The world watched with horror as security forces in Bahrain killed at least seven peaceful protesters and wounded hundreds more. The protesters were seeking a measure of political accountability from the ruling Al Khalifa family and an end to discrimination against Shia Bahrainis.
For the past decade Bahrain has promoted itself as a liberal state in an authoritarian neighbourhood, on the basis of reforms by King Hamadal-Khalifa, who took power in 1999. These reforms included holding elections — though for a parliament that lacked authority — and largely abolishing torture.
United States officials went out of their way to burnish Bahrain’s image. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raved, “Bahrain has demonstrated that multi-ethnic, multi-confessional societies can address their challenges through peaceful reform and representative institutions.” Cables by US diplomats claimed that King Hamad “understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression.”
Such endorsement can be attributed to the fact that Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The Bahraini government also insinuates whenever possible that its Shia citizens, upwards of 65 percent of the population, would turn Bahrain into an Iranian client state if so allowed.
But independent observers have for several years been raising concerns about the country’s return to the dark practices of the past.
In February 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the revival of torture. A trove of reports by government doctors backed up victim accounts that security forces were again suspending detainees by their arms and legs and using electro-shock devices. In August, the government instituted a crackdown that began with arrests of opposition activists on charges of being part of a “terror network” and soon extended to the arrests of hundreds more, including children, many on vague or non-existent charges. The government dissolved the board of a human rights group that had suggested detainees should not be abused. Authorities blocked websites of opposition parties, including Al Wefaq, which won a majority of votes in the October elections.
As for the “terror network,” the testimony of government agents regarding information allegedly provided by unnamed sources made clear that the defendants were being tried for political opinions rather than for any criminal acts. Authorities denied these defendants access to counsel or their families, and most defendants alleged that security officials abused them to elicit confessions.
The government denied these allegations, but hasn’t explained the defendants’ wounds displayed in open court, some of which I observed first hand. Several other prosecutions recently collapsed after independent evidence disproved coerced confessions. In one case, the editor of a pro-government newspaper testified that the defendants who “confessed” to assaulting him bore no resemblance to the attackers. When I interviewed one of those defendants last December, he said, “It’s better to confess before they break everything.”
This is part of the background to the protests that erupted on February 14. By all independent accounts, demonstrators peacefully demanded reforms. After riot police killed two protesters on February 14 and 15, King Hamad expressed condolences, leading many to believe that the government might honor its citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. Riot police shattered that illusion on February 17, assaulting men, women and children, many of them sleeping, in a public square, killing several and wounding hundreds. The next day, security forces opened fire on people mourning those killed. The king has again ordered these forces off the streets, but the casualties from the February 18 ambush have yet to be counted.
The government has careened between indiscriminate violence and temporary accommodation, making it impossible to predict how the crisis will resolve. But clearly the US should no longer view Bahrain with rose-tinted glasses, whether due to concerns about Iran, the Fifth Fleet or anything else. There is no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests, or of any appetite among Bahrain’s Shia to emulate Iran’s authoritarian regime. Nor have protesters expressed antipathy toward the US or questioned the US naval presence.
Bahrain should no longer be allowed to masquerade as liberal even by local standards. Rather, Bahrain has a lot of work to do to persuade its own people, and the rest of the world, that it is anything other than a police state.
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan is a lawyer in private practice in New York and a consultant for Human Rights Watch.