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.
Back in 2011, I wrote an article called ‘Social Media, Surveillance and Social Control in the Bahrain Uprising’ for Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture. It was finally published last month. Naturally it is a bit dated, and although my research interests have shifted somewhat to studying more general processes of controlling dissent, I still maintain an interest in social media.
A question that has always preoccupied me is this: what is the impact of videos of violence, and in particular videos of state violence, on the longevity of conflict. How do these videos effect the dynamics of the conflict? It occurred to me that these depictions of violence serve a useful social control function. As I wrote in a blog post for Bahrain Watch a few months ago;
… it is interesting to consider what effects the existence of such videos have, especially when the perpetrators are not being held accountable? Do they simply serve to increase public anger towards the police and the government, or do they have the effect of generating fear of authority – or both? Either way, the social control function is useful. If they generate fear of authority, the benefits to the regime are self explanatory. If they further public anger, and potentially increase radicalization leading to further violence, then the opposition movement will remain fragmented – making it easier for the regime to operate a divide and rule policy.
The depiction of state violence in videos or images circulated on social media serve a similar function to legal corporal punishment that existed before its abolishment. In Bahrain, this took the form of lashes in the market place. The location was as important as the punishment itself, and market places were chosen in order to maximise the number of people witnessing the event. The only difference now is that physical location need not constrain the number of those who witness state violence. Videos of violence transcend temporal and spatial boundaries, serving as a permanent reminder of state brutality.
While videos of state violence on social media may also provoke anger, they still serve to remind people of the costs of engaging in protest or dissent. Indeed, in times of political upheaval, authorities benefit from reminding the public of their vulnerability by showing what happens to those who break the rules. As Turk (1982) states, ‘ a scarcely less barbarous tactic is the public display of mutilated bodies, or of persons maimed by their ordeals in the hands of police’. By hiding such abuses, the regime are less able to use violence to deter potential troublemakers from engaging in such acts. A truly totalitarian regime like that of Pol Pot, would simply eliminate every possible rival, yet authoritarian regimes, less extreme on the scale of tyranny, will target opponents more specifically, and utilise these cases in order to deter and terrorize the rest of the population.
Although the authorities will attempt to limit or prevent people from circulating images or videos of police brutality or state violence, periodic reminders of the brutal consequences of engaging in dissent are useful. After all, if people did not believe that the costs of engaging in dissent could result in torture or death, they would be more emboldened in challenging the state.
Some of my previous research on Bahrain, which analysed YouTube comments on videos of political violence, is also relevant. Videos of such violence generally provoked polarized responses in which many articulated their political and religious position. Indeed, such videos of political violence could arguably contribute to increased polarisation of fragmentation between Sunni and Shia, or those who ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ the current government. This sowing of divisions, though bad for society, assists the regime in their policy of divide and rule. In the recent uprising, supporters of the government use videos of protesters throwing Molotovs to defend the actions of the state, wile those who want reform use videos of police brutality to draw attention to their cause. In this sense, it is often people’s political position that determines how they interpret or select these videos. In both cases, consumption appears to be a form of validation rather than a challenge to one’s own belief system.
Having said all this, videos of state violence are damaging in the sense that they are a PR disaster. Continued used of coercive methods may be useful in the short run, yet coercion ‘maximizes alienation’, and makes it more difficult for any regime to achieve any legitimacy (Dallin and Breslauer, 1970, 3) This inherent paradox can partially be resolved by distancing the action of state agents from elites who benefit from such violence. I.e. State violence depicted on social media can be said by the government to be the action of a few bad apples, a few policeman whom the regime did not have control over. Consequently, there will be some show trials where few policeman will be convicted, or in the case of Bahrain, convicted but probably let off after a laborious process of repeated trials and appeals. As Turk (1982) states, Court and administrative decisions exonerating legal control agents are to be expected in any polity.’
Of course, the more videos that emerge of state violence and police brutality, the more difficult it is for authorities to convince people that such acts are the work of a few bad apples. Therfore regulating the amount of images or videos of police brutality is perhaps more about controlling the flow of information, and determining when people should be reminded of the state’s brutality, rather than any real objection to people witnessing those deeds.
Despite the utility of reminding people of the violent consequences of engaging in dissent, the reliance on short term methods of coercive force at the expense of political processes that appease the population can be explained by the fact that such processes would require more wealth and power sharing . As Turk (1982) again states,
Alternatives to intimidation may simply be unacceptable because they are perceived to involve intolerable changes in the allocation of resources among competing groups, even to the point of dismantling the existing strutures of power and status.
So just as violence is seen as a necessary political risk, one that weighs up the benefits of continued protection of resources with those of sharing those resources, the impact of mediated violence poses another conundrum. Do the benefits of intimidating the population through depictions of state violence outweigh the negatives? After all, how do you pacify a population without doing the following a) sacrificing significant power and wealth b) terrorizing them and c) convincing them (brainwashing) that the current social order is infallible and true.