Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BAHRAIN: "Bahrain after Bassiouni: No Silver Bullet"

Bahrain after Bassiouni: No Silver Bullet
By: Matthew Cassel
Published Sunday, December 18, 2011

On brisk November mornings, Abdulnabi Kadhem used to wrap a kuffiyeh around his head for warmth as he tended to his lands near A'ali village in Bahrain.

According to family members, the 44-year-old farmer's traditional Arabic scarf may have led police to think he was a demonstrator. They had pursued him in their Land Cruiser and crashed into his much smaller sedan, killing him on impact.

His death had come just hours before the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) report on November 23. The much-touted report looked into allegations of human rights abuses committed during the violent government crackdown on the pro-democracy movement earlier this year.

Regime supporters and some members of the opposition camp had hoped the commission, headed by Egyptian-American Cherif Bassiouni, would help the country move forward after months of political impasse.

But following the report's release, the country remains sharply divided between those who continue to demonstrate for their rights and those who maintain that protesters are influenced by foreign powers and want to bring instability to the Gulf island.

Within hours of Kadhem's death, young men protested in the streets of A'ali and women gathered to mourn in his widow's home. Police fired tear gas through the streets and forced their way into the home where some 20 women gathered.

At Kadhem's funeral the next day I met many of the women who were at the house, who said that after the police had forced their way in they attacked the women.

"It was attempted murder!" shouted one of the women who had been inside. She explained how on the way out the police threw a tear gas canister inside and locked the door from the outside with some kind of cable. Police chased protesters next to the home. By the time I returned I saw the same protesters pulling the bars off one of the windows to allow the women to escape the suffocating gas.

I asked if any of them were happy with the Bassiouni report's findings. They all shouted, "No!" One told me that it made her happy because "it's sh..t in the face of Hamad!"

"All the world already knows what happened, they don't need Bassiouni to [tell them]," another woman said.

Kadhem's death is the fifteenth since more than two months of martial law ended in June. The deaths, most of which have been caused by suffocation from tear gas and police shotguns fired at close range, have occurred after the BICI's mandate for investigating violations of human rights expired.

This, along with questions concerning the report's recommendations and the government's willingness to implement them, has raised doubt about the report for much of Bahrain's opposition.

In the days following the BICI report's release, I visited the offices of al-Wefaq, the country's main Shia opposition group, just off one of Bahrain's major highways. A police officer who moments earlier was staring at his feet kicking up dust on the side of the road stopped when he saw me and my guide approach. Standing outside his Land Cruiser he watched our every step as we made our way to the front door.

Inside I asked al-Wefaq member Abdul Jalil Khalil if the policeman was always there. "All day and night," he assured me. For their protection, I asked. "Of course!" he replied with a laugh.

Khalil was one of 18 al-Wefaq members of parliament who resigned soon after the government began its crackdown in February. "All that we have been saying over the past 10 months about the human rights violations, about torture, have been proven by [the] BICI report as fact," Khalil said.

However, the problem for Khalil and many others who were at least partially satisfied with the findings is that it's unclear what the next steps will be. One of the report's recommendations is for the government to form a national committee of political groups and figures from across the spectrum to implement its findings. And this, Khalil said, is where the real problem arises.

"[The government] chose 20 [people for the national reconciliation committee], and only five out of 20 are from the opposition," Khalil told me. "The rest are all pro-government." Of the five opposition figures, two of them were members of al-Wefaq. Khalil said that the government intentionally selected two "soft" members of the group who were less likely to challenge the government position.

Khalil said the opposition has good reason for skepticism because in the past the King has promised reforms and not delivered. After assuming power in 1999 after his father's death, King Hamad organized a referendum in 2001 on a national charter to change the form of the country's government.

More than 98 percent voted in favor of the charter, but "then the King brought a new constitution and said he had made implementations," Khalil said. "The national charter said that there should be a parliament with one elected chamber. The King changed it to two chambers, one elected and one appointed [by the King]."

Now, Khalil said, the country needs to invite "a UN committee to make sure recommendations are [implemented] properly."

After pulling out of parliament, al-Wefaq boycotted a round of by-elections in late September held to replace the 18 MPs' seats. Khalil told me that until major reforms are implemented and parliament becomes one elected chamber, Khalil and the rest of al-Wefaq will continue to boycott all elections.

"We need something sustainable now," Khalil said. "[During] the last period people [have been] saying enough is enough. People want a system where you feel you are a human being living in Bahrain."

However, not all protesting in Bahrain are doing so because they feel they're being treated as sub-human. In the tree-lined streets of Riffa, Bahrain's second largest city, supporters of the pro-regime National Unity Gathering (NUG) held a rally two days after the release of the Bassiouni report.

The mood was different than normal rallies held in the villages. There were no helicopters circling in the sky; only a few kites hovered gently in the wind. The police were mostly Bahraini women, not foreign-born men, who paid little attention to the protesters as they laughed with each other off to the side. It was a peaceful atmosphere far removed from the raging demonstrations in the villages. If there had not been smoke, probably from burning tires, rising in A'ali village a few kilometers away, it would've felt like one was in an entirely different country.

Abdul Latif al-Mahmoud, the hardline leader of the NUG, addressed a few hundred supporters warning of the ongoing Iranian meddling in their country. Many supporters waved Bahraini and Saudi flags, others cheered in response, occasionally shouting a forced "God is greatest!" in response to a young man prompting them at numerous points throughout the speech.

Behind the stage I spoke with Walid al-Hamar, a member of the supreme council of the NUG. Al-Hamar told me that they condemn any human rights violations, including the torture of prisoners documented in the BICI report and demand accountability. Al-Hamar said that already, "King Hamad has taken unprecedented steps and started reform."

We paused as al-Mahmoud lashed out against Iran, and accused countries like the US and UK of hypocrisy for criticizing rights abuses in Bahrain but not in Iran.

"These our are fears," al-Hamar continued. "[We don't want] what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan to happen here."

Confused, I asked if he meant a US-led invasion of Bahrain.

"No," he replied, "I mean the pillars of Iran that are now controlling Iraq. We are concerned they're influencing Bahrain through groups here. Religiously, they're all together. Iran wants to take over [Bahrain]."

I asked al-Hamar to clarify which "groups" he was referring to. "Al-Wefaq," he said without hesitation. "They are a tool of Iran, and an ally of Hezbollah. They use [the slogan of] 'democracy' to reach power, but they don't really believe in it."

When I asked Khalil about it, he brushed away the claims that they were backed by Iran as nonsensical. Khalil told me, "The sectarian card and Iranian card are attractive for the government to convince the Sunni Arab world to support their vision."

One of the points in the Bassiouni report that angered government supporters most was the conclusion that Iran played no role in influencing the protest movement as the government and state media have claimed since the beginning. "Evidence presented to the commission did not prove a clear link between the events in Bahrain and Iran," Bassiouni said speaking at the palace.

"This is just the headline," al-Hamar said.

However, accusing the opposition of Iranian involvement is part of the government's effort to turn it into a sectarian conflict. And viewing Bahrain's opposition through a sectarian lens doesn't sit well with protesters and experienced opposition figures like Ali Rabia.

Rabia, who describes himself as a secular Sunni, was a member of parliament from 1973 until 1975 when it was dissolved by Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Hamad's father. A long period of martial law followed, until the emir's death in 1999, which brought his son, Emir Hamad (who later turned Bahrain into a kingdom and declared himself king in 2002), to power promising widespread reforms.

Rabia breaks the 2011 uprising into two phases: the first one that sought reforms and lasted only a few days after the massive protests on February 14, and a much more radical one that continues today.

When we met at an upscale Manama hotel, Rabia told me that during the first phase protesters were calling for a new constitution by the people, and an independent judiciary. "But after they [were] beaten and kicked out of the square [on February 17]...on the 19th [February] they came back and changed their slogans [to ones] about toppling the government."

This, he said, "Created disagreement in Sunnis and made them frightened." Rabia said the government exploited this sentiment and took the opportunity to cement its base among Bahrain's minority Sunni population.

According to Rabia, sectarianism has always existed in the form of discrimination against the Shia, an example of which being that they are mostly barred from serving in the country's security forces.

"What is more grievance than discrimination? It's there and they feel it," Rabia told me. "It's real when they [the al-Khalifa ruling family] don't treat them equally."

While he has struggled against the al-Khalifa regime for decades, Rabia is not opposed to the monarchy. In fact, he supports its existence as a way to ensure that religious "hardliners" (who he described by placing his hand above his belly indicating their long beards) don't take over. "I don't want myself or my children to be ruled by them," he said.

"There is an immense need for a real dialogue with the opposition. If you don't enter dialogue with the moderates it means you are strengthening the radical side. Once government enters dialogue, and it seems that it is sincere about political reforms, I think this will end." In the end, Rabia said, "the issue is not sectarianism, it's political."

Rabia said he was initially "optimistic" with the establishment of BICI, but he had doubts after its release because "nothing serious has happened."

"This is a good opportunity for government to lead the way [to reforms]," Rabia said. "We don't know what we'll be facing in the future. Now the youngsters are in the street and they're leading the scene."

"These youngsters have nothing to lose, but the country will lose," Rabia warned.

Now that their cherished Pearl Roundabout has been destroyed, the "youngsters" are left without a base as they protest in numerous villages around the country on a nightly basis. On any given night, at the entrance to many villages stand armed riot police alongside anywhere from two to dozens of police Land Cruisers. Inside the villages the air horns sound to a rhythm known as "ten ten te ten," or "yas-qut Ham-ad" (down with Hamad).

The scent of tear gas has come to characterize Bahraini villages. Even hours after it has been fired the smell remains. And in the streets the spent tear gas cartridges scatter, many of them "Made in USA", like the battleships in the port.

After the funeral of Kadhem, when police fired tear gas at mourners, I fled with protesters who led me through one of the front doors that the community opens as soon as the gas canisters start flying.

After an hour or more sitting in the hallway, waiting for the tear gas to subside, I heard a quiet voice saying, "Excuse me, excuse me." I looked over to see a woman in a room where a number of women had gathered, many of them preparing for prayers as the call to prayer sounded outside.

"I want to tell you something," she said when I sat near the threshold. She asked if I heard what they were shouting for hours in the streets and said, "[Ordinary] People don't just want the government to step down. They want the [downfall of the] whole [al-Khalifa] regime."

The young woman, a university student who asked to remain anonymous, said how the calls for reform from the political groups (whom she refused to mention by name) did not represent her and the thousands of others who are continuing their protest.

"From the first day we were only calling for reforms from the government, then they killed Ali Mushaima [on February 14] and we increased our demands."

"The King himself is most responsible; he gives commands to the military to shoot people. We cannot say only Khalifa [bin Salman al-Khalifa, the prime minister and the King's uncle] is responsible," she continued, adding, "A king who kills his own people doesn't deserve to rule."

After spending a month in Bahrain recently, I discovered this attitude is prevalent among many outside the political fray. The BICI report will change little; it will only embolden the protesters' cause by offering further evidence of the rights abuses committed against them. Inspired by the revolts that succeeded in toppling autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, protesters in Bahrain are seeking the same result.

Their call for the downfall of the al-Khalifa regime, according to al-Wefaq's Khalil, is merely a "political slogan" by protesters who he's confident will ultimately accept a compromise when reforms are implemented. If and when those reforms do happen is entirely up to the king, who, in the meantime, will have to continue hearing the calls for him to go ringing out from villages across his kingdom.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified al-Wefaq's Abdul Jalil Khalil as Abdul Khalil Jalil.

Palash Biswas
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