Bahrain’s Commission of Inquiry Report: Whitewashing a Counter-Revolution?
By: Alaa Shehabi
Published Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) will publish Wednesday the findings of its three month investigation into violations of human rights. In utter insensitivity to the victims, the panel of government-appointed international law experts will hand over their report to the King of Bahrain at a “launch party” at his palace.
Apparently the head of the king’s Royal Court, one of the notorious hardliners in the ruling family who had a hand in the state’s repression, sees this occasion as some kind of celebration.
Much fanfare is expected, and invitations have been sent directly to the doorsteps of journalists and international NGOs, after locking them out of the country, if not throwing them out over the past eight months.
Meanwhile, local NGOs like the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, that has been the strongest advocate of victims, has been kept off the invitation list.
Critics’ skepticism towards the commission largely stems from the way it was established, through a unilateral decision by the King, reinforcing the key problem of authoritarianism in the country. No consultations of any sort over the decision to establish the commission, its functions, its mandate, the terms of reference or selection of commissioners took place; not with the victims nor with civil society organizations.
To make things worse the commission’s chairperson, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni persistently made statements to the press that absolved the head of state of responsibility over human rights violations right from the very start.
This seriously affected the perception of partiality of the commission. At one point, thousands of protestors gathered on BICI’s premises to protest the failures of the government, forcing the commission to close.
The statistics are baffling – since February 14 when the uprising began, over 1500 have been arrested, 500 remain in detention, including my husband, 45 people have been killed, hundreds wounded and nearly 3000 sacked from their jobs.
The campaign of persecution was relentless and unceasing. One of its latest victims is 16 year old Ali Alsatrawi. His dismembered body was buried just three days ago, after being driven over by a police security jeep.
Despite the violence, the people of Bahrain continue in their brave ‘intifada’ with daily protests. By the Ministry of Interior’s own account, they have “dealt with” 1300 protests over the past five months. The uprising in Bahrain has not been ‘crushed’ or ‘quelled’ despite the introduction of Saudi troops in March.
People like myself affected by the repressive government crackdown with family members that have been killed, tortured, fired, expelled, or are in exile or in hiding, will be the most capable of judging this report.
My husband, Ghazi Farhan, was arrested on April 12 and later sentenced to 3 years in jail. He is completely apolitical. The anger I have is not because I am separated from my husband or have become a single mother with a newborn baby. It is much deeper. It is because of the repeated cycles of injustices that each generation has had to face over the past century that culminated in the biggest uprising in Bahrain’s history.
This regime has sought to radically alter the make up of the country’s population – through political naturalization of thousands of foreigners – and the physical land mass of the island – through mass land reclamation from the sea. Bahrain’s government has failed to come to terms with the land and the people it governs. That is at the heart of the popular revolt in Bahrain.
Our cause now is far bigger than human rights alone. It is and always has been about self-preservation of a people and the right to exist as equals and to live in dignity. The form of justice we seek is not just about holding the government to account over human rights abuses. It’s also about the right to self-determination, the pursuit of which began in 1912.
There are approximately 500 political detainees in Bahrain today, awaiting trial or sentencing for anything up to the death penalty. Many of the detainees have been subjected to systematic torture and complete denial of justice, and are awaiting the outcome of this report.
The hope is that it will do them justice by recommending an end to the system that has allowed human rights abuse to continue for decades and to hold responsible the government that authorized this to happen at the very highest level.
In a recent statement, chairperson Cherif Bassiouni acknowledged that “a systematic policy of torture” exists in Bahrain. Torture is just one of the tools used in the machinery of repression – a much wider systematic policy of persecution was meted out across the entire apparatus of the state; the media, the judiciary, the military, the interior ministry, the intelligence services, the health services and various other ministries.
Within and between these institutions there is a coordinated and organized campaign of degradation and humiliation, overseen and ordered by leaders of this country. Every single minister that heads each of these institutions is directly responsible.
The state oppression campaign was given the name of ”tat-heer”, or “purification” or “cleansing.” It begun with clearing Pearl Square of “traitors” and then expanded to target people across the country on a sectarian basis, in their homes, on the street and at work. Of course, the state TV channel provided the full commentary of events to entertain the head of state and his loyalists.
In any other country, the posthumous confession aired on state TV of a man tortured to death, Ali Sager, would be enough to indict any number of high ranking officials. The other two men who appeared on the video and fortunately survived the torture that killed Ali Sager are now facing the death penalty denied any form of justice.
At least 7 people have been killed since June 30, when BICI’s chairman first arrived in Bahrain, but none of their forensic doctors were there to examine their bodies, as the state resolutely refuses to acknowledge the cause of death let alone their responsibility for the killing. We have had to endure routine fabrications that are so preposterous as to insult the intelligence.
According to the Ministry of Interior, genetic illnesses like sickle cell anaemia are magically contracted in detention. Of course electrocution, whipping, or creative forms of physical abuse meted out in torture chambers are not to blame. BICI should have been monitoring the state, yet it failed to carry out its mandate.
It would be a mistake to think that the state had reacted inappropriately just because it was “faced with an exceptional situation” post-February 14, making it unable to handle the sheer scale of the protests, as Bassiouni hinted in his recent interview.
He has previously claimed that violations occurred because of a “bureaucratic mix-up” and “botched jobs,” that security forces “lack training” were “insensitive” and “unprofessional.” I have reminded Bassiouni in a direct exchange, that sectarian policing has existed in Bahrain for decades.
A loyalist minority of tribal Sunnis or foreign mercenaries is intentionally employed to police the majority. The point of this is to perpetuate sectarian discord and to use the minority to repress the majority should the regime feel the need to to so.
This policy has in fact been defended by the Minister of Interior himself. In a recent interview with Al Arabiya, he stated that we cannot expect a Bahraini from any sect to police another Bahraini in a village, because “Bahrain is small and every one knows each other” – the opposite argument to the widely accepted practice of community policing.
Though BICI’s mandate is to investigate events post-February 14, it is worth noting that the campaign of persecution began last summer, when at least 300 men were arbitrarily detained and were only released in February, only to be the first to be rearrested in March (this includes many of the 21 opposition leaders, and also those on death sentences).
He may claim to be misguided or even ignorant, but Bassiouni, upon his arrival on June 29, when I was the first ‘witness’ to meet him, made sure he was neither. He was kind enough to have written to the King personally on July 1 to release my husband, who has been tortured and imprisoned since 12 April.
The King subsequently rebuffed the request. The King has full knowledge of what is happening in Bahrain and I hold him responsible in not enforcing such a request to stop such flagrant abuse.
“All those who called for the downfall of the regime [isqaat alnithaam] will have a wall fall on their heads. Bahrain is a small island – there is no escape.”
These were the ominous words of the son of the King of Bahrain uttered on state television in his newly appointed role as head of the Royal Guard in March. It was a stark warning; no one would who participated in Bahrain’s revolt would be spared the state’s wrath.
I hold the head of the BDF responsible for the Stalinesque military trial that delivered summary justice to my husband and at least 400 others.
I hold the Minister of Interior directly responsible for systematic torture across all police stations and prisons in Bahrain.
I hold the Minister of Justice responsible for major violations of due process and the kangaroo courts that sentenced my husband on appeal.
I hold the head of Riffa West police station responsible for the torture of my husband and the theft of property.
I hold the head of Bahrain TV responsible for hate speech directed at an entire sect that has been unceasing.
I hold the labour minister responsible for the violation of every labour law in the book by carrying out firings in both the private and public sector of nearly 3000 people.
I hold the Minister for Human Rights and Social Development responsible for trying to cover up the crimes of her government.
If the BICI report does not identify responsibility and offer high level accountability, the report will not be worth the paper it is printed on as far as I am concerned.
BICI is walking on a tightrope. Its predicament lies in its ability to realize its own vision or the raison d’etre of a truth commission - the process "of discovering truth and achieving justice” and avoiding the “compromising encumbrances of realpolitik” in Bassiouni’s own words.
The realpolitik it will be reckoning with are the insurmountable pressures of Western allies of the Bahraini regime, and in particular the United States, that have staked an arms deal on its findings, and will undoubtedly like to see the King, his son and the cabinet exonerated.
By linking an arms deal with the outcomes of this investigation, the ideals of human rights and geopolitical interests are set on a collision course in Bahrain.
It is the ethical and moral duty to hold to account all those responsible for sustaining an oppressive system that has been based on institutionalized sectarianism, subservience and violence.
Bassiouni pointed out in a Worldview interview that most likely no one will be happy with the report, particularly as it is expected that the opposition will say it does not go far enough. He then said that this will demonstrate BICI’s “neutrality.” I would like to remind Bassiouni of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote that “Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.”
Justice for the people of Bahrain will be in achieving a new system that restores and protects our dignity, treats everyone equally and punishes those responsible for systematic abuse.
The truth commission will succeed not by acknowledging the pain and suffering of the victims alone, but for me, the key things that will determine its success are recommendations along the following lines:
The immediate release of every single political prisoner, including the 14 opposition leaders that bore severe forms of torture for their views
High-level accountability and assigning responsibility at the highest echelons of power
Political reconciliation in the form a clear plan for democratic transition and a new constitution
Today, the blinding sun of torture and injustice has reached its zenith and scorched the entire island. My personal horror, and those of thousands others have lasted for several months and is still ongoing. My husband has experienced multiple violations which have left an everlasting physical and psychological effect on him and this necessitates justice.
The trauma and wounds will not be healed through financial compensation alone, or the reinstatement to their previous positions in jobs, people had striven their entire lives to succeed in. The best of the best in Bahraini society don’t want material reparation, but tangible attainment of full political, economic and human rights.
No where else in the Arab world will a brutal regime that has lost its legitimacy wield a political shield such as this report to convince the rest of the world, and not its own people, of its right to sustain authoritarian rule.
In the spirit of the so-called Arab Spring, the revolutions of dignity, no longer are people interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself our master. The people want the full menu of rights.
The ultimate judge of truth commission’s report therefore will be the people of Bahrain that were punished for taking to the streets and calling for equal rights, social justice, freedom and democracy. If the government thinks a fancy party, and a glossy report will end the uprising, they are sadly mistaken. The struggle for democracy will continue.
Ala'a Shehabi is a lecturer and activist in Bahrain
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
Correction: BICI's report will be published Wednesday, not Tuesday as an earlier version of this article stated.