Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain by Al Jazeera English, on Flickr

Mohammed al-Tajer is one of Bahrain’s best-known defense lawyers. He was the leading defense attorney defending 25 opposition activists who were tried between October 2010 and February 2011 on charges of plotting to overthrow the government using “terrorism” and other means.

Today, April 25, marks ten days since Mohammed al-Tajer was arrested at his house in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. On the night of April 15, according to his wife, more than 20 security officers entered their house in the middle of the night. She says some were in uniforms, some were in plain clothes and all except one were wearing masks. They searched all the bedrooms and confiscated personal items, such as mobile phones, laptops and papers. Then Mohammad al-Tajer was arrested without explanation. No arrest order was shown to him or his family, she says.

Then came two days of silence. Finally, he phoned his family for two minutes on April 17 to let them know he was in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Manama’s al-‘Adliya district, and wanted them to bring him clothes. When the family asked him what the charges against him were he replied that he did not know.

They still don’t know because nothing has been heard from or about al-Tajer since then, Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch told The Public Record. Like hundreds of his fellow prisoners, he has been “disappeared.”

This prominent attorney, who has defended many cases of opposition and human rights activism, is but one of the more than 500 Bahraini’s who have been arrested and imprisoned by the country’s Security Forces since March. In addition, according to Maryam Al-Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations Office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, “More than 800 detainees were ‘disappeared’ within days of the imposition of a state of ‘national safety,’ (martial law) including 39 women.”

According to local human rights groups, those who have been detained since March include opposition and human rights activists, teachers, doctors and nurses. They have been arrested for their participation in the February and March protests calling for far-reaching political and other reform in Bahrain. The government’s most recent concerted campaign has been against physicians, with the arrest and detention of an estimated three-dozen medical practitioners, including a number of one-of-a-kind specialists. The government’s reported motive is to prevent the treatment of people injured in the anti-government demonstrations, to silence their testimony to the horrendous wounds they treated, and to make Bahraini’s so suspicious of hospitals that they will avoid them rather than risk an encounter with law enforcement.

According to human rights groups, the whereabouts of the great majority of detainees remains unknown; many are believed to be held by the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF). If prosecuted, they may face unfair trials before the National Safety Court of First Instance and a National Safety Appeal Court, established under the State of National Safety (SNS) –martial law — declared by the King of Bahrain on 15 March.

The US government has for the most part given King Hamid’s violent crackdown on demonstrators a ‘get out of jail free’ card. The White House and the State Department have used words such as “unfortunate” to lament the sporadic violence that has wracked this tiny island nation since January. And they have generally backed the King’s calls for a “national dialogue.”

Anti-government forces have rejected such a dialogue, believing that the King would only use it as a way of slowing the pace of protest. But, according to The Wall Street Journal, US President Barack Obama has said dialogue was an “opportunity for meaningful reform.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly appealed to the Bahraini government for restraint, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week called for apolitical process that “advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.” But the administration has neither recalled its ambassador to Manama nor threatened the kinds of sanctions it imposed on Libya — a striking disparity that is fueling ­anti-U.S. sentiment among Bahraini opposition groups.

“Even though the American administration’s words are all about freedom and democracy and change, in Bahrain, the reality is that they’re basically a

protection for the dictatorship,” said Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent human-rights activist who began a hunger strike after her father, husband and brother-in-law were arrested at her apartment over the weekend.

U.S. officials privately acknowledge that the administration has been understated in its criticism of Bahrain, in part to avoid further strain in relations with Saudi Arabia, a vital U.S. ally and neighbor to the tiny island kingdom.

Why? Why when US and allied military forces are bombing Gaddafi’s Libya, and Obama Administration officials are regularly excoriating Syria’s Assad, is the US being so cautiously conciliatory concerning Bahrain?

There are five main reasons. First, Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is therefore of strategic importance for the US. Secondly, Bahrain is an important center for international finance and oil production. Instability here would be – and is — felt in financial markets word-wide.

Third, Saudi Arabia is Bahrain’s neighbor – just 26 km away over a causeway connecting the two countries. The Saudis fear the rise of a pro-Iranian Shiite state on its eastern frontier and have urged Bahrain to deal firmly with the throng of protesters that occupied a central square and blocked access to Manama’s main business district.  Saudi fear of the protests spreading is one reason that Saudi and UAE military units were sent over that causeway on last month. Their mission is to help the King put down the demonstrations and maintain order while holding onto his power.

Fourth, while Bahrain’s rulers are Sunni Muslims, the vast majority of its population is Shia. Bahrainis, Saudis and Americans all worry that the Bahrain’s Shias will feel an allegiance that could be exploited by Shia Iran.

Finally, with Saudi Arabia already annoyed at the Americans for throwing Hosni Murarak under the bus too soon, the US seems willing to search for ways to avoid further upsetting its longtime ally and oil-supplier.

Siras Abi Ali, an analyst on the Persian Gulf region, says, “There is no good outcome from this for Saudi Arabia. If Bahrain offers concessions, the Saudi Shia will demand similar concessions. If they crack down, they risk an uprising. These people do not want to live under the House of Saud.”

Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, a cleric who was among political prisoners freed due to pressure from protesters, told AFP on March 1: “Dialogue is only an option once the regime steps down.”

The Bahraini elite has raised fears about the “sectarian” nature of the protests. Most of the anti-government protesters are Shia Muslims, while Bahrain’s monarchy and elite consists of Sunni Muslims.

“Without Washington’s support, Bahraini officials told the Americans, the kingdom risked slipping into a ‘sectarian divide,’ pitting a Shiite majority against ruling Sunnis,” the WSJ reported.

“Bahraini officials also warned the US that Iran would be the big winner should the ruling family fall.” This refers to speculation that a potential Shia-based Bahraini government might have closer relations with Shia-led Iran.

Ali Abdulemam, an activist and blogger recently released from prison, told Almasryalyoum.com on March 1: “The situation here is the same as in other places in the Arab world. There is similar anger and disillusionment. The ruling strata enjoy the same unjust advantages in distribution of wealth in the country. We have no freedom of expression or belief.

“We have the same anger as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. We also all share a desire to live in freedom and dignity. All of these are causes for the revolution.

“[The rulers] hate anyone who is opposition, it doesn’t have as much to do with sectarianism. It is known that the majority of Shia are opposition, but there are Shia loyalists, and there are Sunni opposition. They hate whoever opposes the system.”

Jawad Fairooz, a senior member of al-Wefaq, the largest Shia party, told the Financial Times.com on February 28: “The government is just inciting fear. We don’t want a Shia prime minister or a Shia state. We just want equal rights and an end to injustice.”

The US using weasel words to soften the reality of the police state Bahrain has become will be seen by ordinary people as the US waiting to see who wins before choosing sides. Those unfamiliar with the nuances and subtleties of foreign diplomacy will condemn American action – or inaction, in this case – as cowardice. They will wonder what’s become of the much-vaunted American principles of equality, tolerance and the rule of law.

And they will try to figure out how the world’s self-described human rights champion finds it possible to stand on the sidelines as a brutal police state does all the unspeakable things that brutal police states do.

I know making foreign policy isn’t easy. I know there are competing equities. I know that sometimes there simply are no good choices. I know about realpolitik.

Well, even knowing a bit about all those issues doesn’t really help me. Maybe I’m simplistic. I want my country to stand up – and speak out — for what it believes. I want it to cry out to condemn the cruelty, the brutality, the mindless quest for power, going on in Bahrain today.

But I find my words ineloquent. So let me use those of Richard Sollom, of Physicians for Human Rights. Here’s what he said on his return from Bahrain:

“In two decades of conducting human rights investigations in more than 20 countries, I have never seen such widespread and systematic violations of medical neutrality as I did in Bahrain. Bahrain’s ambulances, hospitals and medical clinics as well as its physicians, nurses, and medical staff are all being targeted. It’s pervasive and ongoing.

“In Bahrain, as they treat protesters and wounded civilians, they have borne witness to incredible human suffering. Treating these patients has provided physicians with unparalleled evidence of the atrocities committed by the authorities, the security forces and riot police. Their knowledge of these atrocities has also made them targets. At least 32 healthcare professionals have been abducted over the past two months and are being held incommunicado by security forces.

“Salmaniya, a large 821-bed hospital housing Bahrain’s leading medical specialists, is where the most serious injuries have been treated. Doctors there have seen evidence of gas inhalation, gunshot wounds and beatings. While in Bahrain, we documented evidence of the hospital administration at Salmaniya calling doctors and nurses in for appointments, from which they were never seen again. Presumably they are taken to places of detention.

“One notable detention center, Criminal Investigations Directorate at Adliya, is also an infamous center of torture. Unfortunately, the doctors do not have to be taken to detention centers to suffer violent attacks. We have documented the story of six doctors beaten by security forces in a Salmaniya staff room.

“When security forces are capable of such brutality in a hospital, one can only imagine what happens in a detention center.”

Think about it.