Home | News | Despite crackdown Bahrain's activists persist

Despite crackdown Bahrain's activists persist

On December 31st, Bahrain's high court upheld a five year jail sentence against Nabeel Rajab, human rights activist. His sentence relates to posts he made on social media in February of 2018.

His posts accused the government of torture and criticized Saudi Arabia's air strikes in Yemen.

Campaign groups around the world called his sentencing political persecution” and “utterly outrageous.

For a small country, however, his case is not exceptional.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights And Democracy says there are over 4000 political prisoners.

This, in a country with a population of only 1.5 million.

The small island in the gulf has been pursuing a major crackdown against human rights activists.

Generally those who dare to speak up against the government and are generally Shia against the ruling Sunni family.

But the small kingdom wasn't always like this says Ali Akbar Bushehri, a Bahraini researcher and historian on Bahrain.

“We never had this problem of sectarian, Sunni and Shia. We never felt our rulers Sunni, majority are Shi'a, because we [were] treated fairly. I mean for god sake [we are] the only country in the region that [can] perform Ashura, a Shi'a activity, freely and more than that, it is an official holiday” explains Bushehri.

He says such sectarian divisions weren't felt until 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution.

“After the Iranian revolution, that was the start of the Shia - Sunni falling out. Before there were no this talk about Sunni and Shia.”

Growing up in Bahrain before the revolution, Buhsehri reminicces how all the different communities, be it Sunni, Jewish, Shia, or Hindu, lived together. This awareness of an 'us' versus 'them' just wasn't an issue.

Bahrain throughout history
Throughout Bahrain's history, the different communities coexisted relatively peacefully stresses Bushehri, despite the small island country having been conquered numerous times.

Bahrain, sits close to its neighbours Saudi Arabia and Qatar and just across from Iran.

Surrounded by the Persian Gulf, its name in Arabic, al-bahrayn, means two seas.

Its strategic location has always made it particularly appealing to others, whether it be for its fertile grounds, its fresh spring water and natural pearls, “that was a valuable commodity in those days” adds Bushehri.

Over the centuries, Bahrain was taken by the Persians, the Arabs, the Portuguese at one point and also the British, where it became a protectorate during the 20th century.

Bahrain only claimed its independence in 1971.
And it has been under control by the same family, al-Khalifa, since 1783, which originates from central Arabia. Its closest ancestral tie is with Kuwait's al-Sobah family, a cousin connection between Baharain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

Although its history is relatively peaceful, by comparison to nearby states where revolts, coup d'etats and occupations have taken place, it too has had its own share of uprising.

Bahrainis revolt
Over the country's modern history, Bahrainis did push-back. “There was an era during the 90s, and an era during 80s, the 50s, even after the 20s where there has been [an] uprising. . .by the people against the ruling family” says Sayed Ahmed Al Wadaei, a Bahraini activist and director of advocacy at the Bahrain institute for Rights and Democracy , based in the United Kingdom.

Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, the growing sectarianism during the1980s saw a unification in the 90s when the Sunnis and Shias pushed together for changes in the government.

It was also around this time that Bahrain started to see the concrete development of its own civil society movements.

Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of the Lebanon-based Gulf Center for Human Rights explains:

“I think the movement started in the early 90s: the human rights movement” explains Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of the Lebanon-based Gulf Center for Human Rights. “They established a Bahrain center for human rights . . . and other human rights organisations and civil society gathering. . . .so it is for the last . . .28 years we [have] witness[ed] the emerging movement, in Bahrain.”

But since the 1990s, its biggest challenge to date has been the uprising of 2011 says al-Wadaei. “It [is] a revolution that calls for greater freedom” he adds.

Although the uprising demanded change, Ibrahim says in the time prior to 2011, things were still better in comparison to neighbouring countries. “It [time] was better, not ok, but in 2000s, all my colleagues who are now in prison. . . were free. . .There were restrictions but at least they were publicly working for human rights” adds executive director of the center.

As Tunisia's revolution in the Spring of 2011 spread across the Arabic-speaking region, many tried to imitate its success, with the aim of securing democracy and a free society.

But Ibrahim says that as the people took to the streets, what was initially tolerated turned ugly. Protesters were shot at with live ammunition. Troops from the Gulf Co-operation Council, the GCC mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates-- were sent in to help quell the dissent.

“There was a major cut-down on human rights movements since the defenders are either in prison or tortured, some of them killed” explains Ibrahim. “Even peaceful protesters were executed on fabricated charges. Since this uprising, he says what is still going on today in Bahrain are “mass violations”.

Protesters had hoped that support might come in from the United States, the UK, or even from its neighbours. Instead “we had the Saudis sending their troops along with the gulf states suppressing the movements, the people and. . . a complete silence from the international community” laments al-Wadaei.

Measures taken to punish dissent
Mass arrests followed by alleged torture and imprisonment were later followed by a new measure to punish dissent. “Since 2015 the government started with this process of revoking citizenship. In 2015 I was one of the individuals to be revoked of my citizenship. ..and being rendered stateless.”

According to the Bahrain Institute for Democracy and Rights, over 760 Bahrainis have lost their citizenship since 2012.

And in the case of the small country of Bahrain, such a crackdown means just about everyone is caught up in it. “You can barely not name someone who has not been in prison or is in prison as we speak” stresses al-Wadaei.

His own mother-in-law, Hajar Monsour Hadan, cousin Sayed Nizar Alwadaei and brother-in-law Mahmoud Monsour Marzooq r emain imprisoned on alleged charges relating to his own work in human rights outside the country.

But at the end of the day, while the government continues with its crackdown, including the continued imprisonment of activists such as Nabeel Rajab, many see the repression as a wasted opportunity.

Despite initial concessions made by the government in the early days of the uprising, Khalid adds there is never going to be a prosperous future without respecting the civil and human rights of the people in Bahrain.

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