• Free Minds Advocacy

Bahrain - And the political situation

Northwest of Qatar, close to the Saudi Arabian coast lies the small island state of Bahrain.1,493,000 people lived in the 750 km2 state in 2017 (Germany for instance is 357,582 km2 in size, with 83.0 million inhabitants in 2018). In the Arab world, people have a joke that the Bahraini king would not allow more than 100 people to leave the country at the same time, because otherwise he would be so lonely. In reality, the reasons why citizens are banned from leaving the country are not that funny. It is often done to prevent them from drawing attention abroad to the dictatorial and human rights violating activities of the regime. Like many other activists, Fatima Al-Halwachi, the daughter of the scientist Khalil Al-Halwachi, whom the initiative Free Minds Advocacy is representing this semester, feels the same way.

The Al-Khalifa family has been in power in Bahrain since 1782. The current king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, initiated a constitutional amendment in 2002 that changed the form of government from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. On paper, this was not only to create a parliament, but also to make judiciary independent. How seriously this is being implemented is questionable, considering that the Minister of Justice is a cousin of the King.

The basis of jurisprudence and legislation is the Sharia. The vast majority of the population is Muslim, and the state religion is Islam. This is also reflected in the flag. While red refers to the denomination and white is supposed to represent peace with Bahrain's neighbours, the 5 triangles between the colours symbolise the 5 pillars of Islam.

In the 2006 and 2010 parliamentary elections, the Shiite party INAA won the majority of votes.Two-thirds of Bahrain's population belong to the Shiites. Nevertheless, the ruling class is composed of Sunnis. Besides the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the position of the Prime Minister are occupied by male relatives of the King.

The former British protectorate continues to maintain good relations with the United Kingdom. Human rights activists from Bahrain and the UK are complaining that the British government does not use its good relations to push the royal family towards more liberal reforms. On the contrary, when the Bahraini king comes to Britain, the red carpet is rolled out. As is customary in many Gulf states, the royal family sends its young members to British private and military schools.

Bahrain also has good relations with the US, at least since the two countries signed a cooperation agreement in the nuclear sector after a visit of President George W. Bush in early 2008. The US Navy maintains bases in the port of Bahrain and at Bahrain International Airport. In 2004, Bahrain became the first Gulf state to sign a free trade agreement with the US. Tax breaks are attracting more and more foreign financial firms, banks and investors to the kingdom. Its wealth is derived from trade in fossil fuels, oil and natural gas.

Like political influence, wealth is unevenly distributed across the country. Decades of repression led to ever-growing protest movements in February 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring. Motivated by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the protesters demanded more political voice, serious democratic reforms and an end to discrimination against Shia citizens. The daily protest marches were put down with increasingly harsh violence by the police.

When the rallies against the ruling family and for more democracy began, the demonstrators gathered at Lulu Square, a central location in the Bahraini capital Manama. Some demonstrators even pitched their tents here. Lulu Square became a symbol of resistance. On 17th February, 2011 at 3 am, the police stormed the square by force. The Bahraini officials were supported by police from Saudi Arabia. The neighbour and ally sent troops at the request of the king to "restore order". As is currently the case in America, security forces in Bahrain often resort to tear gas for dispersing demonstrations and crowds. According to activists, at least 39 people were killed by tear gas between February and November 2011. A VICE documentary "The Revolt that never went away - Bahrain: An Inconvenient Uprising" interviewed, among others, the parents of the first child killed during a rally. With shocking composure, the father shows pictures of the murder weapon, a canister of tear gas. It was shot in the neck of the 14-year-old at close range, whereupon he broke. The documentary also shows video footage of police forces deliberately throwing tear gas in the direction of young children. Witnesses also report that tear gas was thrown into houses or cars. In closed rooms, the irritant gas often leads to death if one cannot save oneself quickly enough.

One of the most prominent human rights activists in Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab, says in an interview with the VICE reporter that initially the insurgents were still hoping for support from the West. Instead, Western governments supported the Bahraini leadership's actions with their silence.

It can be assumed that the US doesn’t want to upset its "strategically important partner in the region" (formulation from the White House). Bahrain's role as a fossil fuel exporting country may also play a role. Free Minds Advocacy will be looking more closely at the reactions in the international community to the human rights violations in Bahrain in the coming weeks.

Since the protests in spring 2011, countless activists and opposition members have been imprisoned. Often on charges of terrorism, disturbing the peace or endangering the security of the kingdom.

There is virtually no independent press in Bahrain and foreign journalists only enter the country if they pretend to be tourists. They are doing their reports at great risk to their own lives, including the journalist in the VICE documentary. Bahrain also refuses to allow the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to enter the country, which is why the UN cannot carry out its own investigations in the country.

In its annual report for 2018, Human Rights Watch counted 258 people who had their citizenship revoked. Within four days (29/01/2018-01/02/2018), four of these people were deported to Iraq.

Members of the Royal Family, as well as the King himself, are regular guests at charity balls in the UK.

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