla described this as the government strategy to “divide and conquer” its people. He said religious has always been very intertwined inBahrain and has never been an issue. The both emphasized that this is a case of oppressor vs. oppressed; loyalist vs. non loyalist; religion is not playing a part in the clashes that are happening.
Additionally, Al Khawaja said one of the biggest obstacles to reform is the blackout, which refers to the media monopolization by the government to promote pro-government ideas, and the recent travel bans that were placed on NGOs and journalists trying to enter the country. She referred to the NGO travel bans in Egypt, which had caused a stir among policy makers, and stressed that Bahrainshould be no different. Part of the problem, Al Khawaja said, is that there is no incentive for the Bahraini government to change; there has been neither international pressure nor any negative consequences, such as U.N. Security Council meetings, that have urged the government to reform. Instead, the U.S. has proposed an arms sale to the government of Bahrain, which is an incentive to continue with its actions and not change.
Abdulla said that especially in the U.S., the power of advocacy and one person’s voice should not be underestimated. He urged American citizens to write to their representatives in Congress and government and express concerns about the human rights violations in Bahrain. Also, he emphasized the importance of increasing the moral pressure on the administration. He said there needs to be more moral pressure applied to the government; the U.S. cannot push for human rights reform in some parts of the world and not in others.