Although Bahrain has largely fallen out of the global media spotlight, a renewed government crackdown ahead of the ‘Tamorrod’ protests on August 14th is threatening to push the country towards a deeper crisis. In order to deal with this ‘terrorist’ threat, King Hamad called for an extraordinary session of parliament, and despite the questionable constitutionality of the meeting, the virtually oppositionless elected assembly agreed to 22 pieces of draconian anti-terror legislation. In testament to the dire conditions of Bahrain’s government controlled civil society, the Minister of Human Rights lauded these repressive recommendations, which included the revocation of citizenship for convicted of terrorism, and the banning of protests in Manama.
Yet despite this renewed crackdown, many of the measures proposed in the extraordinary meeting have already been in place. Thirty-one Bahrainis were stripped of their citizenship back in November 2012, and there has been a de facto ban on protests in Manama since last year. Other recent examples of reactionary laws include the approval by the upper chamber of legislation making it illegal to ‘incite hatred’ against the security forces (whatever that means). Activists are also languishing in detention, months before going on trial, and evidence points to the use of forced confessions. On top of this, the government has expanded its surveillance apparatus to further limit freedom of expression. Even calling the King a ‘dictator’ on Twitter will land you in jail, as has been the case with at least eleven people.
The increase of the state’s authority has also been working alongside a parapolice apparatus of repression, and the Bahrain government appears to be encouraging vigilantism. In March 2013, the MOI announced a draft law designed to help people volunteer in public security, while the city of Muharraq came under fire for allegedly providing ID cards to citizens that gave them powers of arrest.
The escalation of repression illustrates the absence of a political solution
On 30th July, a group of masked thugs vandalised the home of Ali Salman, the General Secretary of Bahrain’s largest opposition party (though these later turned out to be the police). On 31st July, the Ministry of Telecommunications also sparked a potential a witch-hunt after irresponsibly calling for people to report Twitter accounts that incited violence. However, they failed to provide a proper framework for what constitutes a dangerous tweet.
Government propaganda has also been stepped up, and in an attempt to further discredit the pro-democracy movement, the government has reasserted its claims that the unrest in Bahrain is the work of foreign, Shia actors. The Ministry of the Interior has even claimed that the February 14th coalition is linked to the Shirazi movement. These claims have come amidst a spate of bomb attacks, one of which was near a Sunni mosque and allegedly perpetrated by a new and little-known group called the Al Ishtar brigade. The crude nature of the attack, its inefficacy, and the fact it worked in opposition to the interests of most activists suggest those who carried it out were poorly organised and ill-trained.
This increase in propaganda and the implementation of anti-terror laws that infringe upon basic liberties have been augmented by a deliberate lack of state accountability, transparency and justice. Low ranking police officers, cherry picked to face trial for crimes committed during the past few years, have faced little punishment. Those with actual convictions have been charged with manslaughter, not murder – and never torture. Those facing prosecution remain on duty despite the charges leveled against them, and to top it all off, those who are convicted are free pending the outcome of their appeal.
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This lack of accountability goes straight to the heart of government, and in a shocking piece of leaked footage, the Prime Minister was recently heard thanking a suspected torturer for his services while telling loyalists that they were above the law. He also boasted about his own impunity. Somewhat gallingly, this is the same man who tells the Bahraini public that ‘all citizens are equal before the law’. Unfortunately, this damning piece of footage was largely ignored by most of the world’s media, even though it made a mockery of Bahrain’s so-called commitment to reforms.
Bahrain’s key Western allies have also stayed relatively silent, and although Obama recently uttered a rather vague call for ‘meaningful reform’, Great Britain has been a little more muted. A recent parliamentary enquiry examining Bahrain’s relationship with Britain was published earlier this year, although most of the damning evidence was not released until 31st July, thus subduing any political momentum that may have been generated. As it stands, Western companies and individuals have been crucial in whitewashing human rights abuses in Bahrain, or increasing the effectiveness of Bahrain’s security forces by providing equipment or training. With King Hamad expressing his keenness to buy British fighter jets in a meeting with David Cameron held on 6th August, it is unlikely Britain will want to further upset a good arms customer.
As the results of the extraordinary assembly meeting demonstrate, the political situation in Bahrain is dire, and the elected assembly has simply become a rubberstamp for an authoritarian government.
Even the recent promotion of Western sweetheart and so-called moderate Crown Prince appears to have had little impact, and his recent calls for leaders of Bahrain’s different communities to apologise resulted in widespread outrage.
The escalation of repression illustrates the absence of a political solution, and there is little hope for change anytime soon. Bahrain’s democratic system is deliberately engineered to protect ruling family privilege while disempowering any opposition. Unfortunately, the detritus of this illegitimate political ecosystem is widespread discontent, something that has been further compounded by economic recession and a historic sense of injustice – especially amongst the country’s Shia population. Without a drastic overhaul of Bahrain’s political system that includes greater power sharing, coercion will always surpass politics as a means of maintaining ‘security’.
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