Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Little wonder Bahrain is in crisis

  • Print

During my 25 years as a lawyer and human rights advocate, I’ve been in many courtrooms in many places. But I’ve never seen anything quite like what I recently witnessed in Bahrain. I sat in on one of the hearings for the 28 medics being prosecuted after treating injured protesters during the democratic uprising last year.

In the chaotic courtroom, the judge dismissed arguments by defence lawyers that their clients had been tortured. That’s when Nabeel Tammam, one of Bahrain’s leading ear, nose and throat specialists, raised his hand and asked for permission to speak. Seemingly mistaking him for one of the defense lawyers, the judge acknowledged Tammam, who spoke the words he had not been allowed to say publicly before any Bahraini judicial authority since his detention in 2011: "My name is Nabeel Tammam. I am one of the medics, and I was tortured." Tammam described what he suffered at the hands of government officials; the judge quickly ended the hearing.

If this is what the rule of law looks like in Bahrain, I thought, no wonder the country is in crisis.

It has been one year since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a body set up to investigate the events surrounding the uprising, issued its report. The BICI confirmed what Human Rights First and other international nongovernmental organizations had been saying for months: that the government had swept up thousands in illegal arrests, used excessive force against protesters and engaged in a pattern of abuse that resulted in at least four prisoners being tortured to death.

To his credit, King Hamad accepted the report’s recommendations and promised to implement them. Several Bahraini government ministers I met pointed proudly to a new police code of conduct and a special office to prosecute human rights abuses. But the people on the receiving end of the policing and justice systems in Bahrain told me that these "paper reforms" have meant next to nothing in the real world. If anything, they say, police conduct has worsened, and the judicial system remains hopelessly politicized.

No senior government figure has been held accountable for last year’s arrests or deaths in custody. Political prisoners remain in jail. All public gatherings have been banned, and last month three men were sent to prison for criticizing the king on Twitter.

Public protests are growing increasingly violent. In recent months, a pattern of clashes involving police and a small minority of protesters has emerged, leaving people dead on both sides. Since the BICI report, the government has imprisoned leading activists, including Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. His colleague Said Yousif told me, "They’re picking off figures in civil society, those who speak out against the government. The Bassiouni report has changed nothing. We’re not seeing any sign of real reform here." The government recently took Yousif into custody.

Meanwhile, the United States has been conflicted about what to do in Bahrain. The tiny island country in the Persian Gulf hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and the conventional wisdom is that this prevents the U.S. from criticizing the regime too openly. But the U.S.’ "carrots-only" strategy of trying to bolster reformers in the royal family has not worked. The conventional wisdom has it backward; precisely because of the 5th Fleet’s presence, no other country has a greater stake in seeing a peaceful transition to democracy there. And that requires the United States to find its voice.

Tammam and the other 27 medics received their verdicts on Nov. 21. Five were acquitted while Tammam and 22 others were convicted and sentenced to three months in jail.

The United States, which has sent observers to the medics’ trials, should state publicly what it says in private: The trials fall far short of international standards. This should be part of a more muscular U.S. approach toward its ally.

In a region where threats to U.S. interests abound, it may be tempting for the Obama administration to conclude that, while not ideal, the status quo in Bahrain is tolerable for now. That would be a mistake. There is no status quo in Bahrain. The situation is deteriorating, and pro-democracy activists are growing more desperate. There will either be reform, or a descent into worsening violence. The United States may not be able to control the outcome, but — for its own strategic interests and the good of the Bahraini people — it must do everything it can to persuade the regime to choose the right path.

 

The writer is president and chief executive officer of Human Rights First.

 

—The Washington Post

 

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Bartley Kives on 5 obstacles for new mayor and city council

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Two Canada geese fly Wednesday afternoon at Oak Hammock Marsh- Front bird is banded for identification- Goose Challenge Day 3- - Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A Canada Goose cools off in a water pond Monday afternoon at Brookside Cemetary- See Bryksa’s Goose a day Challenge– Day 27-June 25, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Will you get out and vote for a new mayor and council?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google