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A Blurred Line in Bahrain

The situation in Bahrain has deteriorated to such an extent that it can no longer be called a political crisis; it is now a human rights crisis. And the silence of those in the Middle East and West, particularly the United States, has been shameful.

The Persian Gulf state is currently in the throes of unrest. The ruling al-Khalifa family, led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is imposing increasingly draconian security measures in an effort to silence the outcry of the island’s Shia Muslim majority over sweeping arrests of opposition figures in the run-up to October parliamentary elections.

The crackdown began on Aug. 13 with the detention of Dr. Abdul Jalil al-Singace, spokesperson and head of the human rights bureau of the opposition Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, on charges of incitement, attempting to destabilize the country and “contacting foreign organizations and providing them with false and misleading information about the kingdom.” Al-Singace had just returned from London where he addressed the House of Lords on Bahrain’s poor human rights record. After landing in Manama, the handicapped al-Singace along with three companions were arrested and then tortured.

To better understand the root causes of Bahrain’s historically tense political climate, it is imperative to appreciate the country’s demographic makeup, the government’s endeavor to manipulate it and the disenfranchisement of Bahraini Shias. Please refer to my recent article “Bahrain Reaps the Ills of Sectarian Gerrymandering” where this pertinent background information is detailed.

Briefly, Bahrain is a tiny Gulf island kingdom with a population of 800,000. Of the 530,000 nationals, 70 percent are largely poor Shia Muslims. This is in stark contrast to the ruling, but minority, Sunni elite represented by the al-Khalifa dynasty. Although Bahraini Shias constitute more than 80 percent of the labor force, they are wholly excluded from the government, security services and public sector.

In an attempt to assuage widespread discontent at the political and socioeconomic marginalization the policy of institutionalized sectarian discrimination had wrought, Sheikh Hamad implemented some basic political reforms after ascending to the throne in 1999. This helped to quell demonstrations, riots and uprisings known as the “Bahrain intifada” that rocked the country for the better part of the 1990s.

He then created the National Action Charter in 2001 in a bid to restore the 1975 constitution and transform the emirate into a constitutional monarchy. The Charter easily passed a national referendum, but the ultimately enacted 2002 constitution fell short of what the king had originally promised.

This was highlighted in the November 2006 parliamentary elections. Al-Wefaq, the country’s major Shia political party, captured 17 of 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, making it the largest bloc. They soon recognized their ability to affect social and political change was illusory, for real power lay with the upper house Shura Council, which can approve or rescind legislation passed by the lower chamber. Shura Council members are directly appointed by the king and operate in service of monarchy goals. King Hamad had pledged it would serve strictly as an advisory body, not a legislative one.

Since al-Singace’s arrest in mid-August, there has been no let-up in the government’s drive to suppress dissent:

Twenty-three activists tied to opposition or human rights groups have been charged with being members of “a terrorist network with international support” (re: Iran) and planning a campaign of “violence, intimidation and subversion” in a plot to overthrow the regime.

The old, tired strategy of promulgating the belief that Arab Shia Muslims are fifth columnists for Iran, as the al-Khalifas intimate, is simply a way to circumvent their calls for democracy, human rights and political enfranchisement. Framing the domestic strife as a matter of combating Iranian influence and ensuring regime preservation allows Bahrain to stay in the good graces of the U.S. and ensure Manama remains home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Last month saw the detention of at least 250 activists. They have had no access to lawyers and their locations are unknown. Due to a media blackout, how many have since been imprisoned is a mystery. Although many have demanded the amendment of Bahrain’s constitution, none have called for a coup d’état.

The state has assumed control of all mosques.

As reported by AFP, Crown Prince Salman said in comments carried by the official Bahrain News Agency, “Regaining control of the pulpits so they are not hostage to incompetent politicians or clerics who have lost their way … is the staring point for developing a sound religious orientation.”

The government dismissed the board and took control of the country’s oldest human rights organization, the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS).

The BHRS is the first non-governmental organization created after King Hamad’s political reforms. The Minister of Social Development alleged it had become too partisan in reporting abuses suffered by the Shia and not “all sections of Bahraini society.” The ministry appointed one of its own officials as acting head.

Shutting down the BHRS was in obvious retribution for the body’s criticism of the aforementioned arrests and detentions.

Malcolm Stewart, North African and Middle East director at Amnesty International said in a statement, “By suspending the board of the BHRS and putting its own representative in charge, the government has effectively taken control of the organization with the apparent intent of closing it down. This undermines the basic rights to freedom of expression and association, and the government should rescind its decision immediately.”

The prominent pro-democracy blogger Ali Abdulemam was arrested by intelligence services on Sept. 5 for “spreading false news” via the popular Web portal he founded, BahrainOnline.org.

Bloggers worldwide have taken up Abdulemam’s cause and demanded his release. He is regarded as a pioneer in the Arab world for advocating use of the internet as a means of political expression and social advocacy.

Ayatollah Hussein al-Najati—Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s representative in Bahrain and one of the nation’s leading scholars—was stripped of his citizenship.

It is one of the most deplorable acts yet taken by the government against the Shia clergy. The passports of al-Najati, his wife and three children were revoked on grounds their Bahraini nationality was not obtained “through legal and appropriate means.”

It is the epitome of hypocrisy. Bahrain’s notorious Citizenship Law permits non-Bahraini Sunnis throughout the Middle East and Muslim world to become expedited, naturalized citizens for the sole purpose of altering the island’s sectarian make-up. They are then given jobs by Bahrain’s largest employer—the security services.

Although al-Najati did undertake religious studies in Iraq and Iran, he was born in Bahrain. Stripping him and his family of their nationality sets the stage for their eventual expulsion from the island. Another scholar, Sheikh Abdul Jalil al-Miqdad, has been prohibited from delivering Friday prayer sermons for two weeks.

The gag order issued by the public prosecutor banning TV, radio, internet or print media from reporting on the crackdown continues as more news outlets and websites are shut down.

Press releases and statements issued by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation for Human Rights condemning the above actions can be read here.

Bahrain’s government has been touted as a beacon of democratic reform in the Persian Gulf. Its actions, however, reveal quite the opposite.

The reality is that Bahrain’s Shia are the ones holding the torch of change and reform in the face of an entrenched monarchy eager to retain its grip on absolute power.

Freedom of the press and religion, respect for human rights, ending torture, fair representation in all spheres of society, government accountability and transparency, an end to the malignant practice of sectarian discrimination; all are banners carried by Bahrain’s opposition.

The regime believes their repressive measures will temper voter turnout in the Oct.23 elections. Although many opposition groups have called for its boycott, authorities fear the Shia could still gain parliamentary seats and use this platform to more widely voice their grievances, irrespective of the inability to pass effective legislation.

What has taken place over the past month in Bahrain demands far greater media coverage. For those who have followed events, they recognize the distinction between constitutional monarchy and police state is now a blurry one.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.

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Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

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