On 23 November 2011, in one of the royal palaces in Bahrain, a lavish ceremony commenced with all the pomp of a great occasion. In the era of the so-called Arab Spring, this should have been an occasion to announce the handover of power to the people, akin to the Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997. This, however, was a ceremony for the handover of a human rights report written by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a government-appointed commission with the nominal mandate of investigating the government`s crimes—hardly a thing to celebrate. It must have been awkward because most of the perpetrators accussed of carrying out these crimes were sitting right there.
In Jaw Prison on the other side of the island, my husband Ghazi Farhan, imprisoned there for eight months, told me that prisoners scrambled to find the analogue channel of Bahrain TV to listen to the speech of Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the head of BICI, after guards had switched off the satellite system to stop them. The prisoners managed to watch half the speech before the guards discovered them and switched the TV off. “Bassiouni is talking about what happened to us! We have every right to listen to him,” the prisoners argued. The guards, fearing that a revolt was in the making, ordered them back to their cells. My husband called me that evening. “Did Bassiouni ask for us to be freed?” With a heavy heart, I told him “no.” “What kind of justice is this?” he asked. “These commissioners let us down,” I replied.
Not too far away, the body of Abdulnabi Kadhem lay on the doorstep of a house in the village of Aa`li, next to his car which had been rammed in the side by a security jeep. Such jeeps storm into villages on a daily basis. He was officially the forty-eighth person killed since 14 February when the uprising in Bahrain kicked off.
No one expected the king, the commissioners or any of the attendees to offer a minute`s silence or even to pay a tribute to the dead who were mentioned in the report. To the government, they were criminals and traitors. To the commissioners, they were statistics. To the majority of the Bahrainis who are fighting for change, they are martyrs who paid the price of freedom with their sacred blood.
Most western journalists hailed the report as a gesture of reconciliation and the start of a new era for Bahrain. Human rights organizations announced that the report confirmed what they had been saying all along and it was time the government of Bahrain acted.
For government loyalists, the report was like a bucket of cold water. It effectively told them that they had been lied to. The government`s narrative was largely debunked: there was no Iranian involvement, the demonstrations were peaceful, the demands of the opposition are legitimate and did not call for an Islamic republic, military tribunals were wrong, and yes, there was not just systematic but systemic torture. Yet the report adopted the government narrative in some parts, particularly in the chapter about the raids at Salmaniya Hospital and the one about the crackdown at the University of Bahrain, two of the most contentious events. Despite the confirmation of the severity and systematic nature of abuse, the recommendations did not reflect the gravity of the situation. The king’s speech that followed Bassiouni’s continued to demonstrate a denial of the truth. He praised his security forces once again, insisted that Iran was up to no good, offered no apology and demanded no resignations. Despite the fact that the commissioners pointed their fingers at the National Security Agency (NSA), the next day the king promoted the head to another position with ministerial rank, and promoted the deputy to head the Agency. So much for accountability.
The verdict on the street was more belligerent. The February 14th Youth, the new movement that is driving the uprising, said the report was “honey laced with venom” and warned of the “treacherous dagger behind the flowers of affection.” They refer to the “contradictions, twisted facts, and conspiratorial aspects of it.” It was “born dead,” they said. The days immediately following the issuance of the report saw huge mourning processions turn into massive political protests which were quelled much the same way as before, with heavy tear gas bombardment. It was like nothing had changed on the ground except maybe for the modified chant of protestors: “If Bassiouini says there was no Iranian interference, Jazeera Shield Force get out.”
The report itself cannot be dismissed so flippantly. It includes 60 chilling testimonies of the worst cases of torture that include sexual abuse of prisoners. The report begins with a good account of the contemporary “hidden history” of Bahrain that is very different from the history in textbooks written by the state that whitewashes any mention of longstanding national struggle. Then the report gives a day-by-day narrative of events in February and March, before going into the findings based on the main violations that occurred. What is clear to me is that the recommendations do not match the scale of the findings in many areas. In addition, there are glaring omissions and redlines that the Commissioners chose not to cross.
The King, Crown Prince, Prime Minister: Original Sin
The investigation was mandated to identify what happened and who is responsible for human rights violations. It seems to have been a foregone conclusion that no explicit blame would be directed at the three poker-faced men sitting on the stage at the ceremony: King Hamad bin Isa Alkhalifa, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Alkhalifa; or Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Alkhalifa. That was the whole point of the establishment of the commission. All along it was believed that the report would exonerate these three, and so, unsurprisingly, it did just that. This defies the widely known fact that the prime minister ordered the campaign of persecution when he vowed to punish every “traitor,” which meant, in essence, everyone in the opposition because one of their main demands is to remove him after forty years in power.
The commissioners clearly strove to distance the crown prince from the crackdown by devoting an entire section to his “dialogue initiative,” and claiming that it was a huge mistake on the part of the opposition to reject his offer. The report claimed that this dialogue could have paved the way for reform but made no mention of who put the ticking bomb on talks, and why the crown prince announced his initiative on 13 March, a mere twelve hours before Saudi tanks arrived.
An interesting revelation was US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman’s attempts at mediation with a crisis plan that was accepted by the opposition groups but rejected by the government in mid-March. The obvious question here is why the government rejected this plan and took the decision to go down the path of repression, or whether this decision already had been made in Riyadh.
The Bahraini Army
According to the report, the Bahraini Defense Forces (BDF) had a direct role in human rights violations by killing at least two protestors (Abdulredha Buhmaid and Bahiya Alaradi), torturing prisoners both in the military hospital and in the military prison, using summary justice by trying civilians in military courts, and demolishing mosques. The report notes, “The Commission has not found evidence establishing a purposeful practice of excessive use of force by BDF units that undertook field operations or that manned checkpoints in parts of Manama and other towns.” This is likely to be the cleansing statement that the US is looking for to push a planned arms deal through Congress. The emphasis on the report was to put the blame on Bahrain’s homeland security.
The Decision To Bring Saudi Troops
One of the most important findings was that there is no evidence of Iran’s involvement. Given this, the report should have questioned the decision to bring in troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). That army is supposed to be mobilized to defend against an external threat. The GCC`s decision in Bahrain set a precedent that a state`s paranoia alone is enough to mobilize the GCC army. Commissioner Badriya Alawadhi had defended the right to use the GCC forces before BICI began in article she wrote in Alqabas at the time the Jazeera Shield Force entered Bahrain. She offered no re-assessment of her position after she found out there was no evidence of Iranian involvement.
Despite having access to all government files and the right to question any official, BICI chose not to direct any blame at any specific official or rank, settling instead for assigning responsibility of violations to the obvious culprit, the main security agencies, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the NSA. When asked why, Bassiouni replied that he did not receive any specific names of any officials from victims. According Hugh Tomlinson, Commissioner Sir Nigel Rodley stated that they simply did not have enough time. The former excuse is not believable, since many victims have gone on the record to identify their torturers, and the latter is not acceptable, since abundant resources were made available to do just that. Since Bassiouni was far more candid at pointing the finger at the MOI in a post-report interview with al-Wasat, one can only speculate as to why he did not name officials directly in the report
One of the common phenomena in the Arab Spring, in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and even in Libya and Yemen, are the “baltageyya,” armed government-sponsored vigilantes. In Bahrain, the baltageyya were police by day and thugs by night, or were newly recruited loyalists trained to attack protestors and instigate clashes. Few were of Bahraini origin; most were newly naturalized foreigners or just paid migrant expat workers. The existence of baltageyya is acknowledged in the report when quoting the crown prince who refers to them directly. An even more incriminating reference is in the document drafted by Jeffrey Feltmen which says, “The BDF and MOI will immediately implement an operation to terminate all vigilante activity.” Yet the report does not investigate this phenomenon to find out who was really behind the vigilantes. Substantial evidence exists of armed thugs walking in the streets of Hamad town carrying Al-Qaeda flags, attacking nurses in the University of Bahrain, and films of training camps for thugs as well as direct testimonies from the faculty themselves. Public officials linked to the security forces incited violence openly on the Salafi television station, al-Wesal. Yet all of this was conveniently omitted, and a whole section was dedicated to “attacks on the Sunni community” rather than attacks on suspected government thugs. In fact a doctor was incriminated in the report on the grounds of “breaching patient confidentiality” for showing the ID cards of injured thugs in civilian clothing that indicate they are members of the security forces. He was trying to prove the point that there is a difference between a “Sunni” and a government thug.
The result of the failure to investigate or even acknowledge the baltageyya is that eight deaths listed in the report as “Civilian Deaths not Attributed to Specific Perpetrators” are actually believed to have been people killed by baltageyya.
Sectarian Policing and Political Naturalization
The report steered away from judging the government’s policy of intentionally creating sectarian discord, particularly through the use of sectarian policing and importing foreign “manpower” or what locally is referred to as “mujanaseen” in the police.
One of the key contentions in Bahrain is the well-documented government policy of using foreign personnel from Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen in the security forces, a large proportion of who become naturalized citizens. Al-Jazeera reported this in July. The recommendations did not address this policy whatsoever, despite that it has direct human rights implications. These officers were made to feel directly threatened by protestors and were incited to inflict the worst forms of cruelty on prisoners. Their presence is calculated to create as wide a gap as possible between police and people on the street, even in terms of language. This omission leaves a burgeoning problem unaddressed.
Demanding Release of Political Prisoners
The report states that the government sought convictions based on laws that “punish those in the opposition and to deter political opposition.” It confirms that systematic torture was used to obtain confessions, such as enforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses, cables, whips, metal, wooden planks; electrocution; sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape; and religious insults. The report is critical of the military trials that took place, questions the nature of political charges, and admits that 300 prisoners are held on highly questionable grounds related to political dissent alone. Yet despite all this, the report stops short of recommending the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners. This is inexplicable and unacceptable, and in my opinion is a failure of the moral and professional duties of the commissioners.
If the victims of these state atrocities, including myself, are to judge this report, it did not do justice. In fact, it effectively gave the green light for the government to continue to detain prisoners of conscience and to try and convict people of political charges. What is even more disappointing is that the report contradicts what commissioners have told me in private, particularly Sir Nigel Rodley who said that my husband’s case (discussed on page 297) “is a black and white case of arbitrary arrest.” I have asked him twice now why he did not call for my husband’s release in the report, but he has not replied.
A related point is that the report recognizes people’s right to peacefully protest and says that the government “resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force [and] terror-inspiring behavior” but stopped short of calling for a halt to routine attacks on such protests. Rather, it called for better training, more investigations, more commissions.
Connecting the Dots: Persecution of Shi’a
By looking at the report’s parts (each violation is treated separately) and not its sum total, there is no acknowledgment of the overall policy of persecution which goes beyond systematic torture alone. The entire state apparatus was used to repress, and this is not perceptible if violations and responsibility are confined within distinct silos, for example violations perpetrated by the MOI, or within judicial system, or within the BDF alone. The campaign of repression and persecution was coordinated across ministries, and overseen by the prime minister who had said, “No violators will get away with it.” He added, “All co-conspirators and abettors must be held accountable” (page 324). In contrast, the report of the UN Fact-finding mission in Syria does precisely this.
The Human Rights Charade
The report effectively turns the issue of human rights violations into a “police training problem” as one blogger put it, and calls for police “reform.” “King Hamad has already hired a cadre of Western consultants to help him put his ‘police state’ in order,” the blogger goes on.
Barely had the ink on the report dried when it was announced that the MOI had hired the notorious police chief, John Timoney, from the US and John Yates from the UK. It is not unusual to have British advisors in the security services. Predecessors have included Ian Henderson (dubbed the “Butcher of Bahrian” in the 1990s), David Jump, Gus Cunningham, and Alistair McNutt. They left a legacy of repression and some had a direct hand in torture.
One of the first decrees announced by the king was the promotion of the head of the mukhabarat to special advisor and deputy secretary of the Supreme Defense Council. If the theory of “dictator solitude” is correct, the heir is still only listening to the voices in his head. This was apparent in his speech in which he continued to espouse the imaginary Iranian hand behind the mass dissent he is facing.
The Prospect of Justice
Absent credible local investigations, a problem clearly identified in the report gives the international community a role to play. If justice for civilian victims, such as my husband, cannot be obtained through local authorities, then the international community must act. There are various mechanisms through which to pursue international justice. Among them is the option to prosecute foreign (in this case Bahraini and hired expatriate) perpetrators in the national court systems of other countries on the basis of universal jurisdiction. The exercise of universal jurisdiction aims to hold accountable those who are accused of gross violations of international law. The UN and Western governments in particular face the particular accusation of hypocrisy when pushing for accountability in places like Syria and Iran but not with Bahrain, a strategic ally.
Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during the uprising will mean that the “culture of immunity” will continue, and that the systemic problem will be further entrenched. The commissioners’ role here was to exercise their power to demand the release of prisoners, to incriminate those directly responsible and to suggest tangible steps for reconciliation. They failed on all three counts and this is a breach of their moral and professional duty.
Five hundred political prisoners of the nearly 3,000 arrested remain in Bahraini jails today. They must be released and by not calling for this, the report has failed them. As my husband aptly asks, “Why am I in handcuffs and my torturers are getting promoted?” This is what Bassiouni wanted and allowed. This is not justice and it is not the end. Our struggle for freedom will continue.