13.08.2020 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Bahrain: the Tough Struggle Continues for Human Rights Activists


The situation in the small emirate of Bahrain, situated in the waters of the Persian Gulf, has once again caught the attention of media outlets worldwide. The matter at hand is that the country’s Supreme Court upheld the death penalty against two people accused of killing a police officer, despite international concerns about their confessions, which human rights groups believe were coerced through torture.

Mohamed Ramadan and Hussein Ali Moosa, activists in the “For Democracy” movement, were arrested in 2014 after a police officer was killed in an explosion in a village to the northeast of the island nation’s capital, Manama. Along with them, ten other people were also imprisoned and tortured. Mohamed Ramadan, Hussein Ali Moosa, and their lawyers, according to The Guardian, have exhausted all possible options for legal recourse, and carrying out the death sentence could take place at any time. Mohamed Ramadan’s wife, Zainab Ebrahim, said that she and her husband’s lawyer were forbidden to enter the courtroom, with no explanation given for the reason.

“Today’s verdict is yet another dark spot in the struggle for human rights in Bahrain, and demonstrates that the regime has an iron grip on the country’s corrupt judicial system. This terrible injustice could not have happened without the tacit consent of Bahrain’s Western allies,” bitterly stated Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).    Maya Foa, director of the UK legal charity Reprieve, said that when faced with demands from MPs to act to save the lives of these people, the government once again spoke about its relationship with Bahrain and the support given by Britain, which has allegedly helped the kingdom “move in a positive direction” in the area of human rights.    The Foreign Secretary talks about regimes with blood on their hands, continued Maya Foa, but Britain’s role in these illegal death sentences, and its apparent reluctance to intervene to stop them, is deeply disturbing.

Incidentally, some glimmers of hope for the release of these human rights advocates first came to light in 2018, when a court of cassation overturned the death sentences, and after the proclamations made by human rights groups it ordered local authorities to investigate whether the men were tortured. The death sentences were reinstated on 8 January by the Supreme Court of Appeal.  Bahraini authorities have confirmed that the two men were behind the “terrorist” attack on 14 February in Al Dair, a village north of the capital Manama, AFP reported.   The incident allegedly came amidst a wave of attacks on police, and other violent incidents, which erupted after widescale street protests in 2011 demanding a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, and that a prime minister be elected.

Along with that, thousands of people staged nationwide demonstrations throughout Bahrain on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the popular uprising against the ruling Khalifa dynasty. Demonstrators took to the streets in the capital city, Manama, as well as a number of villages in its suburbs, and demanded the immediate release of Sheikh Ali Salman, a 54-year-old prominent Shia cleric and the general secretary of the disbanded national Islamic society Al-Wefaq, as well as other political prisoners.   On 28 January 2019, the Bahrain Supreme Court upheld a life sentence against the leader of the Shiite opposition on charges of espionage for Qatar.   According to a statement released by the public prosecutor, the court upheld the verdict against Ali Salman and his aides, Ali Al-Aswad and Hasan Sultan, for “spying for a foreign nation with the aim of … overthrowing the government.”

The London-based Bahraini Institute for Rights and Democracy condemned the decision at the time, and Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei described the court’s verdict as “political revenge and an insult to justice.” Punishing peaceful dissidents for leading protests against a corrupt ruling family has nothing in common with justice. This verdict “brings disgrace to the rulers of Bahrain and their allies … and specifically the United States and Great Britain”.  The trio was initially acquitted by the High Criminal Court, but this decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal on 4 November 2018. Demonstrations in Bahrain have been taking place regularly since the popular uprising began in mid-February 2011. Its participants are demanding that the regime ruled by the Khalifa dynasty relinquish its power, and allow the creation of an equitable system that represents all Bahraini people, and primarily the Shia population. However, the ruling regime has done much to suppress any signs of ideological dissent.   On 5 March 2017, the Bahraini parliament approved the trying of civilians in military tribunals, which is a measure condemned by human rights activists as tantamount to the imposing unofficial martial law in the country, and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa ratified the constitutional amendment on 3 April 2017.

However, apparently, it could not have been otherwise, since Manama is where the United States Fifth Fleet is headquartered, and that is from where the Pentagon controls the entire Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Great Britain, which for a century and a half dominated the Bahrain islands, also still maintains many of its warships in Manama. The importance Bahrain holds for the United States’ expansionist policy is attested to by the fact that at one time the CIA director and the Secretary of Defense were in agreement that the last stronghold in the Persian Gulf that they would leave would be the naval base in Manama. That is why it does not take many words, or pieces of evidence, to understand the unconditional support that Washington and London have for the monarchical regime of the Sunni Khalifa in Bahrain.

It is worth mentioning that after facing harsh condemnation of its domestic policy from the international community the ruling regime decided to somewhat loosen the stranglehold it has on the neck of the Shia population. The decision to release prominent human rights advocate Nabeel Rajab was widely broadcast in Manama, and he was allowed to serve the remainder of his internationally criticized prison sentence under house arrest.   Nabeel Rajab, who is 55, put on a garland of white roses after he was released, and smiled as he posed with his family for the first time since his arrest in June 2016, reports AP.  Mr. Rajab was one of the central figures in the 2011 protests, demanding more rights from the monarchy for the Shia population, and he is also the co-founder and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

He received a five-year prison sentence for his tweets about the torture that occurs in the country’s prisons, and for his criticism of the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen. He received an additional two-year prison sentence for television interviews in which he criticized the ruling regime of the Khalifa dynasty, and said that it usurps power to the detriment of the people of Bahrain. It is now unclear how long Nabeel Rajab will have to live under the strict supervision by the police.

Incidentally, the Constitution of Bahrain guarantees its citizens freedom of speech. However, Nabeel Rajab was prosecuted under laws that prohibit insulting a foreign country, spreading rumors when there is a war, or “insulting” a government institution. This drew international criticism from both activists and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.   For many years, he was subjected to persecution, including imprisonment, and there is no other explanation for this, except that he chooses to exercise his right to express these kinds of views and beliefs, UN experts stated.  In the years that have passed since the 2011 protests, Bahrain has dismantled opposition groups, jailed activists, and stripped more than 700 people of their citizenship.  The United States, under President Barack Obama, postponed the approval for a multibillion-dollar sale of F-16 fighters to Bahrain due to human rights concerns, but Trump later approved the sale without even taking these concerns into consideration.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Special Aide to the President of the Islamic Parliament of Iran in International Affairs, sharply criticized the Khalifa regime for violating Bahraini citizens’ human rights.  “In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic crisis, support for the death penalty for two young Bahraini people shows that the rift between the Khalifa dynasty and Bahrain’s citizens is huge,” the aide wrote on Twitter.  Iran strongly condemns the torture, death sentences, and systematic violations of human rights occurring in Bahrain, he added, and called on the Khalifa regime to reform the way it engages with its own citizens in the interest of promoting peace and tranquility in the Persian Gulf region.

Victor Mikhin, member-correspondent of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.