Following the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, protests in Bahrain began on 14 February 2011. The date was symbolic, as it marked the tenth anniversary of the referendum that approved the National Action Charter, which set forth commitments to democratic reforms by the ruling family. The demonstrations were non-violent, aiming to defy political suppression and the government’s failure to make the promised democratic transition and achieve equal participatory rights for all citizens without discrimination. From the beginning, riot police used teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition rounds against pro-democracy demonstrators on 14 February, causing numerous injuries, and the death of Ali Abdulhadi Saleh Jafar Mushaima, who was the first fatality of the Bahraini Uprising. On 15 February, police killed a second protester, Fadhel Al-Matrook, when they fired on a burial procession for the protester killed the day before. The demonstrations gathered momentum after the Bahraini police killed two protestors. By the evening of 16 February, tens of thousands of young Bahrainis marched to the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, setting up protest tents and camping out overnight. This escalation directly threatened the government that responded brutally, as forces stormed the roundabout in the middle of the night and opened fire on demonstrators.
After a month of protests, on 14 March, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dispatched its Peninsula Shield Force to help restore stability in Bahrain. They provided the essential backbone while the Bahrain Defense Force pursued and arrested thousands of people across the country. A state of national emergency was declared on 15 March, which lasted until 1 June 2011, followed by an organized campaign to quell the protests as the Bahraini government relentlessly pursued all forms of dissent.
In May 2011, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called all parties for talks on reforms to end the unrest. The talks started in July 2011, where there were almost 300 participants, only 35 of whom were from the opposition. The government has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of seriousness in undertaking meaningful reforms, which has created a crisis of confidence for the opposition and civil society in the government and its promises of change.
On 29 June 2011, King Hamad established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to inquire into the incidents that occurred in February and March 2011 and their consequences. On 23 November 2011, the BICI report concluded that the authorities had used torture and excessive force during its crackdown on protestors. The report pinpointed a culture of impunity among the security services operating during the state of emergency and accused unnamed officials of breaching laws designed to safeguard human rights. The report stated several recommendations, including legal and institutional reforms, to be carried out by the Bahraini authorities. These recommendations aimed at holding government officials accountable for torture, ill-treatment, and unlawful killing during the uprising and addressing some persistent human rights violations.
In the following months and years, the Bahraini government introduced several legal and institutional reforms to implement the BICI recommendations. However, nothing has changed drastically, and many of these measures have proved to be ineffective. The authorities continued to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and to imprison peaceful critics. Bahrain’s judiciary sentenced political prisoners to death or long prison terms following unfair trials in which coerced confessions were used as evidence, while failing to hold senior officials to account for serious human rights violations, such as torturing detainees to death.
Ten Years of Repression
At the beginning of the protests, the Bahraini authorities focused on ending the peaceful movement and suppressing demonstrations. They resorted to force and responded brutally for fear of losing control, adopting different suppressive tactics. After the protests were brought under control, while Bahrain was trying to convince the world that they were carrying out reforms, they pursued dissidents systematically and thoroughly.
During the state of national emergency (15 March – 1 June 2011), the country experienced significant human rights violations without any accountability. Besides police brutality in stifling the demonstration, where more than 20 people were killed by the end of the state of emergency, the authorities initiated a campaign to intimidate people into silence. They started detaining doctors for treating injured protesters and lawyers for representing detainees, trying civilian dissidents in military courts, banning trade unions, and arresting their leaders. By April 2011, 405 civilians were being tried before military courts in connection to their participation in the uprising.
The authorities did not spare prominent figures from persecution, including what is called ‘Bahrain Thirteen.’ They are a group of thirteen high-profile dissidents, including activists, opposition figures, and human rights defenders. The group encompasses the prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, academic and activist Abduljalil al-Singace, opposition leaders Abdulwahab Hussain and Hasan Mushaima and others. Seven of them were sentenced to life imprisonment and the others received prison terms ranging from 5 to 15 years on flimsy charges. The charges included “false and tendentious news and rumors,” “inciting” people to demonstrate, and the promotion of toppling the monarchy.
The authorities also detained one of the founders of Bahrain’s major independent newspaper al-Wasat, Karim Fakhrawi, who subsequently died in custody due to torture. Hundreds of mostly Shia workers were dismissed from public and private sector positions for ‘absenteeism’ during the demonstrations. Hundreds of students were dismissed from their educational institutions, or their scholarships were revoked for taking part in protests.
The Bahraini authorities followed a pattern of intimidation and mistreatment. There have been dozens of reports of torture, ill-treatment, and threats, particularly in security forces’ custody. The BICI concluded that there was “a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture,” and the treatment described by survivors “evidences a deliberate practice of mistreatment.” Aside from arrests, the authorities relied on various tactics, such as summons for interrogation, travel bans, home raids, dismissals from work and studies, threats of imprisonment or torture, threats and reprisals against family members, defamation campaigns, and nationality revocation and expulsion. Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, political activists, opposition figures, Shia clerics have been particularly targeted.
It is worth mentioning that the human rights situation in Bahrain began to deteriorate dramatically during the second half of 2010. By mid-August that year, the security authorities detained an estimated two hundred and fifty people, including peaceful critics, and closed websites and publications for opposition political societies. The 2011 Uprising was a response to decades of discriminatory policies and repression of dissidents. While Bahrainis perceived the Arab Spring as an opportunity for democratic reform and obtaining their legitimate rights, the authorities intensified their suppression to maintain the status quo.
The crackdown led to the demonstrations losing their initial momentum, and only then did the authority resort to a more compromising approach by establishing the BICI. It was also the result of significant international pressure. In response to the BICI’s recommendations, the Bahraini government created several human rights bodies, such as the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) within the Public prosecution to hold government officials accountable for crimes of torture and ill-treatment and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC) to monitor places of detention. The government amended Articles 208 and 232 of the Criminal Code regarding penalties for torture and ill-treatment committed by government officials. The National Security Agency (NSA) was stripped of law enforcement powers by royal Decree No. 115 of 2011. The government issued a Code of Conduct for Police Officers in 2012 and other reforms. These decisions seemed promising and welcomed by many Bahrainis and the international community.
The Bahraini government was keen to prove to the international community its commitment to implement the BICI recommendations. They were a step forward, but they failed to achieve tangible results in improving the human rights situation. It seemed that the government had no real intention to reform. For example, the SIU has failed to determine the state responsibility for the systematic abuse that occurred during and after the events of February and March 2011. The SIU prosecuted mainly low-ranking officials, and the rate of referrals to criminal courts was low compared to the total number of complaints received. The PDRC has failed to meaningfully improve places of incarceration and prevent ill-treatment of prisoners, especially political ones. Despite adopting a Code of Conduct for Police Officers, they are still conducting arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and excessive use of force, according to many local and international human rights reports.
The implementation of the BICI’s recommendations was supposed to address the human rights violations and the systematic abuse. However, restriction on freedom of expression and assembly continued full force and the government intolerance policy toward dissent was still in place. In 2013, the government amended the 2006 law on “Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts.” The government had already utilized the law to suppress dissent because of the loose and vague definition of terrorism. The amendments came to strengthen penalties, further empowering the security forces, and denaturalizing any person for committing a “terrorist act.” International organizations warned against these amendments, “as it will lead to further violations.”
Starting in 2016, the government levelled up its campaign against the opposition. A Bahraini court ordered the dissolution of al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition group, and ordered the closure of all its offices across the country on 14 June 2016. The decision steered local and international condemnation. The US State Department expressed its concern and urged Bahrain to reconsider its decision. Al-Wefaq held 18 of 40 parliamentary seats in the 2010 election but later boycotted the 2014 election. The following year, the authorities dissolved the last major political opposition party, the National Democratic Action Society (Waad), on 31 May 2017, accusing it of “advocating violence, supporting terrorism and incitement to encourage crimes.” These allegations were described as “baseless and absurd” by Amnesty International. These decisions were an end to years of harassment to opposition parties.
In January 2017, the Bahraini government executed Abbas al-Samea, Ali al-Singace, and Sami Mushaima by a firing squad for the alleged killing of a police officer. The executions were condemned by Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, and many international organizations. Their trials lacked due process, and their convictions marred by torture allegations. The trials were described by human rights activists as an “utter shame.” Nonetheless, the government continued with the executions, ending a seven-year moratorium on the death penalty. In the same month, the government backtracked on its decision to strip the NSA from law enforcement powers, where the NSA restored its arrest and investigatory powers. The NSA was heavily involved in human rights violations during the Bahraini Uprising of 2011, and stripping it from arrest powers was a recommendation of the BICI. Deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, Joe Stork stated that “Returning arrest powers to an intelligence agency that terrorized families and tortured detainees is yet another nail in the coffin for Bahrain’s post-2011 reform process. Detainees will not be safe in NSA custody and Bahrain’s oversight mechanisms are no guarantee of protection.”
Sheikh Isa Qassim, the most prominent Shia cleric in the country, was sentenced to one year suspended prison sentence, and his nationality was revoked for alleged “money laundering and collecting funds illegally.” His supporters carried out a peaceful sit-in around his house in Diraz, which security forces dispersed using excessive force on 23 May 2017. The raid resulted in five deaths and the arrest of 286 persons. Many of them were later convicted for terrorism charges. This systematic repression of the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association has undermined prospects for a political solution to the ongoing internal unrest in Bahrain.
In 2017, the second trial of Sheikh Ali Salman, the Secretary General of al-Wefaq Islamic Society, began; he was prosecuted for the alleged intelligence-sharing with Qatar. On 21 June 2018, he was acquitted, but after the ruling was appealed by the prosecution, his acquittal was overturned, and he was sentenced to life in prison in November 2018. Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director said, “this verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent. Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.” Sheikh Ali Salman was in prison at the time of his trial, where he was serving a four-year sentence on charges related to freedom of expression, where he was arrested in 2015.
Another blow to hopes of genuine reform in Bahrain was the suspension of al-Wasat newspaper in June 2017. Al-Wasat was the only independent newspaper in the country. The Ministry of Information Affairs claimed that the newspaper had violated the law and “created discord and damaged Bahrain’s relations with other countries.” Its suspension was in relation to an opinion article published on 4 June 2014. By shutting down al-Wasat, Bahrain lost the last and only independent voice in its mainstream media outlets. The government sent a clear message that there is no place for different voices.
Bahraini courts stripped at least 243 persons of their nationality, including human rights activists, leaving most of them without citizenship in 2018. The authorities deported at least eight people forcibly after stripping them of Bahraini citizenship. The Bahraini Court of Cassation endorsed the prison sentence of 5 years against Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Deputy Secretary-General of the International Federation for Human Rights, on charges related to freedom of expression. The prominent human rights defender was arrested on 12 June 2016, where he spent over a year in pre-trial detention and was later sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in July 2017 for articles and television interviews in which he expressed his opinions. The five years’ imprisonment sentence was in relation to tweets criticizing torture at Jau Central Prison in Bahrain and the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.
In 2019, Bahrain expanded its crackdown to social media activities. On May 30, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior announced that it would prosecute people who follow “incitement accounts” or who republish their content. Twitter agreed in a June 6 post with activists that such statements “pose a major threat to freedom of expression and the press.”
In July 2019, Bahrain executed Ali al-Arab and Ahmed al-Malali after another shameful trial. They were convicted and sentenced to death in a mass trial with another 58 individuals. Their confessions were coerced through torture, and their mass trial lacked due process. Right now, there are eight people at imminent risk of execution, along with ten on death row in Bahraini prisons.
Over ten years, many have died on the street or under torture, lost their freedom, injured, tortured, and ill-treated. Many families have been separated; Many people have been forced to leave the country; jobs have been lost; studies have been stopped; scholarships have been revoked; lives have been ruined. Arrests have never stopped; unfair trials have continued; restriction on freedom of expression and assembly has worsened; intolerance toward dissent has intensified. These people only wanted a democracy governed by a just law in which everyone is equal without discrimination.
The Silence of the International Community
While the international community played a prominent role in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya, its role in the Bahraini case was less articulated, i.e., the International Community was less forceful concerning the actions taken by the Bahraini government to remedy the repression tactics that have been intensifying since the beginning of the uprising up until now.
Prominent players of the International Community, such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom have historical relationships with Bahrain. These historical relationships along with geopolitical and economic considerations are perhaps one of the reasons why the International Community has been more “careful” in defending the pro-democratic movement in Bahrain in comparison with their involvement in other countries of the MENA region.
Going into more details of why the Bahraini situation has been dealt with differently by the International Community, Bahrain’s international relations have to be considered, including the Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in October 1991, granting US forces access to Bahraini facilities and ensuring the right to prepositioning material for future crises. In 2006, the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement entered into force, generating additional commercial opportunities for both countries. Further, in 2017, the US State Department approved $3.8 billion in arms sales to Bahrain, including F-16 jets, missiles, and patrol boats. The United States has long been allied with Bahrain and has based the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain for many years. The UK also has a permanent naval presence in Bahrain, which was expanded in 2014 under an agreement between Bahrain and the UK.
The silence of the International Community has emboldened the Bahraini Government to continue to suppress dissent without being held accountable. The lack of a clear and persistent international stand toward human rights violations in Bahrain has played a role in how things turned out ten years after the 2011 Uprising. The Bahraini people are still struggling to obtain their rights, and the world is yet to speak.