For those interested, I have written a 10,000 word political history of Bahrain covering the 20th and 21st century. It was for Routledge/Europe annual MENA reference. You can read the pre-proofed version here on Research Gate.
It has become a well worn and familiar trope in Bahrain, ‘Government foil Iran-backed plot’. Usually when there’s a bout of unrest, dozens are arrested and most miraculously ‘confess’ to being part of the plot. Most of the plots involve the conspirators stockpiling guns and weapons and confessing. There have also been plenty of fake news stories about non-existent dows heading to Bahrain to bring weapons. Ironically, when Bahrainis aren’t smuggling weapons into Bahrain they are attempting to take weapons out of Bahrain back to Iran. Naturally this begs the question, can’t all these Iranian agents decide if they’re trying to flea Bahrain or overthrow the regime? Whereas I am being ironic, presumably the Bahraini government are just being liberal with the truth….
Some news stories about Iran-backed plots, 1981, 1996, 2014, 2017
Below are a few news clippings from various papers about Iran-backed plots. This is not exhaustive, just a flavour.
In 1981, roughly 65 people were arrested for being part of a coup attempt backed by Iran. At least 52 confessed.
In 1996, another Iranian-backed plot was discovered. Not only were they trained in Iran, but apparently they reported directly to Iran’s leader, Ali Khamenei! Of the 44 Bahrainis, 34 confessed to being behind the plot. Apparently they were also tasked with gathering information on US forces in Bahrain (not sure how this works exactly, dressing up like Uncle Sam and striding into a nightclub frequented by US marines?)
A few plots have been unearthed since 2011. In 2014, more confessions were extracted about an Iran backed plot. Like the 1981 plot, this was led by Hadi al-Mudarrasi.
In March 2017, the authorities have announced yet another Iran-backed plot. Again, these guys were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah. Yet again, the authorities seized bombs and automatic weapons. The evidence also implicated people in the Feb bomb blast. (Presumably if you are planning an assassination attempt, you carry out low level bomb attacks to draw attention to yourself first, oh yeah, and like with the other occasions, you rarely use the automatic weapons). Expect confessions soon….
Yesterday morning, 22 year old Abdullah Al Ajooz died in Nuwaidrat. The Ministry of the Interior reported that he fell when he tried to flee the scene of the arrest. Abdullah was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison after being accused of being involved in terrorist activities that included the injuring of three policemen. He escaped from the Dry Docks in 2016. As is usual, the MOI did not feel it necessary to provide much detail, leaving people to speculate as the actual cause of Abdullah’s death. It is important to note that Abdullah is the 4th escaped prisoner to have been killed after coming into contact with the MOI. The other three were allegedly killed at sea in suspicious circumstances. As many Bahrainis know, it is important always to question the official narrative in Bahrain, as the MOI have previously lied about systematic torture. This is not to say that the MOI do not to tell the truth, but there is little evidence to suggest there has been a change in policing or political culture. It is therefore somewhat perverse then to not interrogate the official narrative (unless of course you, like my Twitter trolls, take pleasure in the deaths of people).
@marcowenjones 3 down, 7 to go
— جعفر جمال (@jlive691) February 21, 2017
Initial reports stated that Abdullah had been shot, with his aunt being recorded saying he had bullet wounds in the head and chest. This story seemed very unlikely when images of the body revealed no visible bullet wounds. From the images of his body though, there is clear head trauma on the front right hand side.
— Printemps Arabe (@PrintempsArabeS) February 21, 2017
The below photos of the building show that he fellow from a relatively low height. The shrine on the ground is where the body was found.
The images would suggest he landed on his head. Some have highlighted that the height is relatively low (certainly no more than 10m), and seem surprised by the nature of the traumatic injuries. Ebrahim Sharif, a prominent political figure in Bahrain , who saw the body before burial, asked whether he should have fallen on his head, not hands or feet.
(٣) من يسقط متعمدا يسقط على قدميه ويديه لا على رأسه. الاصابة الرئيسة خلف الرأس وعلى طرفه وتورم في العينين. انتفاخ في المعصم واصابات اخرى..
— Ebrahim Sharif (@ebrahimsharif) February 21, 2017
In the below tweet, Ebrahim Sharif also noted that an attempt to flee would be unusual if the house was surrounded.
(٣) من يسقط متعمدا يسقط على قدميه ويديه لا على رأسه. الاصابة الرئيسة خلف الرأس وعلى طرفه وتورم في العينين. انتفاخ في المعصم واصابات اخرى..
— Ebrahim Sharif (@ebrahimsharif) February 21, 2017
Yet a fall of two stories, or less than two metres, perhaps surprisingly, frequently results in traumatic head injuries. According to one study, heights from falls less than 10 metres actual often result in severe head injuries.
Severe head injuries most frequently occurred in falls from heights below 10 m and above 25 m, whereas in the group that fell from 10 to 25 m, few head injuries were seen and they rarely were the cause of death. This finding might indicate that the falling position is changing during a fall, and the landing position is often head first in lower heights.
Thus it is possible that an accidental fall could result in such head injuries. The caving of the skull would suggest he landed on it, and in falls, usually blunt injuries are ‘planar impact’, confined to one plane of the body. Wrist injuries are also common.
This, of course, does not discount accusations that Abdullah was pushed, or killed beforehand and thrown off the edge. Furthermore, if he was fleeing, it is less likely he fell by accident but was facing the direction of travel, which would imply a different course of fall – perhaps one where he could have corrected his flight and not landed on his head. Indeed, similar accusations have been raised before about young men being thrown off building by the police in Bahrain. The distance of the body from the building is perhaps inconclusive, as most bodies falling from between 5 and 10m will land about 1m – 2m from the building. However, if he was fleeing, and jumped, you would expect that distance to be longer than one or 2m (unless it was a controlled drop, in which case you’d expect to land on your feet – not head).It is also not clear from the MOI narrative where they were during the ‘fleeing’. Were they chasing him on the roof? If they say he fell, presumably they saw what happened, or are claiming to know what happened? A helicopter was heard, is there footage thats shows what happened? Is there any evidence to suggest a chase or struggle on the roof, blood, etc?
Cause of Death
It is not clear either about the quality of autopsy given in Bahrain. The security forces pressured the family to conduct the burial as early as possible, just over 24 hours from the rough time of death (which was in the early hours of the 20th).Determining whether he was pushed is difficult, although some signs of a homicide as opposed to an accident may include fresh grab marks on the upper inner arms according to the aforementioned study (Indicating he was pushed). Were these looked for by who examined body? It is not clear whether the autopsy accounted for this. According to one study on Bahrain , ‘This problem has been exacerbated by the fact that autopsies are not generally practised in the country unless there is suspicion of crime’. As suspicion of a crime is dictated by the MOI, who state quite clearly that the suspect fell, then one has to wonder whether to independence of the coroner can be affected. The death of Yousef Mowali demonstrates the importance of independent forensic reports.
Police said they found Mowali’s body floating in the water on January 13 in the Amwaj area, not far from his family’s home in Muharraq. A state doctor reported the cause of death as drowning and ruled out signs of violence.However, Al Jazeera has exclusively obtained a report from a second autopsy performed by an independent forensic pathologist that concludes Mowali was electrically tortured and unconscious when he drowned.
Death certificates also appear to produce a lot of erroneous results, according to this 2010 study in Bahrain. Furthermore, in Bahrain, death certificates in such cases are highly inconsistent . In 2015, the public prosecutor said Death Certificates only reported the physiological cause of death (As in Case with Ahmed Ismail). However, in the recent cases of the three killed at sea, only the proximate cause (gunshot wounds) was identified. Thus there seems to be wild inconsistency in stating what was the proximate, or immediate and determining causes of death. Thus a death certificate will not necessarily be useful.
Whatever happened, it is certainly unusual that the MOI’s confrontation with another fugitive has resulted in yet another death, making this the 8th death this year. Either way, there are important questions to be asked about the nature of the autopsy, and the events that happened under the cover of darkness, at a time when the government clearly feel able to get away with murder and/or extrajudicial killing.
— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) February 20, 2017
*Many thanks to Fatima Halwachi for her help for the photos and general information on the ground
Yesterday, the MOI supervised the burial of Redha Al Ghasra, Mustafa Yusif, and Mahmud Yusif. While the MOI usually release the bodies of those they kill to the families, including the three who were executed in January, they did not do so on this occasion. Instead, families were threatened and denied access to the burial site. It is not unknown for the MOI to prevent burial access to limit public disturbances, although it is not a reasonable justification as denial will also lead to similar disturbances. This has raised further suspicions about the true nature of their death (the MOI claimed they were shot at sea in an escape attempt…to Iran). Specifically, it has not allowed people to take photos or properly examine the bodies of those killed to help corroborate the MOI’s story.
— BahrainMirror EN (@BahrainmirrorEN) February 12, 2017
There was also a report that those attempting to access the burial site were threatened with ‘repression’ if they did not leave.
— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) February 12, 2017
Photo reportedly showing the burial site, surrounded by some close family and the security services
— BHR – RT – NEWS (@BH_RT) February 12, 2017
There were also detailed Tweets that presumably leaked out that documented the wounds on the bodies of the deceased. Redha reportedly was shot three times in the head, as well as the chest and shoulder. Given the video of the shooting, which only showed the sec forces opening fire on one person, it is potentially surprising that the haphazard manner of firing resulted in three head shots. The information on the bodies also suggests that Mahmood Yusif’s body in particular bore signs of torture, with numerous fractures and bruises. Mustafha Yusif’s body also reportedly had evidence of stab wounds in the neck, and shotgun pellet wounds on the legs/feet/. It is obviously difficult to determine without an independent forensic examination whether, for example, the wounds in the back of Mustafa Yusif were entry or exit wounds. However, if they are entry wounds, one must ask why he was shot in the back if the official version of events was that the group opened fire on the sec forces (Mustafa was also reportedly driving the boat).
The account @Bahraindoctor posted a photo of Mahmud Yusif that materialised on the day of the shooting. As mentioned, Mahmud was reportedly not shot with live rounds, and according to this medical analysis, the bruising around the eyes is indicative of a non-recent skull injury. This potentially raises further questions of when and how he was killed.
١-التفسير الطبي للون الموجود حول العينين للشهيد محمود يوسف
يسمى ذلك ب علامة الراكون Raccoon eyes وهي علامة تدل على وجود كسور في قاع الجمجمة pic.twitter.com/3vs02sXPhB
— BAHRAINDOCTOR (@BAHRAINDOCTOR) February 12, 2017
Given that three of them were reportedly shot by the security forces in an exchange of gunfire, then it is interesting to explore why in particular one of those killed reportedly had no gunshot wounds. We still know that the MOI have videoed the event from three different angles, and so are sitting on information that would help clarify the sequence of events leading up to the alleged killing.
The death certificates of the three killed were disseminated today (14 Feb). All deaths are attributed to gunshot sounds to various parts of the body. While there have been no independent verification of the wounds, the death certificates state he was killed by gunshots to the head and chest. If the above reports about Mahmud are correct, then he bore no notable gunshot wounds. None are clear from the alleged photo either. In such a well documented event, complete with videos, it not clear why each death certificate would say ‘about 5am’. Bear in mind the MOI in their statement said a ship was detected/intercepted (it is not clear) at 5.28am on the day of death.
Today saw the shooting and killing of three Bahrainis on a boat. They were alleged by the Ministry of the Interior to be escaping to Iran. The three killed were part of a group of ten people who had reportedly escaped from Jaw prison in January 2017. The Ministry of the Interior wrote a lengthy account of events here. While it is possible that the MOI version of events was accurate, this post contends that there is little reason to believe that the information released to the public is adequate in allowing anyone to determine accurately the true nature of events.
Firstly, the pertinent information regarding this operation is as follows (from the MOI website).
The Ministry of Interior has named the deceased as Redha Abdulla Isa Al Ghasra, 29, a fugitive sentenced to 79 years and life imprisonment, Mahmood Yousif Habib Hasan Yahya, 22, and Mustafa Yousif Yousif Abd Ali, 35.
Those arrested have been named as Mohamed Jassim Mohamed Jassim Al Abid, 28, Hamid Jassim Mohamed Jassim Al Abid, 28, and Hasan Ali Mohamed Fardan Al Shakar, 22, all of whom were involved in the terrorist attack on Jau Prison and/or aiding and abetting fugitives. Others arrested included Hani Younis Yousif Ali, 21, Ahmed Ali Ahmed Yousif, 20, Ali Hasan Ali Saleh, 38, and Ahmed Isa Ahmed Isa Al Malali, 23, who were named as being involved in the aiding and abetting of fugitives and the concealment and movement of firearms and explosives.
The Coastguard authority said that items found on the vessel included a Kalashnikov assault rifle which was used to attack the coastguard vessels, a GPS system and satellite phone, ID cards, money and personal items. The authority also noted that those arrested confirmed they were in contact with, and due to meet, accomplices in Iranian waters.
Importantly, a bizarre leaked video of the operation was posted by @Alwatan_live. This can be found below (I would suggest you watch it before continuing)
— Alwatan – الوطن (@Alwatan_Live) February 9, 2017
There is also a clearer, more complete version of the video that was shown in a press conference recorded by BTV. It included aerial footage which indicates helicopters were likely present.
The reasons the videos are bizarre is for a number of reasons, including:
- It is edited in a way that makes it seem rather dramatic, with multiple angles taking from multiple points of view
- It does not give a full or convincing account to corroborate the MOI version of events, with, for example, it only showing one man rising up from the fugitives’ boat with a gun (three people were killed). It does not show who shot first.
- The multiple cuts to the video could suggest that the editing sequence was not a chronological account of what happened
- The fact multiple cameras (probably around three) were evidently used to create all the angles suggests there are numerous recordings of the event from different angles, all of which would give a better idea of what happened if left unedited.
- The initial leaked video was also a recording of a video playing on someone’s laptop – who edited it? Why was it edited?
- The audio is not clear
Some of the frames from the video are puzzling. See below.
The above shot shows a smallish boat that presumably had around 10 people in it. The man circled on the right is, from the video, brandishing a gun. However, what is happening on the left. Is someone driving the boat? Is that someone sitting by the steering wheel? Have the others ducked down? (there are meant to be ten in the boat at this point). What is the high vis looking vest? Why is it raised in the picture, but not in the later ones? Is it a person? None of the video shows clear evidence of the faces of those on board. Following this scene, the police fire (fairly recklessly, but perhaps because they were taken by surprise if the video is legitimate).
At the end of the video you see the empty boat belonging to the fugitives. You do not get a clear view of where the victim was, as it would be in front of the steering wheel. If three people were shot thought maybe you’d expect to see blood? There is no blood. There is also an unusal shot of a policeman picking up what I presume is the assailants gun. The assailant cannot be scene, and again there is no blood.
The MOI also released other photographs showing scenes from the police operation. These included photos of a police boat with holes in. As you can see from the first photo of the boat, the bullet holes appear to be on the left of the front of the boat. These, if the video is accurate, would presumably be exit wounds, as this boat, identifiable by the number reflected in the sea, pulled up on the right of the fugitive boat in the video. The shooter would have been on the opposite side of these holes (unless the photo is flipped). However, in another video you see the other side of the boat, where the bullets should have entered, but it doesn’t look like there are many (except one hole). Perhaps this is nothing, but it still is not clear from what people are being presented.
For what was clearly well resourced operation, it is unclear why the security services had to result in deadly force. There are at least three coastguard boats involved. In the above picture you can see two boats, and there is also the boat from which the photo is taken. While there are inevitably procedural questions, e.g. where was this procedure learned, was the engine disabled before the boat was approached?
Opportunity for Propaganda
The MOI were very quick to mention Iran. In addition to releasing a photo of a map stating that the smugglers intended to go to Iran, the MOI’s first tweet, before even announcing the deaths, was about Iran.
PT: 1st operation in Bahrain’s surrounding waters, was undertaken following an attempt by escapees from Jau prison to flee 2Iranian waters
— Ministry of Interior (@moi_bahrain) February 9, 2017
While this doesn’t undermine the potential veracity of the MOI’s statement, it does, along with the bizarrely slick editing of the video, point to a very well planned media event, one clearly designed to show a hard hitting security force ready to defend Bahrain from Iran. It also feeds into the regime’s discourse that Iran is behind the unrest, and the escape of the detainees from Jau.
Whether true or not, if I were a Bahraini (irrespective of political stance), I would want to see an unedited video, and a better account of events from the MOI. This would include a proper explanation of how such a well prepared group of Coasguard and security officers allowed the smugglers to get so far out to sea before killing them.
In the middle of the night, on January 15 2017, three citizens of Bahrain were executed by firing squad. Abbas al-Samea, 27, Ali al-Singace, 21, and Sami Mushaima 42, had all been found guilty of planting a bomb which killed three policemen – but their convictions were widely seen as unsafe.
Rumours of their 3am deaths had been circulating on the social media of those with links to the government. Once the state news agency confirmed the news, many Bahrainis took to the streets in protest, confronting riot police, who used tear gas and birdshot in response. Human rights organisations condemned the killings, not simply because they oppose the death penalty, but because these executions were viewed as being political and extrajudicial.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions tweeted:
#Bahrain executed Abbas al-Samea, Ali al-Singace, Sami Mushaima. Torture, unfair trial + flimsy evidence: these are extrajudicial killings
— Dr Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) January 15, 2017
Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch added on social media: “These men’s convictions were based on retracted confessions and mired in allegations of serious torture.” It was a sentiment reflected poignantly by many Bahrainis, who formed huge queues to pay their respects to the executed men’s families.
The national controversy surrounding the executions is the latest demonstration of the political turmoil in Bahrain, and popular opposition to what is a democracy in name only. Since 2011, when widespread pro-democracy protests broke out, over a hundred civilians have been killed – many by teargas and torture. An independent report (the BICI report) documenting the events of that year revealed systematic torture, arbitrary detentions, and extra judicial killing in the streets
But things are actually getting worse. Amid the token reforms, the January executions show that Bahrain is regressing with regards to political development and human rights. The country’s only remotely critical newspaper, Al Wasat, which was shut down in 2011, has now been ordered by the government to close its online paper, too. The official reason given was that it was “jeapordising national unity and disrupting public peace”. In fact, it had been slighty critical of the executions.
Earlier this year, the government of Bahrain announced that it was reversing one of the BICI reforms which stipulated that Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA) have its powers of arrest removed. The power separation was considered important in controlling torture. Other laws enacted which have clamped down on freedom of expression, alongside the arrest of activists, have prompted accusations not of reform, but of de-democratisation. The fact that these are the first official executions to have occurred since 2010 suggest Bahrain is becoming more, not less authoritarian.
Bahrain’s small size and its reliance on foreign countries has also resulted in anger at the perceived complicity of numerous governments. Saudi troops, along with officers from states including the UAE, assisted in dealing with the unrest in 2011. Many of Bahrain’s military officers are from other Arab or Muslim countries, and many have received training by the British (including from John Yates, ex-assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard).
As a result, many Bahrainis feel increasingly isolated from the global community, who they believe are the only ones able to put pressure on the Bahrain government to reform, democratise, and implement human rights reform. Activist Maryam Al Khawaja accused the UK, Bahrain’s former protector, of abetting this authoritarian excess and allowing the executions to go ahead. She wrote on Twitter:
— Maryam Alkhawaja (@MARYAMALKHAWAJA) January 15, 2017
Protests in London outside the embassy also reflected this anger. And it is an anger founded not simply on the fact that the British response to the executions was considered “woefully inadequate”, but because the UK has been training the Bahrain police since 2011. The charity Reprieve noted that the UK also taught the Bahrainis how to “whitewash custody deaths” and provided training to the police without conducting proper human rights assessments.
As a result of the executions, frustration in Bahrain will inevitably increase. Scenes of people chanting “Down with [King] Hamad” at the police are becoming more common again. The regression back to more authoritarian ways is enabled by a lack of pressure from traditional international allies.
For the UK, this apparent “complicity” is unlikely to change. Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, notes that Brexit will likely diminish attempts to support human rights. With traditional allies like the UK less choosy about trade, less choosy about allies, and less choosy about human rights, Bahrain is set to see more instability and unrest.
(Cartoon added by me)
Today the Bahraini regime executed three young men, Sami Mushaima (42 yrs), Abbas Al-Samea (27), and Ali Abdulshaheed Al-Singace (21). The men had their death penalties upheld by the Court of Cassation, even though, in the words of Human Rights Watch, the ‘men’s convictions were based on retracted confessions and mired in allegations of serious torture’. They were accused of killing Emirate Policeman Tariq Al Shahi, who was policing Bahrain along with mostly Sunni security officers from Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi, Syria etc.
The FCO’s response has been predictably muted, and follows on a trip to the Gulf by Theresa May, whose speech in front of British Troops emphasized the need for ‘stability’ (re status quo). Of the recent executions, Boris Johnson was entirely uncontroversial;
The UK is firmly opposed to the death penalty, and it is our longstanding position to oppose capital sentences in all circumstances. The Bahraini authorities are fully aware of our position and I have raised the issue with the Bahraini Government.
Given the ongoing British training of the Bahrain Security Services, it is important to question how complicit the UK are.