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)
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.