The Bahraini Government Is Still Repressing Its Critics

Protesters want to negotiate, but that's kind of tricky while you're being tear-gassed and tortured.

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Nov 14 2013, 1:08pm

A Bahraini protester faces off against police. (Photo by Ali Ahmed Fardan)

On a warm night in suburban Manama, families gathered at a revamped office block. They were there to tour the labyrinth of simulated explosions, wax corpses and interactive torture chambers in Bahrain's so-called "Museum of Revolution" – an exhibition set up by members of the opposition to showcase the nastier realities of an uprising that's consumed the island for more than two and a half years.

The regime cracked down on Bahraini protesters almost straight after they started demonstrating in February of 2011. Just three days into demonstrators calling for greater political freedom and equality for the Shi'a population, the regime – led by the Bahraini royal family – sent security forces on a pre-dawn raid to clear out protesters camped in Manama's financial district.

That night, police killed four and injured around 300, prompting protesters to call for an end to the Bahraini monarchy. By March of 2013, 122 protesters had been killed, countless injured and an unknown amount tortured while being detained for their part in the uprising.    

"We're not trying to frighten people, and this isn't a matter for entertainment," explained one of the exhibition wardens though his balaclava, donned to re-enact interrogation scenes for the audience. "We just want the world to know the reality of the crackdown that the Bahraini people are experiencing every day."

The shirt of a Bahraini protester who was killed by live fire at a protest, which was part of the brief exhibition at the so-called "Museum of Revolution".

However, within the 24 hours after my visit, the exhibition's contents were seized and the museum shut down by police. The crackdown was part of a police raid on the premises of Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest licensed opposition society (opposition political parties are banned in the country). Government sources claimed the exhibition was "inciting hatred" and later summoned the head of the society, Sheikh Ali Salman, on accusations of insulting the authorities.

After a six-hour interrogation, an official statement indicted Salman with "denigrating and disparaging the Interior Ministry". In response to the sheikh's arrest and the shutdown of the exhibition, Al Wefaq has claimed it will file a complaint to the UN special rapporteur for freedom of speech.

The raid on Al Wefaq's base came the same week that government and opposition parties – including Al Wefaq – were due to resume a conciliatory "national dialogue" on the 30th of October. Originally opened in February of this year, the long-awaited dialogue formed the beginnings of Bahrain’s much-touted reform programme, instigated by the Sunni royal family in response to the civil unrest. But after seven months, the process has yielded far more discord than discourse.

The talks, comprised of two-thirds government and one-third opposition representatives, came to a standstill in September when opposition societies pulled out in protest at the arrest of Al Wefaq's deputy leader, Khalil al Marzooq. After 38 days of imprisonment on counts of inciting violence and terrorism, the former MP was released on the 31st of October. However, the charges against Marzooq remain in place, as does the opposition boycott of the dialogue, which they claim is merely a façade of cooperation from the regime.

"The whole case against me is fundamentally political," Marzooq said shortly after his release. "The regime has not seriously represented any of our demands in the dialogue. They are simply playing with us for time and using the process to deflect criticism."

The recent charges against Salman and Marzooq, who resigned from parliament following regime violence in February 2011, reflect the reported escalation in rates of imprisonment, harsh sentencing and other regime injustices since the dialogue started. And despite an alleged programme of police accountability reforms, the country's rulers have continued to indefinitely postpone a visit from the UN special rapporteur for torture.

An image of a protester rumoured to have been killed by police, before his body was dumped in the sea.

The Bahraini authorities have also continued to fortify the island against access by the foreign media, refusing entry to reporters and repeatedly deporting, detaining and surveilling international news crews (while simultaneously splurging an estimated £20 million on Western PR firms to spruce up the regime's reputation abroad). Many Bahraini journalists and bloggers have been driven underground or into exile, imprisoned, tortured or dealt hyperbolic penalties, including life-sentences on counts of attempted "regime overthrow". Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has documented ongoing practices of detention without trial, torture and undue sentencing – including the imprisonment of juveniles – well into 2013.

The government has also come under criticism for its liberal use of teargas, with Bahrain boasting the highest tear gas use, per capita, in the world. The use of the substance, responsible for the bulk of casualties in the uprising, was highlighted this month by a leaked document signalling the Ministry of the Interior’s plans to import some 1.6 million canisters – more than double the island’s estimated 600,000 population. According to the opposition, the continued severity of the security forces' actions demonstrate just how insincere the government are when it comes to establishing genuine dialogue.

"Nothing has seriously changed in the attitude of the authorities," says Marzooq, whose arrest came after a speech in which he promoted a non-violent approach among more radical young protestors. "They are dealing with people with no mercy," he said. "Those who carry out explosions and other violent acts in the name of protest are the enemies of the Bahraini people and of the revolution. But there is no way that people can conduct a dialogue under this kind of threat."

In the Shi'a villages around the capital, the sense of siege is palpable. Nightly protests persist, while teargas, tire-burning and Molotov cocktails are a fixture of daily life, rather than something limited to pop-up museums. On a drive around Sitra, the so-called headquarters of the uprising, an activist points to the swathes of graffiti sprayed across its buildings. Slogans of "Down with the king" and "Here lie the martyrs" are gradually being replaced with more extreme calls for the death of the monarchy and the rejection of pro-reform opposition parties, such as Al Wefaq.

“People have become more radicalised,” explained one of my guides in Sitra. “Many will no longer accept reform, they will be satisfied only with a republic.”

Protesters flee tear gas at a protest

Bahrain’s rulers have attributed the ongoing crackdown to this rising tide of hostility, which they deem as terrorism and claim to be an Iranian conspiracy. Government parties have called – apparently without irony – for a "renunciation of violence" by all sides, claiming that talks can only proceed from consensus around the "rejection of sectarianism, hate speech and exclusion". The official charter for the national dialogue, meanwhile, describes its primary purpose as "building new communication bridges between all parties and… repairing demolished relations".

The appointment of the more reform-minded Crown Prince as Deputy Prime Minister shortly after talks opened in March this year raised hopes among many – including opposition members like Marzooq – of some kind of progress. The Crown Prince, whose moderate influence was welcomed as a counter to the hardline Prime Minister, has since acknowledged that his country’s problems stem, in part, from a "political issue".

Echoing his line, government officials have insisted that "the only way for all the parties is through dialogue". And Bahrain’s Western allies have reiterated their support for the alleged reform efforts, most recently in last month’s meeting between the Crown Prince and Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague. However, with literal walls being built to segregate Shi'a and Sunni communities in some neighbourhoods, and with the government continuing to target moderate opposition leaders and dozens of democracy campaigners exiled abroad, scepticism is the dominant mood.

"I can’t see any positive signs of progress in Bahrain at the moment," says Toby Matthiesen, Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and author of a recent book on the Gulf uprisings. "The hardliners in the ruling family have got the upper hand again and there hasn't been adequate pressure on the Saudis to do anything differently. The international community hasn't taken much action on Bahrain, and I can’t see that changing."

However, Matthiesen still rests some hope in the predominantly peaceful character of the uprising. "It is important to see that the conflict has not gone down a really violent path," he notes. "After two and half years, it could have become a sectarian civil war, but it is quite remarkable that the opposition has largely decided not to use violence."

In a growing climate of antagonism and insecurity, the primary aim now is getting the various parties to the same table, but – for the moment – that's looking increasingly unlikely. "The environment now is not at all conducive to dialogue," says Matthiesen. "The targeting of Al Wefaq in recent weeks is really worrying. They have given reasonable demands so far, but there is no way they will agree to be arrested in the morning and go to dialogue in the afternoon."

Follow Zoe on Twitter: @zaholman

More on the ongoing uprising in Bahrain:

Bahrain Just Bought More Tear Gas Cannisters Than It Has Citizens

Explaining Human Rights to Bernie Ecclestone

Bahrain's PR Campaign Is Doomed to Fail

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