Bahrain: The revolution continues, one year on – Bahrain Freedom Movement

16/02/2012 – 7:43 p | Hits: 2117

On 14th February 2011 Bahraini youth declared their revolution demanding a fundamental change in the system of government, that hereditary dictatorship must end and that the people are given the right to determine their own destiny. The Saudis intervened militarily while the Americans failed to support the pro-democracy activists. The revolutionary youth are determined to make the change and end the black era of the Al Khalifa, their dictatorship and torture.

14 February, 2012

Lord Avebury, the Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary HR Group: This is the anniversary of the start of the uprising in Bahrain, which was aimed at securing human rights and democracy, but so far has served to demonstrate two things: on the one hand the tenacious hold of the hereditary autocrats of the al-Khalifa family on the reins of power, and on the other, the resolution of the people to assert  basic rights such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from torture, freedom of expression and assembly.

Above all they want the right conferred on them by Article 1 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to freely determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.  Without this right of self-determination all other rights are conferred or withdrawn only at the whim of an absolute ruler, which is why there has to be political change in Bahrain.

This is not to say that all the suffering and agony endured by the people over the last year have been to no effect. The Bassiouni Commission, which some thought was the al-Khalifas’ way of buying time, turned out to be a valuable exercise in that it detailed at some length the gross and persistent violations of human rights that were committed by the régime against their main political opponents and against ordinary citizens on their streets and in their houses. Opposition groups say that 60 people were killed in the last year including the five who died under torture according to the BICI.  But when Basssiouni announced his findings, the king immediately said he would accept all the BICI recommendations, and the regime must be held to that undertaking.

Perhaps the most important of Cherif Bassiouni’s recommendations was that

“all persons charged with offences involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, have their convictions reviewed and sentences commuted …..”

The Commissioners made it clear they intended that the political prisoners should be exonerated and released but they’re still in custody and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of the foremost human rights defenders who was sentenced to life imprisonment, has been on hunger strike against his continued detention. At the end of January he was taken to hospital suffering not only from the effects of the hunger strike but also the torture he endured while being interrogated. The BICI recommended that torture victims and those who were detained incommunicado like Mr al-Khawaja should be compensated, but needless to say there has been no sign of that happening.

Other political prisoners given life sentences, still detained, include Dr Abduljalil al-Singace, who has spoken several times at our seminars here. He is severely disabled and in spite of being unable to walk without crutches was forced to stand for hours by the National Security Apparatus.

Hassan Mushaima, a prominent leader of the opposition, who suffers from cancer, also remains in prison under a life sentence.

Some well-meaning people think that the way forward in Bahrain is to promote a dialogue between the al-Khalifas and the opposition. When he was in Bahrain in December the Minister, Alistair Burt, told everybody he met that they should ‘fully seize this moment for reconciliation and broader reform’. How could this be even contemplated when the opposition leaders are in custody or in exile, and there is no freedom of  expression? The Bahrain Center for Human Rights website is blocked and they were not among those invited to discussions with the Minister; demonstrators are gassed and beaten; bloggers are imprisoned; the TV pumps out government propaganda, and foreign journalists who wanted to cover today’s anniversary have been refused leave to enter Bahrain.

The UK government has shown wilful naivety about the Bahrain regime’s commitment to reform. It continues to accept these professions of good intent despite stagnation and rising levels of violence. Meanwhile the foreign minister of Bahrain said  last week that ‘There is no political prisoner in Bahrain’, highlighting the state of unrepentant and brazen denial which prevails in the Bahrain government. Their repetition of the mantra of Iranian interference, for which there is no evidence, reinforces the unfortunate picture of heads in the sand. The conflict between obstinate rulers and frustrated people is as far from being resolved as it was a year ago, and the blame rests squarely on the  intransigence of the al-Khalifa hereditary dictators and their allies.

Sarah Yassin: Index on Censorship: In November I had the opportunity to go to Bahrain for the release of the BICI report. I was there as part of a fact-finding mission. We were investigating the state of free expression in Bahrain. What we found was something that was very troubling. We found people repeating the same thing. Things did not seem different from the images they were describing from before.

            In speaking to protesters and activists and students who had been expelled we found that their lives had been disrupted by the crackdown in February and March. What happened with the BICI report was released was that government officials promised that this would be a time of moving forward.  On the ground we saw that things had not changed. We went to protests in the villages where we saw the same cycle that we were describing before and that was getting worse.

            For us as a mission we looked at the BICI report and what we saw was a very severe situation.  We saw 59 cases of torture being documented. We saw a very dire situation. But what you saw  was a set of recommendations that did not match up with the level of severity that this report documented. Right now we are seeing the impact of that. We are seeing that these recommendations have a lack of action. The government is floundering when it comes to what should be done next.

            As far as free expression goes in Bahrain it is pretty safe to say there isn’t much at the moment. Foreign journalists  were denied entry to Bahrain and human rights activists were also denied access to Bahrain. I can tell you that I sat in meetings with the Ministry of Human Rights where they guaranteed us transparency and entry to the country because they said we would work together to make sure Bahrain would be able to move forward and learn from its mistakes.

            What is really happening here is that there is a story that needs to get out. There is a narrative that needs to get out about what is happening. But rather than trying  to  heal what has happened in the past the government of Bahrain has unfortunately focused more on trying to distort that narrative and scramble it.

             Journalists are regularly targeted in Bahrain, there is a pretty big campaign to distort the stories that are coming out through social media like Twitter and Facebook.  People have been convicted for things they wrote on their personal social media pages.

            For us in the UK there is something that is very important. There are people in the UK who are participating in scrambling that narrative. It is important for us to really firms accountable that are working with the Bahraini government on the pr front, whether that is going after journalists or going after newspapers for publishing certain kinds of information. We need to hold people accountable.

            When I was in Bahrain I met with the UK ambassador and he said that the UK would take the BICI report as something that was serious and it would help the Bahraini government to implement it. The process for implementing those recommendations has been very slow.

Apart from the situation on the ground not changing another major issue is that you still have political prisoners who are in prison and have only been imprisoned for expressing their views.

            It is deplorable that any of them are in prison but the case of Abdul Hadi Khawaja is one that has a particular sense of urgency to it. He is currently on hunger strike. His health is very poor. He was tortured in prison. This is documented in the BICI report and if he dies in prison this could  push the situation into a much darker region. Not releasing those prisoners just helps perpetuate the idea that the government is not concerned with action.

            We published a report saying that  we saw the BICI report as being successful if the recommendations could actually be implemented. What  we are seeing now is committees being created to implement the recommendations but the reality isn’t changing. It is very important for both the UK and the USA and other important partners for Bahrain to really push Bahrain to implement these recommendations and move forward and not suppress the movement.

            In a video he put out Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Society for Human Rights explained why he was going back to Pearl Roundabout. He said he is going back because the people still have demands and that is the important thing for the government not to forget. The people of Bahrain still have demands and they need to listen to them for Bahrain to move forward.

News item from Arab TV: Fadhila Al Mubarak (a former prisoner who  tortured and was released a few weeks ago. She was a teacher imprisoned for about eight months for fomenting demonstrations). The mother of an eight year old boy was arrested at a check point for listening to revolutionary songs. She was from a village in the center of Bahrain. On March 27th she was returning home in her car and was listening to revolutionary songs. A man dressed in black shouted at her to turn off the music.  She refused as this was not a usual request from a traffic policeman.

            She was taken to a police station and her mobile phone and that of her son was taken away. Her personal papers were also confiscated. She was tried by a military court and given a four year prison sentence for incitement to overthrow the government. This was reduced to 18 months on appeal. In prison she saw young girls who were malnourished and ill treated.

Dr Mike Dibble University lecturer, banned from Bahrain: It gives me great pleasure to be here. My name is Dr Mike Dibble and I was working at the university of Bahrain between August 2007 and May 2011. I would like to tell you a little bit about me and what happened to me. That is not because I think that things that happened to me are more important than things which happened to Bahrainis.  The kinds of things that I have seen an experienced will give you an idea about what is going on over there.

            In Bahrain I started off in the College of Arts and then I transferred in 2008 to Bahrain Teachers College. The Bahrain Teachers College was founded in 2008 as a key part of the  Bahrain 20 – 30 vision which was founded under the auspices of the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman Al Khalifa which came out of a report done in 2004 – 2005.  It was the Kingsey report which looked at Bahrain’s post oil prospects and decided that they were quite weak and that one of the things they needed to address quite rapidly was the issue of education.

            So my role was  academic head of continuing professional development and I two responsibilities. One was to work with Bahraini and international stake holders to put together a comprehensive  training package for state sector teachers in Bahrain. The other was to take care of the faculty professional development for Bahraini and other faculty members at the Bahraini Teachers College.

            When I started working there we were given to understand that this was supported at the highest level, the Crown Prince, the palaces and all the rest of it. We would  encounter resistance but if we did through the Economic Development Board we could get in touch with the crown prince and he would sort things out for us.

             Education reforms were aimed at moving away from what was really a dictatorial model of education where the students were all passive learners and they were instructed by teachers to something much more dynamic and student-centered so that students would become empowered learners.

            I think one of the mistakes that the regime made was thinking people who had been through a process like that at school and at university would leave the concept of citizenship and empowerment behind because that is what you do at university. Obviously it doesn’t work like that.

            Things went very well for almost a year. An important piece of background to what is happening here. People talk about the Bahraini government, the ruling family and the regime. It became very clear to me that what we are dealing with became multiple and conflicting loci of power even within the regime itself.

            That is why I think that the position taken by people like Alistair Burt the Middle East Minister is incredibly naive when he says we are dealing with the government,, we are dealing with the royal family, we are dealing with King Hamad. In my experience different factions within the regime actively work against each other. Some of them are around the prime minister who has been in office for 41 years ever since Bahrain achieved independence and the royal court minister and a few other individuals. They has a vested interest in continuing instability because it is the only thing that gives them a reason for keeping their regime in place.

            The crown prince’s faction lost out in an internal power struggle. These things are never advertised in the media. It is something that you find out initially through rumours and eventually it became clear to me that what the crown prince’s faction  was trying to do was to set up a set of parallel institutions to the existing Bahrain government institutions. This set of parallel institutions were being systematically dismantled.

            This was going on from April through to September 2010. Simultaneously to that there was a lot of tension. The university became run almost like a police state. You had to guard every word that you said. In the wider society there were a lot of clamp downs, attacks on the villages and so on  and so forth.

            When I came back from my summer vacation, I spent the summer in the UK, I was told that my contract would not be renewed. I was actually expecting a promotion. No good reason was given for that. This was September 2012. During that time in my role as academic  head of professional development I had undertaken a masters level qualification delivered on campus in the University of Bahrain by a British university. I got a distinction with an overall grade of 82 and a fellowship of the UK Higher Education Academy which is UK lead body for ensuring excellence in teaching and higher education. So there was no question marks over my professional competence.

            What emerged was that I defended a few people in the system. I could talk about this until Christmas but I won’t. Very basically it was sticking up for human rights, academic freedom and equality of opportunity issues at the college. Incidents affecting both the students and faculty members there.

            Just a little bit of background. I am forbidden to go back to Bahrain. I was an eye witness to a very violent incident on campus on 13th March 2011 when a peaceful demonstration largely made up of young women was attacked by a gang of sectarian thugs. Most of them were from outside the university. I have photographic evidence of this. They came in with a range of blunt and edged weapons including axes, spears, swords – all that sort of thing. The sort of things you would not expect people to have at a university. They attacked the demonstrators and were supported by the Bahraini police.

            I contributed some 15,000 words of testimony with supporting evidence to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry on that. The University of Bahrain shut down for two and a half months following this violent incident while they decided what to do about it.

            During that time I an other ex-pat faculty members were told to go home. I came back here to the UK. I was ordered back to be interviewed by the security services and had my lap top handed into the police so they could do some ICT forensics and see who I had been talking to. I was told via a very terse email that I would be met at the airport which sent shivers down my spine. Thinking about it, weighing everything up, I thought I could not do that for the safety of my family, I can’t go back there. Ethical professional practise in education had become an impossibility in Bahrain and I submitted a letter of resignation from the UK giving comprehensive details as to why I was resigning.

            I got a letter back from the University of Bahrain, I have a copy in my bag, signed by the head of their legal department citing among other things surveillance of my internet activity that had been going on as a reason for me being in breach of contract which meant they did not have to pay me a substantial five-figure sum in contract settlement.

            I am forbidden from going back to Bahrain. So is my wife Miranda and my son Ben. And so is Rebecca who is three years old. Rebecca was born in Jidfs maternity hospital when I was in Bahrain. It was important to me to live in the community. Unlike many Western ex pats I did not live in a compound I lived just outside of Saad which is a relatively impoverished neighbourhood.

            My daughter was born in Jidfas Maternity Hospital on 3rd December 2008. It was a complicated pregnancy and my wife had to spend ten days in the hospital. When she was three or four days old  I went to visit her and my wife told me to get something out of the car. I went to do that. As soon as I got of the door my eyes were streaming because of the CS gas that had been released within the immediate vicinity of the hospital. I panicked and went back inside the hospital and was told that my daughter, who was slightly premature, had been moved to an incubator.

            I was obviously a little bit panicky about this. She was a few days old. This was carpet gassing. It is using riot control gas in open spaces. It is being used as a kind of chemical weapon. The nurse said there is nothing wrong with your daughter. We always do this when gas comes in the hospital. So Rebecca, like myself, is branded as a threat to national security.

            I have heard through indirect contacts that I have with people who work in the Interior Ministry in Bahrain that I would be stopped at the airport but should I somehow find a way into Bahrain, maybe a boat from Qatar, I am on a red flat arrest list.

            Interestingly I read an interview with the British ambassador to Bahrain, a Mr Ian Lindsay, which was published in the regime’s English language propaganda sheet The Gulf Daily News, and it Lindsay was at pains to point out that he is passing a list of trouble makers – people the regime does not like – and want something done about. It could easily be anyone here. These are people that the regime has problems with. Apparently he sent reports to the police and other agencies.

            All I did was simply speak out. In fact when I was at the Teachers College at the University of Bahrain one of my responsibilities was to implement the UK higher education professional standards for teaching and learning in higher education.  Like many UK framework guidelines it has a very strong equal opportunities trend to it. So I was only doing my job and that got me in trouble.

            If that can get me in trouble then God only knows what they can do to Bahrainis. If I can be branded as a threat to national security doing my professional job what is going to happen to people who are here on visas or who are here on indefinite leave to remain? Thank you very much.

Lord Avebury: With regard to the tear gas we were told that some of it had been supplied by the US subsidiary of British Aerospace. I asked a question about that and I was told that we have no control over the sales of armaments or military by the foreign subsidiaries of British companies. I think that is something we need to look into. It is a way of avoiding responsibilities if UK based and UK owned companies can indirectly supply banned military equipment such as tear gas,  simply by handing over contracts to subsidiaries in other countries. This is something which should be investigated.

Maryam Abu Deeb (daughter of Mahdi Abu Deeb, a leading teacher who is in jail) via skype: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of the Bahraini people I would like to thank you for taking the time to hear about what is going on in my country. My name I Maryam Abu Deeb and I am the daughter of the President of the Bahraini Teachers Union, Mahdi Abu Deeb.

            Bahraini people have been tortured and brought before military courts for protesting and shouting that their demonstration is peaceful. My father is the President of the Bahraini Teachers Union.  He was arrested on April 6th.  They pushed him down the stairs to the ground floor and started kicking him when he reached the ground.  We knew about his treatment and his first court hearing from Twitter. We knew that he was beaten in the military prison.  Nobody told us about his condition.  For a month we did not know whether he was dead or alive.

            He was sentenced to ten years in prison for inciting hatred against the regime and trying to overthrow the ruler. His confession was obtained under torture and my dad is still in prison.

            I believe that what is happening to my father is because he played a leading role in the Bahraini Teachers Union since 2011.  My brother had to leave the country for his own safety. My sister is a 13-year old teenager and these events are far too emotional for someone of her age. My ten-year old sister  can’t understand why a good man like my father is in prison.

            Thank you for letting me talk about my personal story. Similar things are happening almost on a daily basis.

Lord Avebury: What an amazing story. Thank you very much for sharing it with us. Your father certainly ought to have been released along with other political prisoners as part of the recommendations of the Bassiouni commission. We will do whatever we can to bring pressure to bear on our government to implement the recommendations of the report and release your father along with other political prisoners.

Question:  When was the last time you met your father and how was he?

Maryam Abu Deeb:  On February 12th my father started a hunger strike.  When my mother saw him he was a bit tired.

Saeed Shehabi: When you speak to him how is his morale?

Maryam Abu Deeb: He did not do anything to hurt this  country.

Lord Avebury: We would like to get the teachers’ union here to support the campaign for your father’s release. The British Medical Association has done a lot for the doctors. I am not aware yet that the teachers union yet taken up the cause of your father.

Saeed Shehabi: Two or three days ago I saw something from the teachers union mentioning both Jalil Al Salman and Mahdi Abu Deeb.

Lord Avebury: We would like to work more on that and we would like to have a document from you detailing the plight of your father as you have spoken today and if you could let us have that by email it would be very useful for us in helping to campaign with the teachers union to get your father released.

Saeed Shehabi:  Thank you very much. Would you like to say a final word?

Maryam Abu Deeb: Thank you very much for the time you gave me.

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