With new recognition, Bahraini protests continu
By Haytham Mouzahem
This week, thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered in protest across several Shi’a cities and towns near the capital of Manama, calling for the removal of the royal Khalifa family regime. Protesters have also been voicing opposition to recent arrests of activists as well as the series of harsh charges that have been levied against detained protesters. Security forces reacted to the gatherings by firing tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
These escalations come after protesters decried what they consider harsh prison sentences given to hundreds of political opponents and dissenters. Most of the sentences range from five to 15 years of jail time, which protesters say is illegal, not discounting the fact that the sentences are based on false charges and confessions extracted under torture, they say.
Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition group, said that the opposition will be seeking reviews of these sentences by international courts in an effort to stop abuses of the law by “criminals,” as he termed the royal government.
The Coalition of Youth of 14 Feb Revolution, a group of anonymous activists named for the start date of an ongoing two year-old Bahraini uprising, has called for boycotts of trials where activists are being sentenced. As part of a civil disobedience campaign, the group is also calling for an end to the government’s exercise of power during the days of Eid Al Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice.
The Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, which is also the largest political party in Bahrain, recently announced that it was suspending communications with the government to protest its unfair treatment of demonstrators and the arrest of the party’s vice president, Khalil Marzooq.
Marzooq, who is also the former deputy speaker of parliament, was arrested September 17 on charges of “inciting and advocating terrorism.” His detention came soon after he spoke at a rally. “We support peaceful movements,” Mazooq said. “And we are not part of the violent groups or their actions.”
On Wednesday, Sheikh Salman said that the conflict in Bahrain is no longer solely political as are protests in Kuwait, where opposition protesters have also faced off against the ruling government since 2011. Rather, he said, the Bahraini conflict is growing more sectarian. Referring to the history of discrimination by the ruling Sunni monarchy towards the Shi’a majority, Salman said that the regime is dealing with people “as Shiites, not as Bahrainis.”
“This public mentality has been pervasive since the 1970s as the regime considers that the people are enemies and have to be faced,” Salman added. “The mercenaries,” he added, “not the Bahrainis, have been always taking the high posts in the Ministries of Defense, Information, Interior and Foreign Affairs since the state was established.”
Since uprisings began in 2011, 137 activists have been killed during protests and while imprisoned, according to opposition figures. The tally according to the International Federation for Human Rights – 80 deaths – is smaller, but no less significant.
Last week, Human Rights Watch accused the Bahraini government of violence and torture, as well as with detaining child protesters, subjecting them to humiliation and cruel treatment. Human rights organizations have also repeatedly accused the United States and the United Kingdom of turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Bahrain, despite the prevalence of reports detailing violent crackdowns on opposition activists in the country.
A senior representative for the opposition, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Atlantic Post that the authorities’ abuses are not limited to illegal arrests, torture and prolonged jail terms, but that they include the use of live bullets and poison gas by government-hired security forces. They have also violated Shi’a mosques and the houses of senior Shi’a clerics, the representative added.
Last week, the opposition buried protester Youssef Nashmi, who was arrested in August and died in a hospital not long after his release. His lawyer said that authorities waited too long after Nashmi’s arrest before sending him to the hospital for signs of deteriorating health. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights added that Nashmi’s death was a consequence of torture and being denied medical treatment. The public prosecutor ‘s office claims that Nashmi’s death was the result of a dangerous disease.
Commenting on Nashmi’s death, Hugh Robertson, the British Foreign Office Minister for Middle East Affairs, called on Bahrain’s government to fulfill its obligations concerning human rights. He added that the United Kingdom will seriously pursue all cases of human rights abuses in Bahrain, including mistreatment of detainees.
Nashmi ‘s death has been the catalyst for a wave of opposition against the Bahraini government, though protesters have long called for greater democracy in the country. Meanwhile, police have pushed back with excessive and lethal force, which dates back to the start of the protests. In February 2011, four protesters were killed and numerous others were injured when police tried to disperse protesting crowds at the Pearl Roundabout monument in Manama on what became known as Bloody Thursday. The monument has since been demolished by the government, which claimed protesters desecrated the spot.
During the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva this past September, 47 governments issued a joint statement criticizing Bahrain’s treatment of protesters and prisoners.
The Bahraini government, however, has claimed that several opposition leaders are spies for Iran. The government has also accused Hezbollah – an Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon – of training Shi’a activists to fight and inciting violence.
The opposition representative who spoke with the Atlantic Post denied these allegations and said the regime is a puppet of Saudi Arabia, which stands to benefit politically from stifling reform in the small country to its east. He added that the Saudi royal family fears that if Bahrain’s Shi’a majority achieved more rights and came to power, this could lead to Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a citizens in the east provinces also making demands for reform.
Christian Testot, the French ambassador in Manama, said that talks between opposition parties, parliament and the government, which began on February 10, are “the best way to break the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence in Bahrain.” He added that he hoped opposition parties that had withdrawn from the talks earlier would resume their participation.
But the Saudi government and its “favorite man in Bahrain,” Prime Minister Khalifa Ben Salman Al-Khalifa, are trying to hinder the dialogue, said the opposition representative.
Haytham Mouzahem is The Atlantic Post’s Middle East analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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