A brief on the background to the current situation in Bahrain from an international human rights activist

by Jen Marlowe

Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf country consisting of thirty-three islands off the coast of Saudi Arabia, has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family since 1783. Roughly half of Bahrain’s 1.2 million inhabitants are foreigners. Of the Bahraini citizens, between 60-70% are Shi’a and 30-40% are Sunni (as is the Al Khalifa family). Historically, Bahrain was a commercial center, known for its pearl diving and fisheries. It is also, significantly, the home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet.

Bahrain was a British protectorate from 1861 until gaining independence on August 15, 1971. After independence, a modern constitution was developed, but it was frozen in 1973, as was all political participation. In 2000, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa began his rule, initially seeming to usher in an era of reform. He wrote a new constitution which was revealed in 2002, and Parliamentary elections were held for the first time. By 2005, however, people started to become disillusioned and the disillusionment deepened as years passed. Many Bahrainis felt that the reforms were not genuine, and that the political voice and participation they were supposed to enjoy was, in reality, extremely limited.

There were multiple, specific complaints: The same prime minister had governed for 42 years, appointed by the ruling family as well as being a member of the ruling famly; the majority Shi’a complained of discrimination from the ruling Sunnis, evidenced most clearly by the fact that Shi’a are not permitted to join military or police forces, and, in fact, the government brings ex-pats from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan and Syria to fill those ranks, often offering them Bahraini citizenship, thus altering the Sunni/Shi’a demographics; the majority of the land is owned (amidst accusations of corruption) by the royal family.

On February 14, 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, a group of anonymous youth (whose identities are, I’m told, still unknown) put out a call to protest at the Pearl Roundabout monument in the capital city of Manama. The regime responded with violence, leading to the death of 21-year old Ali Abdulhadi Mushama. More protestors joined the next day, more were killed, and the demonstrators decided to camp in Pearl Roundabout, Tahrir-Square style.

At 3 a.m. on February 17, Bahraini security forces attacked those sleeping in Pearl Roundabout, killing several and wounding dozens. Ambulances were prevented access and medical personnel who rushed to help the injured were also attacked. Shock and fury rose, leading to more protests, more killings, more injuries. Estimates of between 200,000-250,000 Bahrainis participated in some of the protests; an extraordinarily large percentage of the population of Bahrain. The political agenda of the protestors ranged from calling for a Constitutional Monarchy to overthrowing the regime altogether.

The demonstrators remained in Pearl Roundabout until “the crackdown.” In the early hours of March 16, 2011, one thousand Saudi troops entered Bahrain and took over Pearl Roundabout, backed by five hundred UAE police forces. The Pearl Roundabout monument, by now an iconic symbol of the opposition, was destroyed. State of Emergency Law was declared.

For the next months, anyone who had been involved in the demonstrations was targeted. Most of the opposition leaders were jailed, along with thousands of protestors. Journalists were attacked, as were health care professionals who had treated the wounded, and star Bahraini athletes. There were hundreds of allegations of torture (some to death), and thousands fired from their jobs due to participation in protests, or, according to multiple allegations, merely because they were Shi’a.

On June 29, 2011, the king established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate what happened and who was responsible. The 500-page report, released on November 23, 2011 detailed dozens of deaths, hundreds of claims of torture, thousands of arrests and cases of employment dismissal. Significantly, the report ascertained there was no evidence that supported the regime’s claim that the movement was a Shi’a uprising, instigated by or receiving direct support from Iran.

It is difficult for me to assess to what extent sectarian factors in play. The pro-democracy and human rights activists who I am talking to insist that, despite the regime’s propaganda, the revolution is not Shi’a versus Sunni, and that, in fact, there are numerous Sunnis who are part of the movement, as evidenced by the fact that the first political leader jailed in the uprising was Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni leader of an opposition party. The goals of the revolution (regime overthrow, or Constitutional Monarchy, depending on which activists you ask) may not be sectarian, but it is certainly true that sectarian-based discrimination was a motivating factor for the uprising. Some people tell me that the vast majority of Sunnis support the regime and that only a few, token Sunnis are with the opposition. Others tell me that there is a far larger number of “silent Sunnis” who support the opposition but are afraid to speak out as the retaliation against them will be especially harsh. All the Shi’a I have spoken to about this issue have told me that they never used to think in terms of Sunni/Shi’a, and always had many close Sunni friends but that now, those same friends will no longer speak to them. I very much hope to explore this issue more deeply, though I will not be able to get the perspective of Bahrainis who are pro-government, as I have to be discreet about my presence in Bahrain.

Today, the uprising is characterized by continuous localized demonstrations, where nonviolent protestors in villages all over Bahrain (men and women), marching and shouting “Down, down, Hamad!” are met with a barrage of tear gas (the canisters often being shot directly at protestors) and bird shot. Masked youth retaliate with burning tires and Molotov cocktails. The massive, sweeping arrests have ended, though hundreds still remain behind bars, including children. Use of torture has decreased, I’m told, though not ended.

Disturbingly, there are nightly raids in villages throughout Bahrain. These night time raids, which resumed after Formula 1 and often result in arrests, seem to be becoming more frequent, prompting the well-known Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab to refer to the current situation as the beginning stage of “Crackdown 2.0.” Two days ago, the king announced that there was to be no more demonstrations. That afternoon, a demonstration was planned in response to this proclamation, which was harshly repressed. Zainab al-Khawajah, who I wrote about in the previous post, was shot at close range in the thigh with a tear gas canister; her thigh bone is now broken.

Since my arrival, I have already witnessed much, and heard far more. As multiple Bahrainis have reminded me, nearly every family has been affected by the situation in one way or another, whether a member of their family was sacked from their job, arrested, injured or killed. Bahrain is very small, and the stakes, price, and outcome of the Bahraini revolution is highly personal to a huge swathe of the Bahraini people.

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