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Euro-MP Mr. Stan Newens writes on Bahrain in “Liberation” magazine

[Liberation, Volume 40, 1997 (Released in January 1998)]

Bahrain – a country of torture and murder

Stan Newens MEP writes on the history of a strife torn land

Bahrain is the largest of a small group of islands in the Gulf. Linked by causeway to Saudi Arabia. Its history goes back to ancient times when it was known as Dilmun and had trading connections with the early civilsations of Mesopotamia and with the Indus Valley-today part of Pakistan, after undergoing numerous conquests. It came under Iranian rule in the 17th and 18th centures of our era, but in 1783 it was taken over by the Al Khlaifa family from Qatar.

The latter withstood numerous attacks from Oman, rival factions of the family and claims by Turkey and Iran as the result of accepting protection from Britain, which was in full control of affairs from 1868 to 1971. Since independence, the Al Khalifa family has continued to rule with strong support for British interests.

The present population is about 600,000 in number, of whom nearly 40% are guest workers from neighbouring Arab countries and the Far East-some estimates put this figure as high as 60% of the native Bahrainis, some 70% are Shi’ite Moslems and the remaining 30% are Sunnis. Oil was discovered in 1932 and its exploitation has generated great wealth for the ruling class and funded education, health and welfare services for others. Poverty however continues to afflict many of the inhabitants, especially the Shi’ites.

Trade unionism and left wing ideas took root in Bahrain from the 1930’s onwards and there were powerful demands for democratic government when Britain finally withdrew on 16 August 1971. It was in response to this that the Amir announced the establishment of a Constituent Assembly to determine a constitution. The result was the setting up of a National Assembly of 30 members elected by males over 20 years of age and 14 ex-officeo members who were Cabinet Ministers. Parliament had no powers to initiate legislation and a majority against the Government was only possible if two thirds of the elected members voted together and stood their ground.

The Assembly met on December 16th 1973 but less than two years later, on August 26th 1975, it was dissolved and never -to the present time- reconstituted. Opposition to the State Security Measures Law proposed by Amir Isa in 1974, granting powers to imprison citizens for up to 3 years without trial, was the reason for Parliament’s demise.

In the aftermath of the dissolution those who protested were arrested, imprisoned and in some cases forced to leave the country. Since that time there have been periodic phases of popular opposition, invariably followed by trials and severe repression.

In 1978 the Shah of neighbouring Iran was overthrown and rule by the Ayatollah Khomeini followed. This inevitably influenced the Shi’ite population and some elements adopted Islamic fundamentalist ideology. Some terrorist outrages have occurred but the main opposition still consists of democrats, socialists and liberal Moslems, such as those associated with the London based Bahrain Freedom Movement. Their main aims are to restore democracy and an elected Parliament and to end repression and the infringement of human rights.

These demands have withstood all attempts to suppress them. In the wake of the movement launched by democrats in Kuwait following the Gulf War, a new campaign developed in Bahrain. Perhaps in response to this, the Government announced that exiles would be allowed to return, and increased housing subsidies in 1992 to assist the poor. In 1993, the Shura was set up –a national consultative council with 30 appointed members – mainly businessmen, lawyers and other substantial citizens, including several former members of the National Assembly.

These steps however failed to allay the discontent, and for the past four years or so protests, demonstrations and violent confrontations have continued, despite arrests, imprisonment and ill-treatment of those thought to be involved.

A number of terrorist incidents have taken place. These have included bomb attacks on police stations, commercial buildings, hotels and restaurants. A bomb exploded at the Meridian Hotel, where a meeting of oil industry executives had been arranged on January 17th 1996. A car belonging to the editor of the Government backed newspaper, Al Ayam, was blown up.

Such occurrences have been used by the authorities to blacken the names of all opponents of the present regime. Prominent members of the opposition abroad have been accused of masterminding a terrorist campaign.

At the same time infringements of human rights have increased and many of those arrested –but not all- have been tortured or savagely beaten.

Although allegations of widespread torture or ill-treatment are denied, the evidence assembled by Human Rights Watch and other organisations, often backed up with photographs and verbal testimonies, cannot possibly by dismissed as fabricated.

According to some reports, Sheikh Zayed, President of the United Arab Emirates, which is strongly committed to Bahrain in financial terms, told Crown Prince Hamad of Bahrain that the authorities should meet opposition leaders and seek to resolve the crisis. When it was rumoured that the Crown Prince might seek to put this view to his father, Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler since 1961 and elder brother of the Prime Minister, the latter ordered leading dissidents to be put on trial in absentia. Eight of them were sentenced to prison terms varying from 5 to 15 years in November on charges of spying for a foreign country, Iran.

However, while these proceedings were in hand, first the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the United Nations and then the European Parliament passed resolutions denouncing human rights violations and calling for the restoration of democratic rule. The European Parliament’s resolution produced a hysterical reaction on the part of the Government controlled press and the authorities tried to browbeat European Union Ambassadors into denouncing it.

The crisis is however far from resolved and will continue to grow. While Bahrain has a more liberal tradition in attitudes to the death penalty, women’s rights and other issues than its neighbours, the democracy movement will not go away.

All who sympathise with the rights of ordinary people and recognise the need for Arab countries to end medieval backwardness and undemocratic rule must support the cause of democracy in Bahrain. If this cause fails, more and more people may turn to Iran and to Islamic fundamentalism to achieve change, which would be disastrous.

Freedom and the possibility of real progress in Bahrain would be decisive step forward not only for Bahrainis, but for the Arab peoples as a whole.

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