Western governments and human rights groups today condemned Bahrain’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists.
Human rights groups and Western government officials including Catherine Ashton, Europe’s foreign-policy supremo, expressed disappointment at Bahrain’s High Court’s sentencing of twenty pro-democracy activists on charges of espionage and conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy.
The court upheld verdicts against 20 activists but reduced the sentence of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (right), who holds joint Danish-Bahraini citizenship, and a dozen other activists sentenced to 15-25 years in prison. The Bahraini court’s claim that leaders of last year’s pro-democracy movement had “intelligence contact” with Lebanon’s Hezbollah “could dim prospects for defusing unrest in the small Gulf Arab state,” reports suggest.
The 20 activists are viewed by many Bahrainis as figures “whose release could reinvigorate the protest movement, which demands parliamentary powers to legislate and form governments.”
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), expressed “grave concern” at the confirmation of heavy prison terms against Al-Khawaja and at “the repressive line kept by the authorities against human rights defenders.”
Bahrain’s courts “continue the judicial harassment of human rights defenders in reprisal for their role in the protest movement that erupted in 2011,” the group said. The new sentences come two weeks after a three-year prison sentence against Nabeel Rajab (left), president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and FIDH Deputy Secretary General.
The sentences suggest that there is little prospect of dialogue between the Sunni monarchy and largely Shia opposition generating reform, analysts suggest.
“If they are political, the verdicts would appear to be a strong message to the opposition to keep expectations from any dialogue very low,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Bahrain expert at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank.
“The authorities may be trying to show their strength ahead of a planned dialogue with political societies,” she argued, saying this could backfire if protests and clashes escalate. This may also send a message to the international community about the limits of pressure. Strong Saudi backing for Bahrain has made it less interested in what the West has to say.”
“The verdicts show the regime’s claims to want reform are a sham,” said Brian Dooley of Washington-based Human Rights First. “The crackdown continues in the courts and on the streets and it’s time the international community rethought its relationship with the dictatorship.”
The moderate leadership of the Shia al-Wefaq party is torn between pursuing a dialog with the regime and fear of alienating the youth-based street activists, Kinninmont suggests. Nonetheless, encouraged by Manama’s western allies, high-level contacts between the government and the main opposition group, al-Wefaq, continue as the ruling family seeks talks to end street protests that are damaging Bahrain’s economy.
The opposition has urged the government to release the imprisoned political leaders as a confidence-building gesture before any direct talks but the authorities have repeatedly ruled out this option. The government also wants al-Wefaq and Issa Qassim, the country’s senior Shia cleric, to condemn violent protests.
“The fundamental issue is that the government wants protests to stop but they won’t sit down with those organising the most disruptive protests [the youth movement] and so they want al-Wefaq to police the protests, which puts al-Wefaq in a difficult position,” Kinninmont said.
The unresolved conflict is threatening to inflict severe damage on the country’s fragile economy:
On Monday, official statistics showed the economy slowed sharply in the second quarter. Adjusted for inflation, GDP fell 1.3 per cent between the first and second quarters after growing 0.9 per cent during the last quarter of 2011. It was the first quarterly decline since the pro-democracy demonstrations of February 2011 caused a 6.6 per cent slump in output.
….fostering confidence through political stability, rather than depending on state spending, will be key to turning around the fortunes of the economy, which before last year’s unrest was picking up steam as a low-cost alternative to Dubai as a regional launchpad for Gulf business.
The king’s royal court, led by hardliners reluctant to compromise, is believed to have come to the conclusion that some sort of dialogue with the opposition will be needed to staunch the daily cycle of tyre-burning and stone-throwing. Analysts believe that Al-Wefaq, the leading Shia opposition group, will eventually enter some sort of talks, despite pressure from the street to reject reconciliation until political prisoners are released.
A coalition of human rights, labor, and advocacy groups, including the Solidarity Center and the Project for Middle East Democracy, is trying to use economic leverage to pressure the regime to reform. The groups recently dispatched an open letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, urging her to publish the findings of an investigation into Bahrain’s compliance with its labor rights obligations under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The AFL-CIO labor confederation has filed a formal complaint, alleging violations of Bahraini trade unionists fundamental rights, following a crackdown on the country’s labor unions.
The BCHR and GCHR today called on the Obama administration and other governments with influence in Bahrain including the UK government, the EU and leading human rights organizations to:
1. Call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience in Bahrain.
2. Increase the pressure on the Government of Bahrain to stop the ongoing daily human rights violations as well as escalating attacks on human rights defenders.
3. Put pressure on the Government in Bahrain to allow journalists and human rights organizations access to the country to document human rights violations and to report on the ongoing situation.
4. Immediately stop all arms sales to the Government of Bahrain due to the continuous human rights violations.
5. Initiate a discussion on international consequences, including but not limited to diplomatic and economic sanctions, towards the Government of Bahrain due to the continuation of human rights violations.
The Project for Middle East Democracy adds:
Demonstrations reportedly broke out in protest of the convictions, and one protester was allegedly injured by a gunshot to the torso. The demonstrators chanted, “Your verdicts against our revolutionary figures are unjust!” Opposition party al-Wefaq rejected the verdicts, which former parliament member Abdul Jalil Khalil called, ”clearly not a step toward beginning to solve the issues in Bahrain.” Meanwhile, plans to build a Catholic church continue to meet opposition from Bahraini clerics and their followers. One critical cleric was initially removed from his post at a prominent mosque by the government, though outcry from his followers prompted the regime to reverse its decision.
Finally, Justin Gengler calls the aforementioned convictions “certainly not a surprise” and asks, “having fanned the flames of sectarian politics for so long, how can the government begin to pull the country back from the brink without igniting an even wider political conflagration by alienating its critical [Sunni] support base?” Additionally, Glenn Greenwald examines why CNN opted not to air a portion of an Arab Spring documentary filmed during the peak of the country’s unrest that shows the Bahraini government in an unfavorable light. Greenwald delves deeper, saying CNN International’s “editorial conduct toward Bahrain, combined with its aggressive pursuit of money from the regime, raises serious questions about its ability, or desire, to maintain journalistic independence.”
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and POMED supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. The Solidarity Center is one of the NED’s core institutes.