September 2000

Public grief following the Gulf Air disaster

A mourning nation awaits better times Bahrain was shocked by the tragic event of the Gulf Air crash that killed all the 143 passengers on board the aircraft on 23 August. The doomed aircraft had been approaching the airport when the tragedy occurred. The heroic attempts by local fishermen and residents of Samahij and Dair to recover the bodies of the victims surprised everyone. Within moments of the disaster, scores of them were on the scene recovering bodies and attempting to save the life of at least one child. Once again, Bahrain jumped to the forefront of the international news bulletins, but this time, it was unfortunately due to tragic news. The country has been on and off the international news media over the past few years, mainly for its volatile internal situation. When the latest tragedy struck, it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the country’s partially-elected parliament and the suspension of its Constitution. To many of its citizens, the anniversary was a moment of despair, having witnessed the hollow promises given by the rulers of the country. Many had hoped that the new Amir would take the opportunity to announce the resumption of the parliamentary life in the country and ending the emergency measures adopted by the Al Khalifa ruling family. None of this kind was forthcoming. Instead, more repressive measures have been taking place in recent months. Arrests of juveniles have continued unabated despite the numerous calls by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and other human rights bodies. Boys as have been in jail for several months without charge or trial. Bahraini women are behind bars, while torture is rampant in police cells. More repressive measures have been adopted recently. A seminar to discuss the constitutional rights of citizens scheduled for 8th August was cancelled on the orders of the prime minister. A list of demands presented to him by the General Committee of Bahraini Workers was rejected outright and an order was issued by him to delay workers’ committees’ election from November to February. The delay is aimed at avoiding the critical month ahead of the ruling on Hawar at the Hague and the holding of the GCC summit. The premier knows the determination of the labour movement to reject all candidates forced on them by the interior ministry and hence to delay the confrontation until after the critical month. These actions have confirmed the suspicions of many Bahrainis who saw no real change in policies in the country despite the ascendance to power by the Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, following the demise of his father last year. It is rumoured that the priorities of the two men, i.e. the Amir and the prime minister, are not the same. The Amir’s occasional hints of reform were often rebuked by the prime minister. But questions are also raised as to the seriousness of the Amir in his declarations: Is he a reformer or is he playing for time? Is the prime minister as strong as he appears to be? Is the ruling family behind the Amir or the prime minister? Is it the family’s tradition not to show discord among its members, or is it forced into total submission to the prime minister? Some observers suggest that the Amir’s remarks in favour of reforms are only a means of challenging the authority of his uncle, and he is not that enthusiastic about change. He is more of a showman who likes to travel leaving the day-to-day affairs to his uncle, the prime minister. He had earlier managed to appoint his son, the Crown Prince, in the cabinet who is now attending its sessions. When the prime minister leaves the country, the Crown Prince becomes an acting prime minister. It is a complicated picture of events, but it does suggest a lack of enthusiasm for real change in the way the country is run. The new ruler has embarked on a public relations campaign to enhance the reputation of the ruling family, and has managed to secure some support from foreign powers. This is crucial to him especially if the stand-off with his uncle continued. The jet crash has helped the government present a different preoccupation to the people who were clearly shocked and saddened by the event. The political situation is by no means less depressing to many. The stagnation that has befallen the country both politically and economically, has become endemic, and the longer it remains the more likely it will reawaken the passions of the people. The expression of sorrow at the tragedy was a genuine one. But the desire to see a serious political change in the country is also strong. The rigorous use of the emergency laws is a grim reminder of the problems facing the country. Despite the promises to reform, these laws have remained firmly in force for more than 25 years. They have claimed thousands of victims over the years, and is being used extensively to combat the rising popular movement. The regime has been eager to gain some sympathy from the people in the border dispute with Qatar, and has adopted a different approach to the relations with the citizens. It has, however, failed to make good its promises to reform. The formation of a human rights committee in the Shura Council did nothing to satisfy the victims of arbitrary arrests and torture. Since its inception a year ago, it has done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the innocent and has taken part in pro-government propaganda programmes. This has led other citizens to take seriously the issue of human rights and have submitted an official request to form a human rights group as a non-governmental organisation. It is not yet clear how the government will respond to their request. It is difficult to foresee a serious change in the political environment in the country, but it is also difficult to see an end to the crisis without these reforms. The pro-democracy campaigners have made it clear they will not back down in their struggle. They maintain that their demands are moderate. They have not called for the overthrow of the regime, neither have they opted to use violence in their struggle. The reaction of the freedom-loving people of the world has been reassuring with several petitions being singed by senior politicians, academics and professionals in several countries supporting the people of Bahrain. The Bahraini opposition, which has achieved a good reputation on the international arena, is determined to pursue its agenda for political reforms. It is the government that can decide to resolve the crisis by acceding to these demands and upholding the rule of law. Without that, the present crisis will continue.

Baharin Freedom Movement
September 2000


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