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30.11.2022 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Bahrain: what the recent elections have shown

The fraudulent parliamentary elections in Bahrain (a small kingdom in the Persian Gulf) were roundly condemned in many countries, as all opposition parties were officially banned from participating. Those who could have stood for election and competed with the ruling regime were instead sentenced to death, sexual violence, beatings, sleep deprivation and other ill-treatment. But since Manama (the capital of Bahrain) is the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the vote was met not only with silence from Washington and its minions, but also with their approval of a “free election”.

It should be recalled that Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy where King Hamad Al Khalifa, head of the tribe that rules the nation, acts as head of state and parliament has very limited legislative powers. Before the election, the authorities excluded tens of thousands of citizens from “approved voter lists” and many were imprisoned. Volunteers and human rights activists claim that the number of “people incapacitated from voting” is much higher.

Bahrain’s US-backed armed forces used an extremely wide range of powers to suppress the democratic uprising that began in 2011, known as the Pearl Revolution. Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa Sunni Muslim royal family has been criticized for violating the human rights of groups including dissidents, political opposition figures and majority Shia Muslims.  Until today, political parties, their politicians, activists, human rights organizations and protesters are among those who continue to face not only severe repression, but also a broad wave of discrimination in a wide range of areas.

The November 12 parliamentary elections in the Kingdom took place in what human rights organizations have called “political repression” after a decade in which authorities used torture to extract confessions from protesters, mostly held in solitary confinement, imprisoned scholars from the Shiite sect of Islam, stripped activists of their citizenship and abused human rights. At the same time, the official authorities resorted to restricting the rights of all civil society, banning political opposition parties and closing down independent media.

It came to the point where Manama withdrew from the Human Rights Council in October this year. This prompted widespread harsh condemnation from critics, who said the kingdom had been given more freedom to retaliate against civilians. In this case, the White House chose to “keep” the sham election as far away from its public statements as possible, and there was little to read about the Bahraini events, let alone get to the bottom of what was going on in those islands. On the other hand, the cold-blooded murder of policemen and the burning of public property in Iran under the pretext of “peaceful protests” was very high on the agenda of US President Joe Biden and western “supporters” of America.

Human rights organizations claim that the authorities have even stepped up their campaign to eliminate the political opposition by banning political parties that legally existed before the 2011 popular uprising. The monarchy also imprisoned and tortured prominent opposition leaders. One popular activist, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced to five years just for a social media post critical of the Saudi-led and US-backed bombing of Yemen.

Today, there is not a single imprisoned political opposition leader or independent media outlet in the Kingdom who is allowed to criticize the ruling monarchy publicly. “Over the past 11 years, the Bahraini authorities have crushed all forms of dissent and severely clamped down on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for West Asia and North Africa. Prisoners of conscience, including the leaders of the 2011 protests and Ali Salman, head of the major opposition party Al-Wefaq, which was among the leading political parties dissolved by the authorities, are now languishing in prison.

Bahrain’s highest religious authority and prominent scholar Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim called on citizens to boycott the parliamentary elections, saying that any participation in them was tantamount to betraying the blood of many demonstrators shot dead in the streets of Bahrain simply for seeking freedom and justice.  In a live broadcast, the Ayatollah added his opinion to the growing list of voices calling for a boycott, saying that “the responsibility of Bahrainis is to boycott the election, and participation in it is a betrayal.”  He noted that Bahrain’s parliament was acting in favor of the ruler and his family, to the detriment of the people of Bahrain, Shia and Sunni. The residence of the top cleric in Bahrain was once subjected to a deadly military raid that forced the cleric to live in exile. “How would it be possible to strengthen democracy in Bahrain, whilst elections have originally been designed to destroy it? This is an election whose doors are closed to those who seek democracy,” he pointed out.

Representatives of the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society say opposition groups, demonstrating a direct rejection of dictatorship and repression by the ruling Al Khalifa clan, have unanimously agreed to boycott the elections. In an interview, Al-Wefaq Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Hussain al-Daihi said: “In light of the increasingly suffocating atmosphere, dictatorship of the ruling Al Khalifah dynasty, utter disregard to public demands and violation of people’s right to seal their own fate, foreign-based Bahraini opposition groups as well as social and political activists in the country have taken the decision not to cast ballots in the upcoming polls.” The Al-Wefaq statement called the November 12 election boycott a national duty, stressing that those who rule the kingdom have absolute control over the electoral process and seek to install a weak legislature whose main objective would be to whitewash the image of the corrupt Al Khalifa dynasty and cover up corruption and gross violations of elementary human rights.

According to human rights organizations, the ruling monarchy maintains its long-standing ban on opposition parties that contested elections before 2011. The government banned Al-Wefaq, the Shia-led party that used to win the most seats in the history of Bahrain’s current parliamentary system, Amal, a Shia opposition party that competed with Al-Wefaq, and Wa’d, a non-sectarian opposition party.  The three parties oppose the 2002 constitution, which the ruling family adopted unilaterally, but the opposition sought to change it by participating in the electoral process in an attempt to get justice for the common man and for the nation as a whole. The banning of parties that have peacefully attempted to change the system of government through legal means, such as participation in elections, is a blatant violation of the right to freedom of assembly and expression.

Further amendments passed in 2018 are called “Civil and Political Isolation Laws”. It was they who legislated to allow the ruling monarchy to prohibit members of opposition parties, any representative who had resigned from parliament in the past, and anyone with a prison record of more than six months, from holding leadership positions in any civil society organization, let alone the government. It is known that most of the protesters are Shia, who want at least normal treatment from the ruling regime of the Al Khalifa family, who are Sunni outsiders from Saudi territory.

While protesters, both Shia and Sunni, have taken to the streets since the 2011 uprising, the authorities have focused their repression on the Shia, who make up the majority of Bahrain’s 1.84 million population. The Shiite population complains that they are banned from working in state organizations and occupying positions of authority or power. This is at the heart of the protest movement against the ruling Al Khalifa regime. In Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy, as the Egyptian Al-Ahram notes, there is no hint of justice for the Shiite majority.

The reason for this is quite clear and can be boiled down to three simple points. Above all, Bahrain is the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is constantly expanding its military ties with Washington. This makes it a key US ally in the Gulf region, despite the brutal suppression of dissent and the absence of any democracy at all, of which Washington claims only Americans are the standard bearer. Second, a large part of the population – Shia along with Bahraini Sunnis – oppose US hegemony in the region and ties with Israel. If the regime of Al Khalifa and his family is toppled, the new government is likely to ask the US to remove its Navy and establish good neighborly relations with Iran. The situation in the Gulf will then change dramatically, and not to the advantage of US hegemony, which is on its way out. Finally, natural resources and other economic activity from foreign investment in Bahrain will no longer benefit the West if the Al Khalifa family resigns.

These three points are only a small part of the US usual double standard, crying crocodile tears over alleged human rights abuses against its adversaries, while actively supporting such abuses where they actually occur in its allies’ camp. This double standard is part and parcel of Washington’s policy of crippling international relations and creating tension where there should be none. And Bahrain is irrefutable proof of such US anti-democratic practices.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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