Thursday, April 28, 2011

The More Things Change...

As noted in this article in TIME magazine, today marks the first time in history that Bahrain will try civilians before a military court. The seven are accused of running over two police officers, killing them, and of unspecified "different charges." (A video of this event has made its way around television and YouTube. In fact, a search of "Bahrain run over" in YouTube gets you 465 results.) The defendants deny the accusations, and, as always seems to happen, many opposition supporters claim that the whole thing was orchestrated by the government. (Here is a forum post outlining the "lies" involved.)

The seven join rights activist 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, who also will be tried in military court, having had his first hearing a week ago. The specific charges against him have not been made clear.

What is known, though, is that the seven accused of killing the police officer are being tried under Bahrain's vague and controversial "counter-terrorism" law, which employs the contemporary definition of "terrorism"--whatever we don't like--rather than one limited to actual attacks aimed at causing mass terror--you know, actual terrorism.

From an BCHR English translation of the law:

terrorism means any threat or use of force or violence, whatever the motives or the purposes, resorted to by the criminal in carrying out either an individual or collective criminal project, in order to disable the provisions of the constitution or the laws or the rules, to disrupt the public order; to expose to danger the safety and security of the kingdom; or to harm the national unity or the security of the international community, if the act harms individuals or disseminates among them horror or panic or puts in danger their lives, freedoms or security; or damages the environment; the public health; the national economy; the public or private facilities, buildings and properties; or their occupation or obstructing their work, or obstructing the public authorities or religious buildings or educational faculties from doing their work.

Thus "terrorism" may include "damag[ing] the environment," "the public health," the economy, "harm[ing] national unity," or stopping people from going to work.

Yet more than just underlining the totality of Bahrain's "legal black hole where no one knows what their rights are, what their access is" (in the words of Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Institute), the military trials of the seven accused of murder and of 'Abd al-Hadi of Khawajah highlight the extent to which Bahraini politics have a way of staying the same despite seeming forward progress.

In 1996, for example, Bahrain had more than twenty years earlier dissolved its parliament; had no legal political societies; was locked in a years-long Shi'a uprising, and operated under perpetual martial law in the form of a "state security" decree. And still we find this article from the New York Times that reminds us how little things have really changed:
Execution Stirs Protests In Bahrain
Published: March 27, 1996

New fighting erupted today between protesters and the police after the execution of a dissident who was convicted of killing a police officer.

The execution was the first in Bahrain in 20 years, and it underlined the Government's determination to stamp out protests. Bahrain is a major financial center in the Persian Gulf and home to a major United States Navy base.

Amnesty International, a London-based human rights group, said the execution followed "a trial which ignored internationally accepted human rights standards." ...

As word spread today of the execution by firing squad of Isa Qambar, 29, angry villagers among the Shiite Muslims who have been at the center of protests took to the streets, burning tires and throwing stones at police officers.

Security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and made an unknown number of arrests.

Shiite opposition groups have been pressing the Sunni-led Government for political reforms and improved social conditions, including restoration of a Parliament dissolved in 1975, and better job opportunities.

Shiites make up a slight majority of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens, and many have a standard of living much lower than that of Sunnis, the ruling sect in Bahrain and other Gulf Arab countries.

The civil strife is the worst in a Gulf country in 20 years, and Bahrain has been under pressure from its neighbors to act forcefully to end it.

Saudi Arabia's eastern province, across a 15-mile causeway from Bahrain, is home to a large Shiite population. Across the Persian Gulf, Shiite-dominated Iran has posed a threat to the Gulf Arab states since Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the monarchy in 1979 and established an Islamic republic. ...
Any of this sound familiar?

Update: the verdict is already in. Four of the seven defendants have been sentenced to death, the other three to life in prison. I guess the useful thing about trying people behind closed doors is that "justice" can be executed swiftly if not transparently. The government has posted videos (video #2)--on YouTube no less; very official and governmental--of what are purported to be "confessions" of the accused as part of a Bahrain TV "documentary."

The only question now is how many similar "trials" we are likely to see in the coming weeks and months. The government has clearly signaled that this is not the end.

I have already heard Sh. 'Ali Salman call into Al-Jazeera to criticize the decision, so presumably al-Wifaq is taking a rather strong stand against it. (Some industrious forum-goer has already uploaded the full text of his call, which is here.)

And there are already demonstrations planned in Shi'a areas for today, tomorrow, and Saturday.

Update 2: Citing "British sources close to the Al Khalifa," forum rumors are spreading suggesting that the execution of the death sentence is likely to be postponed amid conflict within the ruling family, specifically between the Crown Prince and the "hawk" lobby of the PM and friends.


  1. Good article Justin,

    My question is regarding the role of religious figures. Sh. Qassim is clearly supporting the protestors. And then you have the pro-gov Abdul. Latoof who recently declared that there will be no forgiveness for those who "broke the law".

    How do you view his behaviour? Has he been payed by the government or has he been watching too much BahrainTV?

  2. Excellent work, Justin. I am glad to see someone so thoughtfully cut to heart of matters.

    Keep them coming.


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