How much have you heard about the pro-democracy protests and the brutal government repression in Bahrain? If you're drawing a blank, I'm not surprised. Despite the ongoing clamour in the media about government repression in Syria, there has been a shameful silence when it comes to the situation in Bahrain.
It Started With a Word: Democracy
Protests in Bahrain began in February 2011, inspired by the heroic movements of people fighting for human rights and democracy in Egypt and Tunisia. In the first few days of protest, thousands turned out to demand democratic and social reforms such as the writing of a new constitution and better access to jobs, health care and housing. Government forces responded swiftly and harshly, immediately using tear gas, rubber bullets and sound grenades against the peaceful demonstrators. On February 15, 2011, the first protestor was killed, shot in the back by police. Martial law was declared across the country and at the government of Bahrain's request, neighbouring Saudi Arabia sent 1,200 troops (along with 800 more from the United Arab Emirates) into the country to help crush the protest movement. Two days later, 1000 police were sent to Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama to disperse 1500 protesters who were camped there. Three civilians were killed and 230 injured. The next day, protests continued as the government escalated its repression, this time with forces firing even on medics who were loading the wounded into ambulances.
Later Came With a Word Too: Resistance
In the weeks and months following, the protests and mounting government repression continued. The main opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, was shut down by the Information Ministry, and internet and media were placed under tight control as per the rule of martial law. Severe repression continued in the streets as well. Widespread abuse, torture and human rights violations have been carried out by Bahrain's security forces, according to a report by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
Protesters were not the only victims of government repression. Doctors who treated those injured have also been targeted. In an April 2011 report entitled “Do No Harm: A Call for Bahrain to End Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients, Physicians for Human Rights” reported the following:
“Armed security forces abducted Dr. Ali El-Ekri from the operating room while he was performing surgery at Salmaniya Hospital on 17 March. Another doctor was abducted in the middle of the night from his home in front of his wife and three children. Police and masked men in civilian clothes stormed the home of Dr. Abdul Khaliq al-Oraibi on 1 April. The security forces dragged him out of bed, handcuffed, and then blindfolded him. They did not say where or why they were taking him. His family has not heard from him since.”
In total twenty Bahraini health professionals have been convicted by a military court on various charges such as 'inciting hatred of the regime' and 'attempting to overthrow the government' and face up to 15 years in prison. Under international pressure, they have been released but are still pending a retrial by a civilian court. Dozens more were abducted or detained for providing care to wounded protesters.
Hospitals were also taken over by government forces and were used to trap and arrest wounded pro-democracy protesters, according to M&eeacute;decins Sans Frontiéres. Furthermore, Physicians for Human Rights reported that, “government security forces systematically targeted ambulances during the weeks following the February protests because they carried wounded protesters from the rural towns and smaller medical centers to the main Salmaniya Hospital. PHR investigators received corroborating eyewitness testimonies from three health professionals and three patients that government security forces stole at least six ambulances and used them for military purposes. Further, police forcibly removed ambulance medics from the vehicles, made them remove their uniforms at gunpoint, and then posed as medics, reportedly to get closer to injured protesters to detain them.”
Since the protests began, opposition groups report that at least 70 people have been killed, according to the New York Times. Thousands more have been arrested and tortured. However, the ongoing repression has only strengthened the resolve of the Bahraini people to continue their struggle for human rights and democracy, with protests in the streets continuing today.
History of the Protest Movement
The demands for democratic reform being put forward by the people of Bahrain are nothing new. Throughout the last century, protests against the ruling al-Khalifa family and its imperialist puppet masters have frequently erupted. Although Bahrain has officially been a constitutional monarchy since 1973, in reality the elected government holds no actual power. All legislation can be vetoed by the Consultative Council, which is directly appointed by King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa. Furthermore, the unelected Prime Minister of Bahrain, Prince Khalifa bin Salaman al Khalifa (uncle to the king) has been in power since Bahrain gained its independence from Britain in 1971. This complete lack of democracy is exacerbated by the fact that the al-Khalifa family has long been a cohort of the United States, essentially allowing US interests to come before the interests of Bahrainis.
In addition to the demands for democratic reform, protesters are also calling for an end to the systematic discrimination against Bahrani Shi'a Muslims. Although they make up approximately 70% of the native Bahraini population, Shiites face discrimination on all levels from the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa monarchy. Shiites are discriminated against in access to housing, government jobs, and public health facilities, according to an International Crisis Group report. The government has also attempted to silence the voice of Shiites by manipulating electoral districts to ensure majority Sunni representation and granting Bahrani citizenship to Sunnis from other Arab countries. However, this is not a question of “sectarian divisions” between the Shi'a and Sunni communities as the major media has attempted to portray it on the rare occasion they have covered the situation in Bahrain. On the contrary, protesters have called for Shi'a-Sunni unity, and demand simply that all Bahrainis be treated as equal citizens, regardless of religious affiliation.
Not Only Bahrain
In May 2012, about 300,000 people - nearly half of the country's citizens - gathered in Manama to protest a proposed bilateral union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The merger would create a united military and foreign policy between the two countries - undoubtedly a response to growing opposition to the rulers of these sheikdoms. As demonstrated by the deployment of Saudi and UAE troops to Bahrain, these rulers are shaking in their boots at the thought of unrest spreading from Bahrain to their own countries. This bilateral union would allow Saudi troops to enter Bahrain at any time to put an end to protests there. However, for the time being this plan will not go forward due, in large part, to the massive opposition to this plan by the people of Bahrain.
The United States' Hypocrisy! Is This New?
“Democracy isn't only for those countries the United States has a problem with”
- Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights
While the United States and many other Western governments have been championing the cause of human rights and democracy in Syria and Libya, they have remained shamefully silent on the grave human rights situation in Bahrain.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out against the Syrian government in the State Department's annual human rights report, saying “the Assad regime's brutality against its own people must and will end, because Syrians know they deserve a better future.” This statement came just a few weeks after Clinton hosted Bahrain's Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in Washington. Clinton wrapped up that visit by noting that “Bahrain is a partner, and a very important one, to the United States. We are supportive of the national dialogue and the kinds of important work that the Crown Prince has been doing in his nation.”
The United States is providing not only political but also military support to the al-Khalifa regime. On May 11, the Obama administration announced that they would resume the sale of $53 million worth of arms to Bahrain's government, despite the current situation there. The US Department of State notes on their website that “US military sales to Bahrain since 2000 total $1.4 billion... the [Bahrain Defense Force] also sends personnel to the United States for military training.” Therefore, it is not only with the complicity but also the material assistance of the United States that the al-Khalifa regime has carried out their crackdown on Bahrainis.
And The Struggle Is Continued
So, why the double standard when it comes to Bahrain? If the US is providing political and material support to the opposition in Syria, why are they not providing the same to the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain? The answer lies in the importance of Bahrain - and its current administration - to the United States. Geographically and politically, Bahrain is of crucial importance to United States interests in the Persian Gulf. The island nation is host to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet - a base which holds 4,000 personnel, the largest US naval base outside of its own borders. Morgan Roach of the Heritage Foundation, one of Washington's major right-wing think tanks, describes Bahrain as “one of Washington's staunchest allies” and “a bulwark to containing Iran and ensuring that oil can flow through the Straits of Hormuz unimpeded.” Therefore, it is essential to the US government that their ally, the al-Khalifa regime, remains in power. An independent, democratic government in Bahrain, which would serve the interest of the people rather than cooperating with US imperialism, is not what the US wants.
The hypocritical position of the US administration towards the opposition movement in Bahrain fundamentally exposes that the US has no interest whatsoever in promoting human rights or democracy in the Middle East. The side which they choose to aid in any given conflict is calculated purely on its ability to promote the interests of US capitalism and imperialism in the region. We should not be deceived by their crocodile tears over human rights in Syria and Libya while they are supporting their brutal and anti-democratic allies in Bahrain. The internal struggles and disagreements of any country must be left up to the people of that country to decide, without the meddling of the United States or any other country.
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