On 23 November 2011, in one of the royalpalaces in Bahrain, a lavish ceremonycommenced with all the pomp of a greatoccasion. In the era of the so-called ArabSpring, this should have been an occasion toannounce the handover of power to the people,akin to the Hong Kong handover ceremony in1997. This, however, was a ceremony for thehandover of a human rights report written bythe Bahrain Independent Commission ofInquiry (BICI), a government-appointedcommission with the nominal mandate ofinvestigating the government's crimes—hardlya thing to celebrate. It must have been awkwardbecause most of the perpetrators accussed ofcarrying out these crimes were sitting rightthere.
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 ofProfessor 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 methat evening. “Did Bassiouni ask for us to be freed?” With a heavy heart, I told him “no.” “What kind of justice isthis?” 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 tohis 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 paya 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, theyare 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 itwas 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 beenlied to. The government's narrative was largely debunked: there was no Iranian involvement, thedemonstrations were peaceful, the demands of the opposition are legitimate and did not call for an Islamicrepublic, military tribunals were wrong, and yes, there was not just systematic but systemic torture. Yet thereport adopted the government narrative in some parts, particularly in the chapter about the raids atSalmaniya Hospital and the one about the crackdown at the University of Bahrain, two of the most contentiousevents. Despite the confirmation of the severity and systematic nature of abuse, the recommendations did notreflect the gravity of the situation. The king’s speech that followed Bassiouni’s continued to demonstrate adenial of the truth. He praised his security forces once again, insisted that Iran was up to no good, offered noapology and demanded no resignations. Despite the fact that the commissioners pointed their fingers at theNational Security Agency (NSA), the next day the king promoted the head to another position with ministerialrank, 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 theuprising, said the report was “honey laced with venom” and warned of the “treacherous dagger behind theflowers 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 mourningprocessions turn into massive political protests which were quelled much the same way as before, with heavytear gas bombardment. It was like nothing had changed on the ground except maybe for the modified chant ofprotestors: “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 oftorture 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 thatwhitewashes any mention of longstanding national struggle. Then the report gives a day-by-day narrative ofevents in February and March, before going into the findings based on the main violations that occurred. Whatis 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 rightsviolations. It seems to have been a foregone conclusion that no explicit blame would be directed at the threepoker-faced men sitting on the stage at the ceremony: King Hamad bin Isa Alkhalifa, Crown Prince Salman binHamad Alkhalifa; or Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Alkhalifa. That was the whole point of theestablishment of the commission. All along it was believed that the report would exonerate these three, andso, unsurprisingly, it did just that. This defies the widely known fact that the prime minister ordered thecampaign of persecution when he vowed to punish every “traitor,” which meant, in essence, everyone in theopposition 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 entiresection to his “dialogue initiative,” and claiming that it was a huge mistake on the part of the opposition toreject his offer. The report claimed that this dialogue could have paved the way for reform but made nomention 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 thatwas accepted by the opposition groups but rejected by the government in mid-March. The obvious questionhere is why the government rejected this plan and took the decision to go down the path of repression, orwhether 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 bykilling at least two protestors (Abdulredha Buhmaid and Bahiya Alaradi), torturing prisoners both in the militaryhospital and in the military prison, using summary justice by trying civilians in military courts, and demolishingmosques. The report notes, “The Commission has not found evidence establishing a purposeful practice ofexcessive use of force by BDF units that undertook field operations or that manned checkpoints in parts ofManama and other towns.” This is likely to be the cleansing statement that the US is looking for to push aplanned arms deal through Congress. The emphasis on the report was to put the blame on Bahrain’shomeland 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 reportshould have questioned the decision to bring in troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). That army issupposed to be mobilized to defend against an external threat. The GCC's decision in Bahrain set a precedentthat a state's paranoia alone is enough to mobilize the GCC army. Commissioner Badriya Alawadhi haddefended the right to use the GCC forces before BICI began in article she wrote in Alqabas at the time theJazeera Shield Force entered Bahrain. She offered no re-assessment of her position after she found out therewas no evidence of Iranian involvement.
Despite having access to all government files and the right to question any official, BICI chose not to direct anyblame at any specific official or rank, settling instead for assigning responsibility of violations to the obviousculprit, the main security agencies, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the NSA. When asked why, Bassiounireplied 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 notbelievable, since many victims have gone on the record to identify their torturers, and the latter is notacceptable, since abundant resources were made available to do just that. Since Bassiouni was far morecandid at pointing the finger at the MOI in a post-report interview with al-Wasat, one can only speculate as towhy 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 dayand thugs by night, or were newly recruited loyalists trained to attack protestors and instigate clashes. Fewwere of Bahraini origin; most were newly naturalized foreigners or just paid migrant expat workers. Theexistence of baltageyya is acknowledged in the report when quoting the crown prince who refers to themdirectly. An even more incriminating reference is in the document drafted by Jeffrey Feltmen which says, “TheBDF and MOI will immediately implement an operation to terminate all vigilante activity.” Yet the report doesnot investigate this phenomenon to find out who was really behind the vigilantes. Substantial evidence existsof armed thugs walking in the streets of Hamad town carrying Al-Qaeda flags, attacking nurses in theUniversity of Bahrain, and films of training camps for thugs as well as direct testimonies from the facultythemselves. 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 Sunnicommunity” rather than attacks on suspected government thugs. In fact a doctor was incriminated in the reporton the grounds of “breaching patient confidentiality” for showing the ID cards of injured thugs in civilianclothing that indicate they are members of the security forces. He was trying to prove the point that there is adifference 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 thereport as “Civilian Deaths not Attributed to Specific Perpetrators” are actually believed to have been peoplekilled 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 referredto as “mujanaseen” in the police.
One of the key contentions in Bahrain is the well-documented government policy of using foreign personnelfrom Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen in the security forces, a large proportion of who becomenaturalized citizens. Al-Jazeera reported this in July. The recommendations did not address this policywhatsoever, despite that it has direct human rights implications. These officers were made to feel directlythreatened by protestors and were incited to inflict the worst forms of cruelty on prisoners. Their presence iscalculated to create as wide a gap as possible between police and people on the street, even in terms oflanguage. 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 oppositionand to deter political opposition.” It confirms that systematic torture was used to obtain confessions, such asenforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses, cables,whips, metal, wooden planks; electrocution; sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbalabuse; threats of rape; and religious insults. The report is critical of the military trials that took place, questionsthe nature of political charges, and admits that 300 prisoners are held on highly questionable grounds relatedto political dissent alone. Yet despite all this, the report stops short of recommending the immediate andunconditional release of prisoners. This is inexplicable and unacceptable, and in my opinion is a failure of themoral 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, iteffectively gave the green light for the government to continue to detain prisoners of conscience and to try andconvict people of political charges. What is even more disappointing is that the report contradicts whatcommissioners 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 didnot 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 ofcalling 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 noacknowledgment of the overall policy of persecution which goes beyond systematic torture alone. The entirestate apparatus was used to repress, and this is not perceptible if violations and responsibility are confinedwithin distinct silos, for example violations perpetrated by the MOI, or within judicial system, or within the BDFalone. The campaign of repression and persecution was coordinated across ministries, and overseen by theprime minister who had said, “No violators will get away with it.” He added, “All co-conspirators and abettorsmust be held accountable” (page 324). In contrast, the report of the UN Fact-finding mission in Syria doesprecisely this.
The Human Rights Charade
The report effectively turns the issue of human rights violations into a “police training problem” as one bloggerput it, and calls for police “reform.” “King Hamad has already hired a cadre of Western consultants to help himput 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 policechief, John Timoney, from the US and John Yates from the UK. It is not unusual to have British advisors in thesecurity 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 directhand in torture.
One of the first decrees announced by the king was the promotion of the head of the mukhabarat to specialadvisor and deputy secretary of the Supreme Defense Council. If the theory of “dictator solitude” is correct, theheir is still only listening to the voices in his head. This was apparent in his speech in which he continued toespouse 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 internationalcommunity a role to play. If justice for civilian victims, such as my husband, cannot be obtained through localauthorities, then the international community must act. There are various mechanisms through which topursue international justice. Among them is the option to prosecute foreign (in this case Bahraini and hiredexpatriate) 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 ofinternational law. The UN and Western governments in particular face the particular accusation of hypocrisywhen 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” willcontinue, and that the systemic problem will be further entrenched. The commissioners’ role here was toexercise their power to demand the release of prisoners, to incriminate those directly responsible and tosuggest tangible steps for reconciliation. They failed on all three counts and this is a breach of their moral andprofessional duty.
Five hundred political prisoners of the nearly 3,000 arrested remain in Bahraini jails today. They must bereleased and by not calling for this, the report has failed them. As my husband aptly asks, “Why am I inhandcuffs and my torturers are getting promoted?” This is what Bassiouni wanted and allowed. This is notjustice and it is not the end. Our struggle for freedom will continue.