Jihadi who fought in Syria admits to receiving funding from four Bahraini MPs

This video was brought to my attention by @almakna. (The veracity of the contents have not been confirmed, but if true, it contains a lot of interesting insights). It is an interview  from the Tunisian TV show ‘La Baas’  featuring someone who claims to have been a Jihadi fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad. It is interesting in itself, but most notably because the interviewee, who sounds Tunisian, claims that the Free Syrian Army recieved money from four Bahraini MPs who are members of Bahrain’s Salafist political society – Al Asalah. He proceeds to name two of them. One is Shaykh Adil al-Ma’wda, the former head of Al Asalah. He also mentions Shaykh Abdulmajid al-Murad, though perhaps he means Sheikh Abdul Haleem al-Murad, an MP also from Al Asalah. Remember that photos emerged in 2012 of Abdul Haleem al-Murad (@Murad_bh), Adil al-Ma’wda and Hammad al-Muhannadi  (another member of Al Asalah) dining with Syrian rebels in Syria. Gulf News also reported that former MP Faisal Al Ghareer attended. Abdul Haleem al-Murad also tweeted in 2012 that the trip was in support of ‘Suqoor al-Sham’ (falcons of the Sham – an Islamist group based in Jabal al-Zaway according to Time). For more details on this story, read Justin Gengler’s blogpost on the topic.  

At the time, the Bahrain authorities response was weak. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed they had no knowledge of the MPs trip to Syria, and urged citizens not to travel to conflict zones. However, given the MPs’ frequent denunciation of foreign interference in Bahrain, the irony of their actions is obviously acute. Interestingly, the Bahrain government have announced tough new laws on those helping foreign terrorist groups. The Gulf Daily News reports:

In an effort to prevent such acts, Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa ordered security authorities to intensify searches and investigations to arrest those who have travelled to fight either by incitement, agreement or assistance. A travel ban will be imposed and the suspects will be referred to Public Prosecution.

The GDN implies by this that those who have already committed such acts will be arrested. I do wonder then what the statute of limitations is? Will any charges be leveled at the MPs, or will the Bahraini government just claim that the rebels in Syria do not constitute a terrorist group as determined by the Bahraini government? Maybe the only real terrorist groups are  Hezbollah, Youth Movement of February 14th Coalition, the Resistance Brigade, and the Al Ashtar Brigade – i.e. those groups that can be linked to Shia movements in the region. Or maybe Bahrain will follow Saudi, and provide rather luxurious Jihadi rehabilitation centres for those fighting against Assad, but continue to put in prison though ‘terrorists’ whose jihad is politically less acceptable to the Bahrain authorities. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see how/if the Bahraini authorities respond to this latest video, and whether Al Asalah will stick by the story they gave in 2012:

 “What happened is that some members of our society, driven by the urgent calls of religion and pan-Arabism, gave donations to the Syrian people. The donations were in the name of the Bahraini people, and not Al Asala,” the society said.

In addition to this information, the interviewee also provides some other interesting claims;

- that MPs met with a man called Abu Isa, the head of Suqoor al-Sham

-the MPs promised to give Abu Isa’s fighters 1000 dollars a month in addition to weapons

-The interviewee also states that former Kuwaiti MP Waleed al-Tabtabai has sent weapons on money to rebels. He does this through  an Islamic charity set up in Kuwait for this purpose

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Bahrain on the Brink

Yesterday (03/03/2014), the Bahrain Ministry of the Interior reported that three bombs  had been detonated in the village of Daih. One explosion killed three policemen, including an Emirate officer. The Ministry of the Interior announced today that 25 people had been arrested in connection with the attack. Naturally, the MoI will make quick arrests, whether the accused are guilty or not. To fail to do so would look weak, and potentially inflame tensions between those who wish to enact their own style of vigilante retribution. Human Rights groups reported house raids and collective punishment in Daih following the attack, and this video shows a policeman kicking a detainee a few times as he (the detainee) lay on the ground.

Although there were four bombs, it is unclear exactly who is responsible for what.  At least two groups have claimed responsibility via social media for the attacks in Daih – the Al Ashtar Brigades and the Popular Resistance Movements. The former group’s confession can be read here, while the latter’s can be read here. Although it is possible that the two groups planted separate bombs, or co-ordinated attacks, they do not mention this. The Popular Resistance Brigade state they conducted an attack near the Al Hashmi centre in Daih. The Al Hashmi centre is the location outside which most of yesterday’s grisly pictures of wounded/dead officers emerged. (see here then here to view the Al Hashmi centre(jump to 0.28). Similarly, the Al Ashtar brigade took responsibility for the attack that resulted in the death of three policemen – presumably at the Al Hashmi centre too. So far, different media outlets have attributed the attacks to different parties. Khaleej Times, for example, have attributed it to the Popular Resistance Brigade, while the AFP, Financial Times and Gulf News attributed it to the Al Ashtar Brigade.

Regardless of who did it it, it is interesting that this is not the first time they appear to have claimed responsibility for the same attack. In May, both groups seemed to take credit for the same attack against policemen in the village of Karanah(See here and here). Whether or not it was the same attack cannot be certain, yet they both happened in the same place at around the same time. It is also interesting to note that a Twitter account for the Popular Resistance Brigade was linked to the Bahrain government (however, there is no evidence to suggest Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked). Ultimately, it is not clear who runs these accounts. They could be government sponsored accounts, they could be real militant groups, or they could be some keyboard activists with a knack for religiously infused Arabic rhetoric.

As for the Bahraini government, they have not made an official announcement yet as to who was responsible, but the names of both groups have featured frequently in the local newspapers following other bomb explosions. Recently, a policeman claimed that during his investigations he found that Al Ashtar brigades were linked to the Coalition of February 14th. Furthermore, the government seem to be taking the threat seriously, as they recently put Al-Ashtar Brigade, the Popular Resistance Brigade, and the Coalition of February 14th on the terrorist blacklist. Interestingly, as Dr.Abdulhadi Khalaf points out, the Deputy Chairman of the Dubai Police Leiutenant General Dahi Khalfan seems to have single handedly discovered that the person who killed one of the Emirate policeman (specifically?) was trained by Hezbollah and used to visit Lebanon a lot. Step aside Benedict Cumberbatch.

Rising Violence

Having said this, these brigades need not be the only ones responsible for violence. The use of explosives, especially Molotov cocktails, is not new. In Bahrain’s latest uprising (the one that began in 2011), Molotov cocktails became frequently more common towards the end of 2011. There have also been numerous reports of improvised explosive devices being used. February 14 Youth Coalition have defended the use of violence in the name of self defence (and not against civilians) for some time now. In addition to this, video evidence suggests a more brazen attitude among some groups towards violence. A video depicting the making of a relatively sophisticated, remote detonated IED surfaced before February 14th 2014. The video appeared to be endorsed by Bahrain’s unlicensed opposition, who have co-operated a lot recently with the February 14th Youth Coalition, especially on the anniversary of the uprising in February 14th where they appeared to snub the civil disobedience agenda propagated by the country’s licensed opposition. Whether ًُ or not the inclusion of the unlicensed opposition’s logos on the video meant they support violence is still unclear.

However, unlike the licensed opposition, who have unequivocally condemned yesterday’s attacks against policemen, the unlicensed opposition have remained silent. That does not mean they condone it, but rather they are unwilling to commit to condemning violence as it implies that they are succumbing to government pressure to police their own constituency. Also, condemning violence is problematic, as it seems to tie into the government’s narrative that positions activist violence as an unwarranted and unprovoked attack on a benevolent and reformist state. In fact, the government have continued to repress dissent while not opening up sufficient political breathing room in which to craft a non-violent solution. In short, the safety valve of participatory politics has been denied activists, while continued state violence is creating an untenable situation in which violence is seen by many as a justifiable means of retaliation. Of course, such a statement is not one that celebrates killing, (and some people have sought to celebrate it – as this video from the village of Nuwaidrat shows), but one that acknowledges that killing is reprehensible, no matter who carries it out. However, the justificatory framework for killing in the name of fighting systematic oppression is  much greater than killing on behalf a state in order to perpetuate a system of exploitative inequality.

Despite this, the statement of the licensed opposition, and the desire of some people to see what happened yesterday as a government fabrication/plot demonstrate the fact that violence is still frowned upon by many people, activists and non-activists alike. However, nuance is often a luxury in a climate of sectarianism and political strife, and there are a number of people who still wish to perceive any act of violence as being the responsibility of the opposition in its entirety. Manama Press, for example, already blamed yesterday’s attack on Al Wefaq. This man in Muharraq stated that this was not a ‘peaceful’ revolution (the implication being that one act of violence taints those  others who advocate peaceful method – a logical fallacy, but not an uncommon argument in Bahrain). The government also have invoked Iran as a potential agitator in the recent affair, further contributing towards tropes that positions the government as a bulwark against sectarianism radicalism. There is also the theory that the government staged the bomb.

Intra-societal tensions

There is also a growing concern that vigilante groups may become increasingly involved in policing Bahrain’s internal politics. While the use of ‘thugs’ has always long been a problem, elements of Salafi conservatism may be creeping in more than before. Al Asala Islamic Society, have threatened to confront anti-government protesters if the government does not introduce tougher sanctions. Similarly, the National Unity Assembly, a loyalist opposition coalition have also pulled out of the upcoming dialogue until the government deal with the ‘terrorists’ with an ‘iron fist’. The NUA’s secretary-general, Abdulla Al Howaihi, also claimed that the legal opposition were essentially endorsing terrorism.

“What is the point of sitting on the dialogue table with participants who directly or indirectly use their political umbrella to support terrorists?”

Meanwhile, secular opposition party Wa’ad, whose own secretary general Ibrahim Sharif has been in prison on trumped up charges, demanded police protection after their headquarters were threatened . The threat came after attacks on the headquarters of opposition society Al Wefaq following the bombing on Monday.  In addition to this,  Adel Flaifel, an accused torturer-turned-Salafi-preacher, has been inciting sectarianism, and stating how Shia elements and the US were working together to attack Sunnis (In Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf).  Whether this kind of bilge has any traction in Bahrain remains to be seen, yet the government are playing a dangerous game, provoking sectarian tensions and invoking a climate of fear amongst some of the country’s Sunni population.  Incidentally, I imagine neither Flaifel nor the hundreds who gathered in Muharraq to protest against the police deaths will be held to account for breaking the law (Inciting sectarianism and illegal gatherings are against the law in Bahrain- though anti-Shia insults and ‘pro-government gatherings’ seem to be tolerated).

Furthermore, while transnational politics have always been important in Bahrain, the fact that one of the officers was from the UAE has potentially exacerbated regional tension by turning the Bahrain conflict into an emotive issue for residents of the UAE. The Dubai chief of police has already suggested sending 1000 Emirate policemen to Bahrain in order to show the ‘enemies of the Arabian Gulf that the security of Bahrain is all of our security’. If this were to happen, it would simply be highlighting the not-so-secret, and increasingly pervasive policy of unelected GCC leaders policing the politics and people of Bahrain. Such a move would hardly go down with Bahrain’s opposition, many of whom still refer to the presence of the GCC Peninsula Shield in Bahrain as a foreign occupation. The presence of UAE troops in policing Bahrain’s internal situation also poses further questions about Bahrain’s sovereignty (as addressed here by Ala’a Shehabi). Currently, the country is policed by a force of mercenaries drawn from many other countries, both inside and out the Arab World. The most recent revelation is that a new force of policemen drawn from GCC countries under the title ‘Amwaj Al Khaleeh’ is now active in Bahrain (The UAE officer who was killed, Tariq al-Shahi, was part of this force). Indeed, a government so dependent on foreign forces to protect a ruling elite can hardly be called sovereign, let alone legitimate.*

The presence of more foreign troops in Bahrain to combat so called ‘foreign-inspired’ terrorism already points to Bahrain being a battle ground between nervous Gulf monarchs and their own insecurity of Shia expansionism or democratisation and/or power sharing. This is particular true of Saudi, who have always been nervous of oppositional elements in Bahrain, whether they be Shia, communist or nationalist.

While the US has recently reported that Iran is supplying ‘arms and other aid’ to Shia militants in Bahrain, it does not provide much more detail or evidence. True or not, the supplying of arms to groups willing to use them is largely irrelevant, as it is no basis to discredit or punish an entire movement who are willing to protest without recourse to violence. Sadly, the Bahrain authorities have led a punitivie campaign against Bahrain’s opposition, whether legal or illegal. At the moment, it is unclear how they will further increase the costs of engaging in dissent. So far they appear to have been tackling unrest in a typically authoritarian fashion, provoking the situation and then appeasing angry loyalists by taking a hardline against anti-government protesters. Naturally this process has resulted in increased resentment, and explains the recent increase in violence. (Let us not forget that the bombing in Daih came after people were protesting the death of another young activist in police custody). Whatever happens, the next few days will offer a telling insight into Bahrain’s future.

*Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE closed ranks again today against Qatar in the name of the security. They appear to be irritated by Qatar’s unwillingness to step in line with regards to adopting a singular GCC security police. UAE have also banned members of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest opposition society. (update: this story was reportedly fabricated)

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Debunking frustrating protest banners

Yesterday, 3000 people gathered near the town of Riffa in Bahrain to express their support for Bahrain’s security forces. Their demands ranged from wanting higher punishment for those accused of killing policemen, to a general need to give policemen more arms. The whole event followed the tragic death of a policeman, who was killed by protesters on 14th February 2014. (six suspects have been arrested in connection with the killing). Anyway, I decided to give a brief diatribe against why each of the placards in the above photo is enormously frustrating. Please forgive my irascibility today.

1) ‘We refuse foreign interference in Bahrain internal issues’.

Sure, unless it’s Saudi troops coming in to guard important facilities to free up the police and the Bahrain Defence Force so they can continue with their repression. Or what about foreign arms that the regime use to repress dissent? American and French teargas, Cypriot birdshot? What about all those tourists who come to the F1, and the importance of foreign direct investment to Bahrain? Is this also foreign interference? Or is foreign interference merely any foreign interference designed to prevent the government from being held accountable for violations against human rights? Please, define what is meant by ‘foreign interference’.

2) ‘Application of the law is the solution. Apply the law to all the terrorists’. Hmm, given that Bahrain’s own Prime Minister has demonstrated his own disdain for the law, maybe we can see that part of the problem is that the PM disagrees with the rule of law. For those who can’t remember, here he is, telling a suspected torturer that laws don’t apply to him. Also, which laws are we talking about, the ones that have generally been decreed by an unelected government/the king, or the laws designed to limit freedom of expression, such as banning protests in Manama, imprisonment for insulting the King, and the banning of V for Vendetta masks? Oh those laws! I see two main issues; that laws are generally made for the benefit of the hegemonic elite (in this case Al Khalifa regime), and that laws designed to protect the rights of the citizens are ignored or usurped when the regime is threatened.

3) ‘It’s a crime to have our security forces unprotected against terrorists’. What in the… The body armour, jeeps, batons, shotguns, teargas, pistols, helmets, shields, pepper spray, boots are not enough? When will you be satisfied, when the riot police are rocket propelled grenades and heavy artillery?

Meanwhile, while the Daily Tribune pointed out that the march supporting the country’s security forces had a protest permit (what a shocker!), they did not mention the fact that some protesters were holding banners that could contravene Bahraini law. An example being this group of mostly unmasked men (what have they got to fear right?) holding a banner showing the heads of important religious and political figures superimposed on the bodies of dogs.* Presumably that is meant to be insulting. If so, it probably contradicts the Bahraini penal code articles on libel and the insulting of religious figures. I mean, remember those two boys who were given six months in jail for mocking Sunni clerics? The last person I remember  insulting a Shia figure was that girl who filmed herself confronting masked youth in the road. She also yelled ‘down with Isa Qassim’. Judging by her Twitter feed and bio, I doubt she has been to, or will be going to jail anytime soon (though maybe shouting ‘down with Isa Qassim’ does not qualify as an insult. If that’s the case, I imagine shouting ‘down with Hamad’ is not either. Awkward). Maybe nothing happened because not enough police were in attendance. No wait, Khalifa bin Ahmed, a former police Colonel was there pressing the flesh**

While I’m not advocating stricter libel laws (I am all for criticising public figures). I’d rather the government be consistent in its application of the law, and stop allowing supporters of the regime and its legal control agents to evade the system. Furthermore, these rallies that give a facade of popular support to the government’s draconian security policies also have serious political implications. Not only do they attempt to validate repression by having ordinary citizens come out in support of the police, but they also make incredibly sweeping statements about the nature of violence in Bahrain. Instead of just being about supporting the police, these rallies contain people waving banners conflating terrorism with Al Wefaq, insulting opposition religious and political figures, and promoting vague notions of xenophobia. The march was as much a denunciation of all things opposition as it was support for the police. Furthermore, it is not condoning violence against the police. Of course not. I do, however, object to selective empathy with a force of people who engage in acts of violence with impunity.

*Thanks @iA7med80 and @SE25a for this

**.(Incidentally, when was Colonel Khalifa bin Ahmed reinstated into the police? According to this report by the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights he was dismissed back in September 2011 Now he appears to have been promoted to a Brigadier).

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If Sarah bin Ashoor’s NYT op-ed had been one of my students’ essays, this is how I would have graded it…

Having recently finished marking about 80 essays on various aspects of Middle Eastern history written by my first year undergraduate students, I thought it only fair to subject Sarah bin Ashoor’s recent op-ed in the New York Times to the same scrutiny. For those of you who have not read it, Sarah’s op-ed toed the Bahrain’s government line heavily. It blames the opposition and Iran for Bahrain’s woes, and depicts the autocratic government as a victim of its own benevolence. It was also rather anti-Shia, and its author, Sarah bin Ashoor,  claims to belong to the “Gulf Affairs Forum” (which is proving to be as elusive as WMD). As a result, it picked up a lot of criticism, prompting various people to doubt the integrity of the piece (and indeed of the New  York Times editorial desk). Here is an example of said criticsm:

Anyway, for a more thorough lambasting of bin Ashoor’s piece, read Dylan Byer’s and Justin Gengler’s posts. Incidentally, I asked Sarah bin Ashoor for more details on the “Gulf Affairs Forum”, but she has not responded to me. However, given Bahrain’s record for getting PR companies to place op-eds in reputable news outlets, it would not surprise me if someone’s palms have been greased. In addition, @thekarami directed me to this piece highlighting the problems at the New York Times editorial desk. It places the blame at the feet of Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor at the New York Times. (Incidentally, I asked Andrew Rosenthal for an explanation but he too has not responded. Maybe I am too lowly for the Rosenthals and bin Ashoors of the world).

Anyway, without much further ado, here is how Sarah bin Ashoor would have fared if she was one of my students.

IMAG1787

For more information on Sarah bin Ashoor’s previous performances, here are the links to some video interviews with Channel Four and the BBC. Thanks @SE25a for these.

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Are Bahrain’s Unlicensed Opposition Calling for Violence this February 14th?

bomb

Clip from video showing the bomb

Having been busy with teaching, PhD work, and other commitments, I have not had much time to blog. However, given the impending third anniversary of the Bahrain Revolution on February 14th , I thought it best to put something together. The most striking thing I discovered this morning was this rather dramatic video depicting youth in Balaclavas making preparations for the upcoming civil disobedience named ‘Qadimuun’ (literally ‘Coming’). It was released by the ‘Media Center of the Revolution in Bahrain‘.

Despite the snazzy production values, which have come along way since 2011 (A fact true of all the online media channels belonging to the various village and revolutionary groups in Bahrain), the video contains images that will certainly alarm many people. The religious imagery (footage of the Qoran and a man praying) juxtaposed with footage of people making a bomb (jump to 2.27) represent a marked change from the protests we witnessed back in 2011. Indeed, in 2011 there seemed to be more of a unified effort by most factions to emphasise peaceful resistance with perhaps less recourse to religious imagery. The bomb here, while unsophisticated, appears to be an improvised explosive device triggered by a mobile phone.

The footage (0.12) of the Qoran is also significant, as it shows Surah Al-Anfal (The Spoils of War), which was written after the Battle of Badr – in which the Muslim army under Muhammed fought with the Quraish tribe of Mecca. (Somewhat ironically, Saddam Hussein named his campaign against the Kurds ‘Al-Anfal’). Digressions aside, the Surah can be interpreted as justifying battle against  those who are the enemies of Allah, which in this case is undoubtedly the apostate Al Khalifa regime and their Saudi Arabian (Quraishi?) backers. Ayat 60 reads (go to 0.12 on video or click this link to read it directly);

أَعِدُّوا لَهُمْ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ قُوَّةٍ وَمِنْ رِبَاطِ الْخَيْلِ تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ عَدُوَّ اللَّهِ وَعَدُوَّكُمْ وَآخَرِينَ مِنْ دُونِهِمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَهُمُ اللَّهُ يَعْلَمُهُمْ ۚ وَمَا تُنْفِقُوا مِنْ شَيْءٍ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ يُوَفَّ إِلَيْكُمْ وَأَنْتُمْ لَا تُظْلَمُونَ

Muster against them all the military strength and cavalry that you can afford so that you may strike terror into the hearts of the enemy of Allah and of your, and others besides them who are unknown to you but known to Allah. Remember that whatever you will spend in the cause of Allah, shall be paid back to you in full and you shall not be treated unjustly.*

While the Surah justifies battle against the enemies of Allah, it is still unclear which elements of Bahrain’s unlicensed opposition endorse the use of violence. The bomb-making video appears to be endorsed by a number of Bahrain’s unlicensed opposition parties. This includes the Alliance for a Republic (i.e. the Bahrain Freedom Movement, Al-Haq Movement, and Al-Wafa Islamic Party), the Youth Coalition of the February 14th, the Salvation Movement, and the Islamic Action Society (Amal). I say ‘appears’ because the video contains all of these parties’ banners at the end, implying some sort of link.  Although the Youth Coalition of the February 14th Movement have endorsed the use of violence in self defense and not against civilians, it is unclear where the other parties stand. (I asked them earlier today and am waiting for a response from all these groups to see whether they endorse the use of bombs).

While the stance of all these ‘unlicensed’ opposition societies is not quite clear with regards to violence, they obviously co-ordinate on other forms of civil disobedience. In a snub to Bahrain’s largest opposition political coalition (which includes Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad ), the unlicensed coalition recently issued a joint statement are calling for actions on the 14th February. Al-Wefaq and its coalition partners, on the other hand, have opted to have a number of events leading up to February 14th and a large demonstration on the 15th February. No doubt their decision to avoid causing a scene on the 14th is the result of a government pressure and/or appeasement strategy. (let’s not forget that two key Al Wefaq figures were arrested late last year – Ali Salman and Khalil Marzook). Either way, Al-Wefaq more conciliatory stance is unlikely to be viewed favorably by those groups espousing more violent means, and is likely to drive a further wedge between the licensed and unlicensed opposition. It certainly emphasizes the differences between Bahrain’s opposition, and shows that Al-Wefaq are not necessarily the terrorist enemy that some hardliners in the Bahrain government would like many to believe.

Either way, February 14th is set to be interesting. While it will most likely fail to generate any significant political impact, there could be a casualty or two. That’s not to say there has been a wholesale shift in tactics. Far from it, the traditional tactics of roadblocks, marches and blackouts will also be used (see this video of revolutionaries handing out pamphlets in at least three different languages asking for people to close their shops over the next few days). Despite the use of more peaceful forms of civil disobedience, this video is so far the most brazen and audacious endorsement of violence by the Youth Coalition of the February 14th Movement (or whoever made it). Whether it represents even more broader support for religiously justified violence among Bahrain’s unlicensed opposition remains to be seen.  However, this very open show of violence highlights how government attempts to divide the opposition movement and promote disunity amongst opposition groups has succeeded.

*Also, although the religious rhetoric may worry secularists, there is nothing implicitly sectarian about the text.

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The Killing of Abdulla al-Madani, Muhammed Ghuloom Bucheeri & Saeed al-Owainati

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Saeed al-Owainati (left) Mohammed Ghuloom Bucheeri (right)

On the evening of 18th November 1976,  Sheikh Abdulla al-Madani, a former politician and editor of the weekly newspaper ‘Al-Mawaqef”, was found dead in a patch of desolate land near the village of Jidhafs in the North of Bahrain. He had been stripped, beaten, and stabbed to death. The police arrested three Bahraini men for the murder; Mohammed Taher Al Mahari (aged 19), Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon (aged 25), Ali Ahmed Falah (aged 21). After interrogation, the three detainees  admitted that they were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (A left wing moment that operated in the Arabian Gulf at the time).

Despite initially arguing that they acted alone, the detainees later claimed that the murder had been ordered by three senior members of PFLOAG in Bahrain. These were; Ahmed Makki (aged 27), Abdul Amir Mansour (aged 24) and Muhammed Ghuloom Bucheeri (aged 28). They were also arrested. In addition to this, at least twenty-four other arrests were made, including the Bahraini leader of the Popular Front – Abdulla Mutaiwa. The investigation also revealed a PFLOAG cell in the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF). Among this group was Saeed al-Onawaiti, a young Bahraini poet. However, al-Owainati was never part of PFLOAG, but rather a member of the National Liberation Front.

Torture and deaths

The inmates were reportedly subject to to brutal torture, yet the British Ambassador was ‘assured’ that although ‘the interrogation was severe, it was by no means rough by Middle Eastern standards, and while the interrogation, could be regarded as having contributed to his death, it was not the proximate cause’.

Despite the best efforts of the guards to interrogate mildly (well, by Middle Eastern standards), Muhammed Ghuloom Bucheeri reportedly fell ill and later died due to a pre-existing condition – in this case asthma (as most commentators on Bahrain will know, people having been dying in police custody from organ failure and pre-existing conditions for decades). This ‘mild’ interrogation does not explain why Ghuloom was buried in a secret grave in Manama. To this day, the government still have not told the family the exact location of Muhammed’s grave.

Before Ghuloom had time to die, he apparently confessed to a broader terrorist plot planned by PFLOAG. The plans, allegedly directed by senior PFLOAG members in Baghdad, included attacks on ministers, journalists, economic targets, and even the hijacking of a Gulf Air flight.

Although Ghuloom died at the hands of the police, Sayeed al-Owainati was interrogated, tortured, and killed by the Bahrain Defense Force. Apparently, the already uneasy relations between the BDF and the police were heightened when the BDF inferred that the police had killed al-Owainati. The BDF also allowed al-Owainati’s family see the body and the ‘obvious signs of violence’ on it.

The BDF’s killing of al-Owainati was considered a state secret, and was never publicly admitted by the Bahraini government. Members of BDF PFLOAG cell were punished as follows; one was given life imprisonment, three were given twenty years, one was given eighteen years, one was given fifteen years, and three were acquitted.

Abdulla al-Madani and the motive

The British reports of the incident stress that the motives of the leftist PFLOAG agents were based on the fact Abdulla al-Madani was the editor of a right-wing newspaper with a pro-religious and pro-government line. However, this report and the alleged motives are not necessarily that straightforward, An American diplomatic cable described Al-Madani as, ‘a populist-style critic of the government and ruling family’ – a description that Bahraini sociologist Abdulhadi Khalaf described as a bit of an overstatement. The cable also states that Al-Madani was often in tactical alignment with the leftist bloc during his tenure as head of the Shia bloc in the National Assembly. (A perhaps more worrying note in this cable is that al-Madani had leftist tendencies in his youth, but was ‘cured’ after his arrest and interrogation in the early 60s).

Although it is certainly true that Al-Mawaqef generally adopted a pro-government line, Al-Madani did ruffle a few feathers. In 1975, he published an article that criticized  government attempts to surreptitiously get the religious bloc in the national assembly to support a secret meeting that would support postponing a debate about the controversial State Security Law.**** Al-Madani also upset the Americans in 1974, when he argued that the decision to station the US base in Bahrain should be subject to parliamentary debate. The Americans were naturally keen to finalize the base deal before it could be subject to public scrutiny. So while Al-Madani may have made enemies on the left, he certainly riled members of the government and the Ruling Family too. 

The evidence in the al-Madani case

Two days after the murder, the British reported in a telegram that the police had ‘no clue as to the perpetrators of the murder’. However, they mention in the same telegram that there were four aggressors and that they had Bahraini accents. Unless there is an error in the telegram, it seems one of the only reasonable explanations is that there were  witnesses who had spoken to/heard the accused yet could not determine who they were, and that these witnesses came forward between the time the murder was committed and between the time the telegram was sent. However, a Bahraini accent is not much to go on on. If only more witnesses would come forward who could recognize the perpetrators…

As luck would have it, this happened. Apparently on the night of the crime, at about 11pm, the alleged murderers knocked on the door of Abdulla Salah Hussein to ask directions to al-Madani’s house. Hussein, who was a registrar at a school in Abu Saibah,  happened to recognise Muhammed Taher al-Mahari from when he signed him up to class. The witness also noted how he could make out a red Datsun car with a group of people sitting in, but could not identify who they were. If only the police could also find a witness who could identify those dark shadowy men.

…As luck would have it, another important witness came forward. Clearly not great with directions, the alleged murderers had already stopped at around 10.30 pm at the house of someone else to ask directions to the house of Abdulla al-Madani. However, on that occasion, Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon had volunteered to knock and ask for directions. Fortunately for the police, the witness had known al-Marhoon for about a year, and also recognized the other two who were sitting in the red Datsun (Falah and al-Mahari). Another witness then claimed he saw the red Datsun outside Al-Madani’s house.

Although these rather serendipitous testimonies verified the occupants of the car, and confirmed that the accused wished to go to, and eventually parked outside al-Madani’s house, the evidence was weak – something even the British acknowledged.  It is unclear whether or not anyone questioned why the perpetrators of a murder would wander around a village, knocking on the doors of people (who happened to know them) in order to ask for directions to their victim’s house. Having said that, they did claim to be drunk.

In addition to this evidence, the police already had signed confessions, which were allegedly extracted under torture. They also produced further confessions during the trial (This implies that ‘interrogation’ was still happening after the court case has started). Despite defense objections to the fact these confessions had not been produced at the committal proceedings, the evidence stood. It seems likely that the confessions were produced in this fashion as the actual evidence might not have been enough to secure convictions.

Trial and appeal

To recap, those on trial for kidnapping and killing Abdullah al-Madani were;

1) Muhammed Taher al-Mahari; 2) Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon; 3) Ali Ahmed Falah; 4) Ahmed Makki; 5) Abdul Amir Mansour

The judges included one Egyptian, one Jordanian and Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Jaber Al Khalifa. (What political trial would be complete without a member of the Ruling Family). The first three men were charged with murder and other crimes. The other two (4 and 5) were charged with conspiracy and instigating murder.

Muhammed Taher al-Mahari pleaded guilty, even though he was described in a British document as ‘so limited in intellect that in England he could probably have pleaded diminished responsibility’. Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty of planning it and other minor offenses. Ali Ahmed Falah admitted kidnapping only. Ahmed Makki and Abdul Amir Mansour pleaded not guilty, and also claimed their confessions were extracted under torture.

In the end, Muhammed Tahar al-Mahari, Ibrahim Abdulla Al Marhoon, were convicted of murder and given the death sentence. Ali Ahmed Falah was given life imprisonment for kidnapping, although after the appeal hearings, which were concluded on 5th March 1977, Falah’s sentence was increased from life in prison to death – (the reason for which is suggested later). The president of the appeal court was a senior Al Khalifa,* and  the three men were killed by shooting on 7th March 1977.

As for Ahmed Makki and Abdul Amir Mansour, who had allegedly planned the murder, they were actually acquitted. Despite this they remained in jail for eight years** afterwards – most probably to prevent them becoming heroes for the leftist cause. Again, the fact that they stayed in prison despite being acquitted illustrates the nature of political justice in Bahrain.

Pressure to arrest, pressure to kill

British reports mention how failure to make arrests would increase the likelihood of  al-Madani’s religious supporters taking the law into their own hands and attacking leftists. Keen to avoid this, the Bahraini authorities wanted to make quick arrests. In addition to this, there was a lot of political pressure to make an example of PFLOAG. Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Prime Minister, wanted to secure five executions. In fact, the Prime Minister reportedly told the British Ambassador that if the judges did not secure five death sentences, he would put the judges themselves on trial. He also added that he was making preparations for five executions.

According to the British, the Prime Minister’s attitude  reflected divisions in the Ruling Family between the moderates and hardliners. Whereas the former believed that executing five Shia men would create political tension, the latter believed that executions should happen before pressure could be generated for a reprieve. The hardliners also included merchants close to the Ruling Family. In additions to this, the Saudis were pressuring to have the executions carried out as swiftly as possible, as they too feared a delay would create popular pressure for a reprieve. The judges reportedly waited for the dispute to be resolved before committing to a verdict.

It is worth noting that the Prime Minister’s attitude towards any anti-government agitation was hawkish from the get go. In 1973, a group of PFLOAG members, including two women, were arrested on put in a prison on the Bahrain Island of Um al-Hassan – where the Prime Minister said they would  stay. In the same year, a PFLOAG member accused of storing weapons and explosives was also given a stiff sentence in order to deter other potential recruits.*** The Prime Minister was also angry at Kuwait’s leniency towards its own radicals. Perhaps it was the PM who pressured the Kuwaitis to expel a Bahraini leftist from University in Kuwait? Clearly the political murder of Al-Madani provided a great opportunity to move against PFLOAG, and an even better opportunity to insure continued division between religious elements and leftists.

What did the British know?

The British knew that al-Owainati had been tortured and killed by the Bahrain Defence Force. However, because this information was told to the British Ambassador in confidence and was regarded as a secret by the Bahrain government, the British said nothing. In fact, when Stan Newens, a British MP and member of the Gulf Committee , wrote to ask about the death of the Ghuloom and al-Owainati, the British simply said they could not confirm the report about the latter’s death. Of course this was untrue, and during a number of drafted letters between the Foreign Office and Newens, the British were careful not to let on how much they knew about Al-Owainati’s death. They thought it would compromise the source that had given them useful information on Bahrain’s internal situation (the name of the source is omitted, but presumably it is Ian Henderson – I have sent another FOI request in the hope of having the source disclosed).

Although the British did not divulge much information to Newens and the Gulf Committee, they sent a report of the incident along with the full details of al-Owainati’ death to Tony Crosland, the British Secretary of State at the time. What Tony Crossland did with the information is unclear, although what is clear is that British officials actively hid details of the incident from the British public. It is also unclear how much the British really knew about Ghuloom’s death. It seems unlikely that the source who knew about al-Owainati’s torture did not also reveal more about Ghuloom’s torture and the torture of the others. Indeed, despite British protestations that the presence of British officers in the Bahrain police was not their concern, they were clearly uneasy about it.

Opposition reaction

Both the National Liberation front and PFLOAG claimed that Al-Madani’s murder was a ploy by the government to frame leftists and increase religious tensions in Bahrain. A statement by the two parties read;

‘Many patriots, including workers, students, soldiers and other sections of the population in town and countryside now face brutal torture’

A report in the Morning Star noted that thousands of people marched in support of releasing the remaining PFLOAG prisoners. They were, after all, incensed that two of their number had been brutally killed in the interrogation. However,the executions and crackdown severely diminished the activities of both PFLOAG and the NLF.

The legacy of the al-Madani case

Ghuloom and Al-Owainati’s legacy has been sustained by the brutality, injustice and mystery surrounding their deaths. As for the al-Madani trial; whether or not those tried were actually guilty is up for debate, though it is clear that political pressure from Saudi, the Prime Minister and hard line merchants had a notable impact on the outcome.  Additionally, the fact the British public were prevented from knowing more about al-Owainati’s death also may have contributed to reduced political pressure to press for accountability and transparency from the Bahraini government.

Over thirty years have passed since their deaths, but both Muhammed Bucheeri Ghuloom and Saeed al-Owainati remain important icons in Bahraini politics. In particular, they highlight the often brutal and opaque tactics  used by the Bahraini government, who continue to use nefarious methods to combat challenges to their authority. Graffiti images of the two are still common around Bahrain, and some of al-Owainati’s poetry can be read here (Thanks @chanadbh for this link). Some of the survivors of the case are still directly involved in Bahraini politics. Ahmed Makki, for example, is a member of the National Democratic Action Society (Waad).***** Furthermore, there are still those searching for justice. For example, Muhammed Ghuloom’s sister recently gave a speech at a Waad meeting demanding that those who tortured her brother be brought to justice, and that the government finally tell them where their Muhammed is buried.

 

* The British document does not mention him by name, though does state the judge was a brother of the ministers of labour and education. It was probably either Khalid or Isa bin Muhammed bin Abulla Al Khalifa

** Although this document states Ahmed Makki stayed in prison for eight years, I cannot be sure about Abdul Amir Mansour

 *** Also in 1973, iconic Bahraini political figure Muhammed Bunafoor and PFLOAG member died in a suspicion explosion in his house. The authorities alleged he was making a bomb, while others believe it was a plot engineered by the security forces to get rid of Bunafoor – who had been a huge thorn in the regime’s side for years. 

**** According to another a British telegram, the rulers were actively trying to turn the religios bloc against the leftists. The British even mentioned how this ‘divide and rule’ was a potentially dangerous tactic. (FCO 8/2180)

***** Interestingly, the home of Abdulla al-Madani’s son, Hassan al-Madani, was gutted in a ‘mystery blaze’ in December 2012. The attack reportedly came after he was threatened following the release of an article he penned for the pro-government Akhbar Al-Khaleej entitled “Don’t hijack the procession and the ma’atam!”. As far as I know, results of the police investigation have not been published.

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Bahrain’s prime minister thanks accused torturer for his service while telling loyalists they are above the law

-كلمة سمو رئيس الوزراء الشيخ خليفة بن سلمان ال خليفة يوجهها للمقدم مبارك بن حويل-- - YouTubeOn 1st July 2013, the Bahrain Third Higher Criminal Court acquitted Mubarak bin Huwail, a Bahraini police officer accused of torturing six medics. One of his alleged victims and former head of Bahrain Nursing Society, Rula al-Saffar, describes how Huwail tortured her and the other medics.

“The principal investigator, Maj Mubarak bin Huwail, tortured us. He blindfolded and handcuffed us during the interrogation. He wrote whatever he wanted to write and then took our signatures on the false statements by beating us. We were humiliated, intimidated and degraded.”

Shortly after his acquittal, a photo was circulated that showed the Prime Minister meeting with Huwail at a majlis (many of the others present seem to be Saudis). Then, on 7th July, someone posted a video of the meeting on Youtube. Mubarak is the guy sitting to the right of the Prime Minister (Not Redbeard, the other one). Below are some of the more important comments (Many thanks @mariamisme for helping with the translation)

(0.24) PM to one of the guys - هالقوانين محد يطبقها عليكم ، إلا علاقتنا وياكم ، وإلي يطبق عليكم يطبق علينا إحنا. إحنا جسد واحد

Translation: These laws cannot be applied to you. No one can touch this bond. Whoever applies these laws against you is applying them against us. We are one body.

(2.28) – PM to Mubarak bin Huwail  - نا ياي أشكركم يا مبارك على صبرك وعلى عملك الطيب والإنسان مثل ماتقول ينطرح عمله وعملكم كلكم يا هالعايلة هو سبب سمعتكم إلى مافي أحسن منها ومايبقى عند الإنسان في حياته وعقب ما الله يختاره إلا سمعته وسمعتكم كبيرة وعايلتكم كبيرة وإحنا أهلكم

Translation: I am here to thank you, Mubarak, for your patience and good work.  A human as they say is judged by his work, and your work as a family is the reason for your reputation which is exemplary. A human is left with nothing but his reputation in life and death, and yours is a great one as a family.  We are one family.

Although Mubarak bin Huwail was acquitted, one should not see this as a reflection of his guilt or innocence. So far, no officers have been found guilty of torture – hardly surprising given most regimes will protect their legal control agents from accountability when they are defending the social order. However, the most shocking thing about this video is not that the PM is thanking a man accused of torture, but rather his attitude towards the law. The fact he seems to be telling Redbeard, Mubarak and co that they  are above the law is truly outrageous, especially when we consider how in March 2013 the Prime Minister stated, ‘ all citizens are equal before the law’.  On the contrary, it is clear that loyalty to the Al Khalifas is a more important factor in determining one’s innocence or guilt. Never was there a more appropriate use of Orwell’s old addage - “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

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