The past month has been a busy one in Bahrain, most notably because of the extra security measures taken by the state in trying to quell dissent. Given everything that has happened, I find it hard to believe some critics when they argue that the ‘uprising is over’. It is, after all, impossible to have an effective uprising when draconian security measures prevent people from speaking their mind, gathering in public space, or even going to Friday prayers. The recent crackdown has resulted in what is essentially a return of the period of ‘ National Safety’ that began last March. There has also been a continuation in the state’s bias when it comes to ‘ application of the law’, which has long been a hollow phrase used to disguise asymmetric legal measures directed at protesters.
The events of today offer an interesting insight into the cumulative effects of the past month’s crackdown. Firstly, it’s a Friday, when many people head down to the mosque for Friday prayers. This weekly ritual was made very difficult for people wishing to attend prayers in the predominantly Shia village of Duraz, where influential cleric Isa Qassim was giving his sermon. The reason? Security forces had set up a number of checkpoints in Budaiya to prevent cars from getting to Duraz. Many people had to resort to walking on unpaved roads in considerable heat in order to reach the mosque, while others resorted to more athletic endeavors.
Presumably the Ministry of the Interior will justify these checkpoints by claiming that they are trying to prevent more bombs from being planted around Bahrain. Unfortunately 16-year-old Ali Abbas was killed after being hit by a car driven by a civilian. Activists report that he was attempting to run away from the police when this happened, though the MOI do not mention this in their statement. In addition to the MOI’s unsurprising omission of this detail, it took them several attempts to decide whether the victim was Bahrain or Asian. It makes one wonder where whoever runs the MOI Twitter account actually gets their information from…
Asymmetry of the Law
Despite this provocative move by the security forces, which mainly affected Shia worshipers, the Ministry of the Interior appeared to have granted permission for a protest held by National Unity Assembly at the Al Fateh Mosque. Not only is this particularly galling because it comes on a day when many other worshipers are prevented from getting to the mosque, but it also happened during a period when Bahrain has banned all protests. The reason the National Unity Assembly were granted permission to protest is primarily because they were protesting against violence carried out by civilians, and not the state. (Here are some photos.)
The protest, which was silent and set to last between 15-20 minutes was apparently not a licensed protest. Instead the MOI claimed that no public gathering had been approved and that the protest would be illegal if it spilled out of the mosque grounds and into public view. Despite the NUA’s claim that they are not flouting the ban, the meeting between the group’s head Dr. Abdulatif Al Mahmood and Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifa undoubtedly helped the two parties reach an understanding – especially after Al Mahmood was so forthcoming in his praise of the MOI’s recent security crackdown. Despite the protestations of the MOI, the decision to allow this ‘loyalist’ protest whilst banning ‘opposition’ protests is grossly unfair.
In addition to this, today also saw what appears to be further displays of asymmetric application of the law. Although the details of the case are not clear, the courts have reduced the sentence of a policeman convicted of shooting a protester. His initial five year sentence was slashed to 3 years. It is also reported that he is not actually in prison, and that the courts ordered the execution of his sentence be suspended on account of the injuries he sustained in a bomb attack. If this is the case, then it reduces the already meager attempts at holding members of the state security forces responsible for abuses committed last year. Given the current climate, the slashing of the sentence indicates a commitment to securitization, one that allows more permissive police behavior in the face of ‘protesters escalation’.
Continued Police Brutality
Despite the government’s relentless use of the term reform, the police are still acting with same brutality we have become accustomed to in Bahrain. Today a civilian was filmed being punched, spit, beaten, kicked and dragged in a graveyard in Bani Jamrah. Not sure what he was doing wrong, though given the fact he was unarmed and sitting down then I’m sure the police cannot claim they were acting in self defense – though I expect they will if this ever goes to court (lol…goes to court…).
What can we learn from today?
The government’s attempts to convince the population that they are acting in order to maintain ‘ national unity and civil peace’ can hardly be seen as credible given their antagonistic actions over the past month. Again, the government’s inability to implement credible reforms have led to a situation where they have to manage dissent through an increased security crackdown (as opposed to a political solution). If they were sincere about reform, then they would not have to jail people for insulting the king on Twitter, remove the nationality of citizens, or issue a ban on protests. If anything, such measures will only increase tension between the government and the opposition, further aggravating more extreme elements within society. The state’s arbitrary and asymmetric application of laws will also foster further resentment, undermining the continued government insistance that no one is above the law.
As many have commented, it seems there is a return to last year’s state of national safety. The removal of nationalities is also a throwback to the unrest in the 90s, and things look set to get worse. Attempting to reform whilst also ensuring continued Al Khalifa and Sunni hegemony in Bahrain is a recipe for disaster, but I guess everyone knows that right?
Well, almost everyone…