Minor Obstacles for National Dialogue in Bahrain

Superficial concessions mean nothing to a country in crisis

National dialogues talks are set to begin in Bahrain in a week, but already things are not looking promising for the scarred and divided island nation. The opposition movement saw its entry into the Arab Spring violently struck by the ruling Khalifa family while hundreds of opposition members were arrested and thrown in jail. The ruling family struck a rather half-hearted conciliatory note by announcing the transfer of political prisoners to civilian court, creating the conditions for a failed attempt at bringing normalcy back to Bahrain.

Opposition movements are looking to perhaps reform the government – led by the minority Sunni population – to become more representative through a transition to a constitutional monarchy with a powerful elected house of Parliament. Currently, Bahrain’s Parliament has an elected lower house and an appointed upper house; the upper house has the ability to overrule decisions of the lower house, effectively giving the ruling Sunni Khalifa family final say on all decisions.

That the government has offered unity talks with the opposition as well as various concessions signifies that the massive protests that rocked the country earlier this year accomplished a change in the status quo, it is unlikely that the national dialogue will go far. Sectarian issues plague the country and Shi’ite leaders are skeptical that a Sunni government will provide equal rights for the Shi’ite majority. Yet the pessimism surrounding the talks stems mostly from the gaping national wounds that are still open and painful after the government, with help from neighboring Saudi Arabia, violently put down the national protests.

It seems as though the national dialogue talks are doomed to failure when most people in Bahrain are still grieving about those who were killed, injured, or went missing in the protests. Just last week, Bahrain sentenced eight protesters to life in prison after handing down the death sentence to four activist in April. Meanwhile, over a thousand remain in jail for protesting against the government. The story of Ala’a Shehabi and her husband Ghazi Farhan, published on Al Jazeera  is precisely the reason why these dialogue talks will fail. There remains so much anger, sadness and grief among the people of Bahrain that it is incredibly unlikely that the government will be able to move beyond the Arab Spring without making enormous political and constitutional changes that would greatly decrease the power of the Sunni rulers. From Al Jazeera:

I have compared this to the feeling of losing a child in a supermarket – and then discovering they have been taken hostage by the same forces you would usually expect to seek protection from, and with a justified fear of the victim’s abuse, torture and maybe even death. At the peak of the crackdown, four men were killed in police custody within a space of nine days. Often, police deny they have any record or knowledge of the person when their families try to locate them. This may be true, for the National Security Agency is a supra-national organisation, with the power to do what it wants with total impunity. In my husband’s case, I read a confirmation of his arrest on Twitter a few hours later. That is how this wonderful social media is now being used, by the same security agencies that have been driving a brutal crackdown on the very people who had earlier used the technology to mobilise, publicise and criticise openly.

After living on hope that the detained will be released without charge, the second stage of the ordeal that was particularly disturbing for the family is when the victim is suddenly dragged to the military court and charged. Very few get an opportunity to call their families or to request a lawyer beforehand.

The military court buildings in Riffa are relatively new. Built in 2007, one wonders if they were built with its current use in mind. Upon entering, one is only allowed to carry their ID card, no watch, no paper, no pens, no jewellery – not even a wedding ring. I had to remove my headscarf and earrings during the painstaking electronic and hand search. There is an army officer standing every couple of metres in the lobbies and court rooms. This building, with only two courtrooms, was clearly not designed to handle this number of trials in one day. Female detainees are held in the lawyers’ room for lack of space, male detainees are made to stand in the sun because of overcrowding in their holding cells and lawyers have to hang about in the lobby – as their room is now occupied by the female prisoners.

The waiting room is cramped full with mothers, sisters and wives who haven’t seen their loved ones for months, the worry weighing heavy on their brows, the outbursts frequent and quickly suppressed. I get given some friendly advice from a young woman who was in her final sitting: “Firm up your heart, my dear, the first time you see him will be tough. If they hear you even whimper, you will be taken out – as I was.”

In one of the sessions that I attended, alongside Ghazi’s case was an array of seemingly absurd cases. These involved a bodybuilder accused of attacking an Asian expat, three overweight young men accused of stonethrowing, one man who pleaded guilty of driving speedily at a checkpoint, and a photographer sentenced to five years for fabricating a photo.

As in Stalin’s era, a purge such as this needs its special show-piece trials. The first of the key show trials that most recently concluded – with sentences reaching life imprisonment – was of 21 key opposition leaders accused of plotting to overthrow the regime. The second, and in my view much more abominable, is the trial of 47 medical workers – including the best consultants in Bahrain – again on ludicrous charges of trying to overthrow the regime. They are expected also to receive severe sentences. Though my husband’s trial is a relatively minor one, the personal ordeal I have described is shared among all.

Military tribunals are being used as the primary vehicle for political justice in order to confer an element of legitimacy. Due process is compromised for speed and efficiency. The use of torture, even death, in a place beyond the rule of law, suggests that the use of military trials is tactical. This is what makes the use of military justice attractive to authoritarian rulers seeking a forum where outcomes of hearings are, for the most part, preordained.

Today, the best of the best in Bahraini society are being dragged through military courts. Doctors and nurses are being punished for treating protesters, teachers and engineers for participating in a national strike, footballers for protesting – academics, journalists, students, businessmen are all dragged through the ordeal of this military court. As Human Rights Watch testifies, this is a “travesty of justice”.

These military courts must be disbanded and prisoners of conscience must be released immediately. Such show trials undermine the rule of law by forcefully reinforcing the regime’s sense of power and control – and are not sustainable. Justice needs to prevail for any enduring peace and security to exist on this island.

Unfortunately, as Shehabi notes, this story is only one of many. Over a thousand civilians detained for false, fabricated or exaggerated charges means that perhaps the people of Bahrain is not ready to be bought over with minor concessions from the government. Though the western media has more or less passed over the situation in Bahrain for the more excitable and electric wars in Libya and Syria, the Arab Spring has not passed over the island nation. Change in Bahrain will probably not resemble the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali and it will not disintegrate into civil war, as in Libya and Syria, but real change will eventually come. The need for real change is exactly why these talks will lead nowhere.

Photo from LA Times

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