Note: I gave this paper at the ”Policing Protests in the Middle East Workshop” at Durham University on Thursday 26th April 2012. It needs updating, with specific reference to the conviction of one policeman for shooting a protester. It is also worth mentioning how Nabeel Rajab was imprisoned for a tweet, reportedly after a group of former policeman who live in Muharraq complained that the tweet questioned their patriotism. I think these arguments, with particular reference to the latter, simply corroborate the contentsof this essay.
Last year the Bahrain government began an extensive process of police reform. These appointments came as the government sought to implement recommendations laid out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report, an investigation that was highly critical of how the country’s security apparatus had operated following the widespread unrest that began last year. Despite these reforms, police deviance continues. By looking at the relationship between police deviance and politics, this paper rejects the idea that police deviance in Bahrain is the result of a few ‘rotten apples’, and instead argues that police deviance is a systemic necessity, imperative in preserving Sunni hegemony in Bahrain. It explores how police deviance is a form of political currency in Bahrain, vital in maintaining the loyalty of the ruling regime’s support base, who believe that softer forms of policing will result in a ‘Shia takeover’. In this respect, police deviance includes acts of excessive force, brutality and police misconduct. The paper also explores how deviance as political currency involves excessive leniency towards regime supporters who engage in criminality, as subjecting them to the full extent of the law might risk isolating the support of those on whom the regime’s legitimacy based. In this case, deviance is defined as ‘failure to perform law enforcement duties’. This paper concludes by arguing that police deviance is an inevitable outcome of maintaining the current hegemonic order, and that police reform is therefore impossible without political reform.
Systemic Police Deviance & Police Reform in Bahrain
On February 14th last year, thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets to demand democratic reform. The protests, which were predominantly peaceful, were crushed with considerable brutality by the state’s security apparatus, a move that undermined the country’s reputation as one of the more politically liberal states in the Arabian Gulf.
The security crackdown in the two months (Feb – March) that followed the uprising resulted in 35 deaths, the arrest of about 3000 civilians, and the torture of dozens (BICI). This was all documented in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, a 500-page investigation compiled by a team of internationally renowned legal experts. These experts were paid by Bahrain’s King to investigate abuses carried out by both the government and the demonstrators.
The report revealed that systematic abuses had been carried out by the security services, including but not limited to; the use of torture, unnecessary lethal force, excessive force, arbitrary detention and procedural misconduct. Given the pervasiveness and scale of these abuses, the report recommended that a mechanism be formed to determine the accountability of those involved, including senior figures within the police command structure and the government itself.
Despite the government’s prompt formation of a national committee to oversee the implementation of this mechanism, many have reservations about its integrity, as it fails to meet the ‘minimum requirements of independence, impartiality and effectiveness’ as recommended by a group of international human rights experts hired by the government (Amnesty International, 2012). The perceived impotency of this committee and its subsequent report reflects the regime’s lack of sincerity in holding high up officials accountable, many of whom are members of the Al-Khalifa family (Strobl, 2011). Indeed, ‘of the police occupying the top 30 positions of Ministry of the Interior, all are Sunni and 15 of them hail from the ruling family’ (ICG, 2005 – in Strobl)
Although the regime have traded self-preservation for justice, international obligations such as the need to appease allies in London and Washington have put pressure on the government to implement the recommendations of the BICI report (Ulrichsen, 2012). With this in mind, the government of Bahrain enlisted the help of two “super cops” – former Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police John Yates and ex Chief of Miami Police John Timoney. In addition to this, the regime has begun prosecutions against a number of low-ranking policemen, the most senior of which being a mere lieutenant. As yet, no higher ranked officials resigned as a result of the report, the only change was that the Head of the National Security Agency became security adviser to the King – hardly a scathing condemnation of his professional abilities. As Kashem notes (2005), ‘police records show that constables and junior officers are disciplined more often and harsher than senior officers and administrators, which could be due to interference by political leaders’ Kashem (2005).
This tactic of selectively holding only low-level security officers accountable represent an attempt to paint police deviance as the work of a couple of ‘rotten apples’, rogue officers operating with individualistic motives but whose actions are not reflective of the police institution as a whole. A more generous analysis would suggest that police deviance in Bahrain was the result of what O’Connor (2005) describes as ‘ rotten barrels’, groups of policemen acting together but whose misconduct is also not representative of the police institution in general.
However, given the nature of the abuses carried out by the police in Bahrain last year, the concept of a ‘rotten orchard’ seems more appropriate. This metaphor, originally suggested by Punch in 2003, illustrates that deviance is not merely the fault of individuals or groups, but the result of systemic problems that either encourage, reward or necessitate police deviance. In Punch’s definition, systems refer to formal structures such as ‘the police organization, the criminal justice system, and the broader socio-political context’ (Punch 2003, 172).
As the ‘rotten apple’ theory tends to discount the more complex organizational structures that explain police deviance, it has become a convenient political tool that tends to detract attention from deeper issues. Indeed, the necessity of using the ‘rotten apple’ excuse becomes more useful the more endemic the systemic deviance, for it detracts from exposing problems that go to the very heart of the establishment. Thus extensive systemic deviance is more likely to be covered up, for its exposure threatens the current order, and contradicts what is arguably the raison d’etre of the law-enforcement institution – the maintenance of the existing regime (Turk, 1981). In the case of Bahrain, the police are the ‘strong-arm of a non-representative government’ whose modus operandi is to protect Sunni hegemony (Strobl, 2011)
In order to highlight the necessity of this systemic deviance, this paper explores the relationship between politics and police deviance. It examines how police deviance is actually a form of political currency, one that is important in appeasing regime loyalists whose continued support is important to the maintenance of Al-Khalifa and Sunni hegemony in Bahrain. I conclude by arguing that the government’s legitimacy deficit is a fundamental driver of police deviance in Bahrain, and argue that genuine police reform is not possible without political reform.
Defining Deviance & Continued Deviance
Sanja Ivkovic’s (2005) broad yet intuitive definition of police deviance is a useful starting point. He argues that deviance can be broadly defined as the ‘violation of established boundaries dictating acceptable police behaviour’ (Pino et al). This includes acts of misconduct that can involve the transgression of criminal and civil laws, as well as international laws and governmental and departmental policies. For this analysis, police deviance can be defined as acts of excessive force, brutality, police misconduct and ‘failure to perform law enforcement duties’ (Geller, 1984).
Despite the government’s vociferous emphasis on police reform, and the creation of a new police code of conduct that stipulates that resorting to force will be a ‘last resort’, there has been little abatement in police violence. Evidence demonstrates that police are still smashing up cars, damaging property, beating up civilians, throwing Molotov cocktails, throwing steel rebars, failing to produce arrest warrant and failing to perform duties. When these incidents occur, they are almost always in full view of other colleagues, suggesting a culture of permissiveness and indiscipline (Jones, 2012; Ulrichsen, 2012). Another tactic that’s worth mentioning is the firing of tear gas into predominantly Shia villages, many of which are bombarded nightly until the streets are literally swimming in gas. Activists have reported up to 30 deaths as a result of this tear gas use, and many residents complain that it is used as a form of collective punishment- which itself contravenes international law by violating the legal principle of ‘proportionality’.
This prolonged police abuse has caused increased militancy amongst many activists, especially the youth, many of whom are now using Molotov cocktails and other improvised weapons to combat the police, whose daily presence at the entrances to Shia villages is itself considered by them to be a form of provocation. Indeed, the daily confrontations between police and protesters in many of Bahrain’s villages stems from a policy of containment, whereby the police are simply preventing protesters from leaving their towns en masse to return to the Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s ‘freedom square’ and the symbolic home of the uprising. Thus confrontations arise as a result of the government’s unwillingness to allow protesters to return an important political space.
While the desire of many protesters to return to the Pearl Roundabout is symbolic, the focus of protester demands involves the fundamental alteration of a political system that has long discriminated against Bahrain’s Shia majority. Recent events have merely exacerbated this desire for political change, and the regime now suffers from a serious lack of legitimacy. Indeed police violence is driven by the regime’s legitimacy deficit, which necessitates the increased use of coercive force to control a population whose political loyalty can no longer be attained through peaceful means. As Austin Turk (1981) states: ‘Where the consensual foundations of political identity weaken, the coercive methods for maintaining political dominance become increasingly the only inhibitor of radical political changes’. Furthermore, ‘the mandate to prevent radical changes in the distribution of power and privilege is incompatible with the idea of a legally or ethically limited effort to do so’ (ibid).
Policing, Sectarianism & Deviant Policing
Although coercive violence is symptomatic of the ruling family’s desire to retain power, it is also legitimized by many of those who support the regime. This is especially true in times of crises, where police behaviour and tactics become increasingly responsive to the desires of the Bahraini Sunni community. Indeed, the police institution in Bahrain is entrenched within a very sectarian system, and most of its Bahraini employees are drawn from the country’s Sunni community. The rest tend to be Sunnis recruited from Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan. This foreign element has resulted in protesters calling them ‘mercenaries’. It comes as no surprise then that Bahrain’s Shia community is ‘grossly under-represented in the Bahraini police force’ (Strobl, 2011), where as recently as the 1990s they were required to show a certificate of good behaviour’ when applying to join the police ( Bahry, 2000)
As a result of this discrimination, Bahrain’s legal institution in its totality very much reflects the ‘norms, values and interests of the dominant ethnic group’ (Sellin, 1938). This creates conflicts with the countries Shia community, who are excluded from the hegemonic power structure (ibid). The fact that the state’s monopoly of violence is concentrated in the hands of one sect becomes particularly problematic during times of political unrest, as such unrest usually prompts the regime to ‘play the sectarian’ card in order to mobilize Sunni support. This reflects an important conundrum, for not only is state violence carried out by a predominantly Sunni-staffed security force operating on behalf of a predominantly Sunni government, but violence against the security forces is usually carried out by members of Bahrain’s disenfranchised Shia community. The nature of this violence, which becomes sectarian by virtue of the state’s discriminatory approach to recruiting its police force, has a mobilizing effect.
The problem with this mobilization is that the police force, to many Sunnis, are then perceived as heroic warriors defending Bahrain against an encroaching Shia political force. Indeed, just as Bahrain’s Shia refer to those killed by the state as martyrs, many regime supporters, including the ministry of interior itself, refer to those policemen killed in the unrest as ‘duty martyrs’. The extent to which the regime are successful in mobilizing religious sectarianism is such that high levels of police deviance are tolerated by those on whom the regime’s legitimacy is traditionally based. In other words, the perceived threat of a Shia takeover leads to increased demands for protection, which legitimizes police behaviour that might otherwise be considered deviant.
Such a phenomenon is not unique to Bahrain, and it is common for residents in places with endemic crime problems to adopt a ‘ tough on crime’ mentality. In such environments, there is more tolerance for what might ordinarily be termed police deviance. In this way ‘police abuse does not stem simply from police authority alone, but also from a larger belief system shared by citizens in which brutality is acceptable as long as it is directed against “bad people.” (Pino et al, 2011). The problem with this argument is that it attempts to confer legitimacy on deviant policing by invoking an element of consent. In actual fact, the fear that allows people to exercise greater tolerance towards police deviance is an artificial construct, born out of the regime’s ability to exaggerate the sectarian threat.
Given that the tolerance for police deviance comes from the support base on whom the ruling families legitimacy is based, failure to be ‘tough on crime’ results in a loss of political legitimacy. Indeed, the past year has shown that police deviance is actually a form of political currency, necessary in appeasing important allies within the political camp. Escalating violence has repeatedly resulted in pro government groups and parliamentarians calling for the police to be armed with more effective weapons. In one instance, a strongly worded article in pro-government newspaper Al-Watan demanded that police be armed and better protected (Yusuf, 2012). Two days later the Minister of the Interior announced that police were to be given new armour, guns that fire rubber bullets, as well as gas and sound bombs. They also announced that anyone who attacked a policeman would get a 15 year jail sentence (MOI, 2012).
As well as making specific demands, virtually all pro-government rallies held by groups like al-Fateh Youth Union and the Gathering of National Unity involve expressing admiration for the country’s security service, whom they perceive as defenders of Bahrain’s sovereignty and its Sunni identity. While these expressions of solidarity with the security services are peaceful, they sometimes regress into vigilantism. In one instance, hundreds of pro-regime supporters ended up at a large roundabout to protest against what the Ministry of Interior described as a ‘terrorist bomb blast’ in the village of Al-Eker. After destroying the cars of two civilians, the mob then ransacked and looted a local supermarket owned by a Shia businessman. Despite the nature of this violence, the Ministry of the Interior refused to call the group vandals, rioters or terrorists, terms they use liberally when describing the acts of political activists. Instead it used the term ‘group’.
More revealingly, the CCTV footage that emerged following the store’s looting actually shows policemen standing by idly as the store is ransacked. One policeman even smashes a window whilst another helps himself to a bottle of water. This occurrence is not an isolated incident, and there have been countless examples of the police turning a blind eye to acts of vigilantism perpetrated by pro-government supporters. There are a number of videos, for example, that show pro-regime supporters standing behind police lines, throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails at activists with the police doing little to stop them. This remarkable tolerance towards acts of criminality carried out by pro-government supporters illustrates that failure to enforce the law, itself a force of deviance, is important in maintaining the support of Bahrain’s Sunni community.
Police deviance is also exacerbated by a culture of impunity, where the processes of accountability and justice also tend to be responsive to the desires of the Sunni community. For this reason, prosecutions against even low-ranking officers are rare. In fact, announcements of prosecutions against policemen seem little more than an attempt to appease the concerns of local opposition and international actors. Of the 50 policemen being investigated for their role in carrying out human rights abuses related to last year’s unrest, only 11 are having their cases pursued. Of these 11, six are Pakistani and Yemeni. In other words, only 4 low ranking Bahraini officers are facing charges following last year’s unrest (Amnesty International, 2012). This exposes another issue with Bahrain’s largely foreign-staffed police force, for expats become an expendable cadre of scapegoats, the prosecution of whom gives the illusion of justice with minimal political fallout.
This political pressure to shield police from justice was demonstrated when hundreds of pro-regime supporters formed a society to defend the interests of policemen accused of committing crimes during the unrest. They argued that the policemen were being victimized for simply doing their job. Indeed, the state’s decision to overturn the death penalty of two protesters convicted of killing two policemen prompted widespread anger among many Sunni pro-regime supporters, who stated in no uncertain terms that their loyalty should not be taken for granted (Gengler, 2012). In light of this, leniency towards those perceived by loyalists as traitors and terrorists only becomes acceptable if leniency is shown towards police who engage in deviance.
The problem with letting the sectarian genie out of the bag is that the perceived threat of a Shia takeover has become so intense, that many of those traditionally loyal to the regime see any compromise with the Shia opposition as a threat to national security. Thus the attempts of moderates within the regime to move towards political compromise are compounded by the need to appease loyalists, who are increasingly advocating a more punitive approach to policing and justice. Although it’s hard to quantify the exact relationship between police deviance and political pressure, continued political support for policing strategies that ‘facilitate human rights abuses’ remain a serious impediment to police reform (Pino et al, 2011).
The likelihood of police deviance increases in a country whose unelected government does not enjoy major popular support, for ‘retaining the reigns of power necessitates a disproportionate use of violence and fear, one that replaces ‘rule of law’ with ‘rule by law’ (Jones, 2012). Furthermore, the government’s legitimacy deficit periodically places unsustainable strains on conventional procedures of justice, which must be subverted by both the police and judiciary in order to ensure the rule of the Al-Khalifa regime remains intact. In other words, cyclical systematic abuses arise when systemic problem are not addressed
Given that the regime’s continued rule is highly dependent on support from specific, predominantly Sunni groups, it is impossible to apply the law equally, for doing so runs the risk of angering those on whom their legitimacy is derived. The problem here though is that it creates a ‘rule of law imbalance’, one in which excessive measures must be taken against one group (who are predominantly Shia), and concessions given to another (who are predominantly Sunni). This asymmetry in policing and justice is indicative of systemic deviance, for it demonstrates how responsive the country’s legal institutions are to Bahrain’s Sunni community. In this respect, as long as the modus operandi of Bahrain’s police force is to protect Sunni hegemony in Bahrain, meaningful police reform is impossible. Even the regime’s attempts to introduce community policing will not address the nepotism and discrimination that characterizes the upper echelons of the police and judiciary. Only through an empowered representative government will Bahrainis have the capacity to influence the sectarian based discrimination that pervades, sustains, and preserves the current hegemonic order
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