Posts Tagged 'Bahrain'

The importance of eating

Tora Systad Tyssen

When Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on May 28th announced that his 110 days long hunger strike was over and that he now would start eating again, several sighs of relief were probably heard across Bahrain. Obviously, from his family and his loved ones who had feared that the hunger strike would eventually kill the Bahraini-Danish activist. But certainly also from the regime, which since the start of the strike seemed unable to decide how to handle the defiant prisoner.
After being arrested and convicted of trying to overthrow the regime last year, al-Khawaja has been one of the more high profiled political prisoners in Bahrain. Ever since he returned from political exile in Denmark in 1999, al-Khawaja has been challenging what he calls systematic human rights abuses from the Bahraini government, and has as a consequence of it been in and out of prison ever since. When he in 2004 was arrested for criticising the Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa for the country’s current economic problems and past human rights abuses, he was released shortly after by a royal pardon by the King. However, such a royal pardon was not given when he April 9th last year was arrested and charged for “organizing and managing a terrorist organisation”, “attempt to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country” and the “collection of money for a terrorist group”, the terrorist organization referred to being Bahrain Centre for Human Rights where al-Khawaja is one of the founders. After almost a year in prison, in February this year, he decided to stop eating.
Fuelled by writings of social media activists (including al-Khawajas close family members) and human rights organizations the hunger strike shortly received attention, also from the international media. Having the tragic personal situation of al-Khawaja to centre their articles around seemed to make it easier to cover the ongoing unrest in the Gulf kingdom. As al-Khawajas situation in the beginning was not life threatening, the government seemed to be on the fence about how to handle the issues. When I visited Bahrain in March a young politically active Sunni Muslim supporting the government commented on the situation saying that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike for 29 days and he did not die yet. For Gods sake. Indicating that everyone would be better off if the activist would just, well, die. However, it seems now that everyone is better off by al-Khawaja eating.
As the 29 days doubled and the start date of the annual Formula 1 race in Bahrain was approaching quickly, the international media and political pressure on the Bahraini government was growing. The International Automobile Federation was contemplating cancelling the race in Bahrain for the second year in a row due to the political unrest and the uncertainty of the security situation. The Bahraini government and royal family were apparently doing all they could to calm the situation and ensure the international racers that their country was a safe destination. As the decision to go ahead with the race came, the top priority of the Bahraini regime was to minimize negative international media coverage in relation to it. For months international journalists had been refused access to the kingdom, but with the major sporting event coming up, media visas again had to be issued and protesters eyed the opportunity for extensive international attention.
One of the immediate issues that the government needed to handle was the al-Khawaja situation as negative media coverage of it was mounting, but a split within the government made that difficult. The foreign minister, a close ally of the king, was trying to reach a compromise where al-Khawaja would be sent abroad, most probably Denmark, for medical treatment (The Danish Foreign Minister Willy Søvndal had requested the prisoners transfer, citing his Danish co-citizenship. The Bahraini Supreme Judiciary Council dismissed the request). The foreign minister probably eyed the opportunity for some international diplomatic goodwill and more positive press coverage, but also seemed concerned with avoiding al-Khawaja becoming a martyr. The Prime Minister however, who was the object of al-Khawajas criticism back in 2004, used his influence to nullify the transfer order. Instead al-Khawaja was sent to another hospital under the control of the defence minister, and eventually, according to reports, force-fed.
Had al-Khawaja however been sent to Denmark and retrieved medical care there, it is difficult to say how that would have affected the activists still operating in Bahrain. Certainly, his strong demonstration of human will and stance against the regime was strengthened by the fact that he was within the borders of the country. Criticising from without is easy, but from within not necessarily so, hence the effect of it would not have been so strong. It is difficult inspiring a revolution in Bahrain from hospital facilities in Copenhagen. al-Khawaja has stated the fact that he was force-fed as one of the reasons why he now has decided to end his hunger strike, but more importantly he and the political unrest had received the wanted attention. So in a way everyone now wins some. The regime avoids having made al-Khawaja a martyr, whereas the protesters still have one of their strongest leaders close by, alive and ready to inspire further demonstrations. al-Khawajas imprisonment and life sentence however remains, and it will be interesting to see how long that sentence will withstand international diplomatic pressure for its sanctioning.

The Bahraini regime trying to reach a post-revolt phase

By: Tora Systad Tyssen

Whereas the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of the Arab spring led to regime falls, the Bahraini one did not and the Al Khalifa royal family is still ruling the small island just off the Saudi coast. In fact, the only thing that has fallen so far in the kingdom is the Pearl monument at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama,  thought to be to the Bahraini revolution what Tahrir was to the Egyptian. It was bulldozed in March when the protesters residing there were dispersed by force.

Even though the anti-government demonstrations prevails across the country and the state security police are out almost every night charging and arresting demonstrators the regime is working hard to give the impression that Bahrain has entered a post-revolt phase. Following the lift of the state of emergency on June 1st a set of steps have been made to give the impression that Bahrain is on its way back to a more stabile political situation[i].

One step was the introduction of what was called a national dialogue in July, where oppositional forces were invited to discuss matters of political, economical, social and human rights reform with the government. Al Wifaq, the main oppositional group that pulled out of the parliament in March in reaction to the governments repression of demonstrations this spring, decided to boycott the dialogue after having attended some of the sessions. Rejecting strongly the regimes emphasis on socioeconomic problems rather than political ones as the root of the protests this spring, they also decided to boycott the by-elections in September/October. The elections were conducted to fill the 18 seats that became vacant after al-Wifaq pulled out of parliament. This being another step by the regime to bring political life in the kingdom back to a more normal state, ignoring the demonstrations still happening across the country. At the opening of parliament on October 9th King Al Khalifa stated in his opening speech that it now is the duty of the Cabinet and the Parliament to take the recommandations from the national dialogue in July into practice and legislation if needed. According to the king significant political reforms are underway including granting the parliament more power and implementing stricter guidelines for nominations for the Upper House (Shura Council. The Bahraini parliament consists of two houses, an elected lower house, and a nominated upper house). The current voting districts, often accused of being gerrymandered to secure a sunni majority in the parliament, are being reviewed to ensure, according to the king, «that Bahrain’s citizens are given fair representation in their electoral constituencies»[ii].

A third step was the establishing of The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry by the king on June 29th this year. The committee, consisting of five non-bahrainis, is tasked with investigating and reporting on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011, and the consequences of those events. In other words, to map out the alleged violations of human rights by the state security forces and give recommandations on what its consequences should be[iii].

And so how successful have these steps been in taking Bahrain into a post-revolt state? Well, the easy answer would be not very. Demonstrations are still ongoing, no real reform is seen and and the fact that the Saudi military forces have not completely pulled out those not convey an image of stability or normality (supposing the political situation in Bahrain was stabile and normal prior to the uprising). True, the demonstrations are on a smaller scale than earlier this year, but that is mainly due to a severe crack down on them, rather than the demonstrators pulling out having achieved their objects. Even though the king has promised political reform, no real evidence is seen of it. The fact that al Wifaq has pulled out of the parliamentary system (and the voter turnout in September in some districts was less than 20 %), harms its legitimacy and illustrates the royal families failure to convince the population that it is taking its demands seriously.

In addition the Commission of Enquiry is accused of being biased towards the governments interests and the fact that it is nominated by the king does not help in this regard. The issue is addressed at the commissions official webpage stating in its defence that it «has benefited from a consultation process with various bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights». Still many Bahrainis do not expect the commission to map out the breaches of human rights in a sufficent way, despite the commissions postponing of its report from October 23rd to November 23rd saying it needs more time to review in depth the 8800 complaints it has heard and the 5700 interviews it has conducted[iv].

What will be interesting to see is whether the commissions findings and recommandations will be acted on. In the opening speech of the parliament the king promised it would. How much that is related to the $53 million American arms deal Bahrain is trying to close, is difficult to say. A spokesman of the American State Department said on October 18th it would look closely at the report and «continue to take human rights considerations into account as we move toward the finalization of this deal”. At least half a dozen senators have written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticizing Bahrains human rights violations, claiming «completion of the arms sale would weaken U.S. credibility amid democratic transitions in the Middle East». Some reports claim the deal is already finalized. If it turns out to be, a strong American statement is made that they view Bahrain as being in a somewhat post-revolt phase, as many would claim selling weapons to a state handling a revolt would be questionable, despite the arms supposedly only being meant for «external use»[v].


[i] More on the current development in Bahrain:

[iii] More on the commission and its legal framework: