Monday, December 31, 2012

When What Happens in the Villages Doesn't Stay in the Villages


While conducting my survey of Bahraini citizens in 2009 I spent a good amount of time in the island's (mainly Shi'a) villages, attempting to convince potential respondents that my field interviewers and I were not government spies and so on. As a consequence, I was afforded an interesting opportunity to witness first-hand village life, and the everyday difficulties that this geographical, socioeconomic, and in many ways political isolation entails.

One elderly villager in the seaside Shi'a enclave of al-Malikiyya told how he was banned from fishing in the bountiful waters adjacent to the village when large palace compounds were erected all along the Western coast. When asked about a dilapidated fence blocking what looked to be a beach in Sitra, villagers recounted how a young boy had drowned when sand was illegally dredged from the shore, creating a steep drop-off. The fence, they said, was the municipality's solution. And, in the northern village of Karranah, a resident complained bitterly that the police themselves refuse to enter unless to make an arrest or to chase away teenagers burning tires. Even in the event of a simple car accident, he explained, exasperated, the police demand that villagers themselves drag the damaged vehicles to the main (al-Budaiyi') road for examination, so that any facts of the incident gained by observing the wreckage or through interviewing witnesses are necessarily lost.

As a result, many of the Shi‘a villages, though the capital and most ministry headquarters be but five miles away, have learned to operate to a startling degree independently of the state, referring disputes to local notables, aiding poorer residents through the local village charity, and undertaking infrastructure repairs and construction. They also, as one might expect, have come to have little trust in the state's various agents, in particular the police--and this well before their brutal role in suppressing the February 14 uprising. Several questions in my 2009 survey asked respondents to indicate their level of trust in several government institutions, among them the police. Predictably, Shi'a respondents expressed little confidence in the latter, with only 7% indicating "a lot of trust" in the police and only 25% even a "moderate" level of trust. Instead, nearly half of all Shi'a respondents said they had "no trust at all." And this, again, was nearly two years before February 2011.

In stark contrast, very few Sunnis--a combined 15%--expressed anything less than "moderate" trust in the police. Indeed, the police earned more trust among Sunnis than any other institution inquired about in the survey save for the prime ministership. (The others were the parliament, political societies, and the courts.) This too is perhaps unsurprising, given the survey's other finding that 13% of all Sunni households had at least one member (husband or wife) employed in the police or armed forces.

Of course, it may also have something to do with the fact that, with the exception of Ebrahim Sharif, Mohammed Al Bu Flasa, and a handful of others, Sunni citizens are not regularly and needlessly harassed, insulted, and/or assaulted by police. Even apart from the disproportionate involvement of Shi'a in protest and opposition activities, the extreme isolation of many/most Shi'a communities would seem to embolden police, encouraged by presumed anonymity and impunity to adopt the slogan of another sin city: "What happens in the Shi'a villages stays in the Shi'a villages."

Except, that is, when someone records it on a cell phone camera and posts it to YouTube. In that case, you get the following, which France24 has dubbed "the police slap heard all over Bahrain." The setup according to the cameraman:
That day, Haider was on his way to visit his aunt, who lives very close by, which is why he didn’t have his papers on him.

The neighbourhood where his aunt lives was full of policemen, because Bahrain was preparing to host the Gulf Cooperation Council summit [on December 24 and 25] and the government feared that protests might take place.

What you don’t see in the video is that a policeman first stopped Haider’s car and asked him to step out of the car. Haider agrees, but refuses to leave his child alone in the car. The tension is palpable, which is why the eyewitness decided to film the scene from his window [the video begins before the father enters the frame, as if the cameraman was indeed waiting for something to happen].
And the video:


The Interior Ministry has since been reported to have detained the offending officer, presumably to reprimand him for drawing negative attention to the country's now-reformed police force (not to be confused with reprimanding him for slapping the villager). Conveniently for Bahrain, this also coincides with another legal case against "rogue" policemen.  Yesterday two officers were given seven years in prison each for the beating to death of Kareem Fakhrawi, who in April 2011 dared to complain to police about the demolishing of his house by... the police. For those keeping track, the seven-year sentence is only three times shorter than the 25-year sentences handed to several of the opposition leaders last June by closed military tribunal, and about infinity times shorter (infinity divided by 7) than the life sentences given to 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain, Hasan al-Mushaimi', Muhammad al-Miqdad, 'Abd al-Jalil al-Singace, and four other main opposition figures.

So it's been a great week for evidence of police reform in Bahrain.

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