Where does Bahrain stand on human rights, six years on?

Some say the country’s human rights standards have improved since the 2011 protests. But not everyone agrees.

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

Thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets in 2011 to demand more democratic rights.

Updated Mar 11, 2017

Bahrain’s Justice Ministry on Monday filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the country’s main opposition group, the National Democratic Action Society which is also known as Waad.

Bahraini authorities accuse the group of undermining the state, spreading sectarianism and of having links to terrorism.

Waad had perpetrated "serious violations targeting the principle of respecting the rule of law, supporting terrorism and sanctioning violence by glorifying people convicted for terrorism cases," the Justice Ministry said.

Al-Wefaq, another opposition group, was also dissolved last year. (AP Archive)

Opponents say the government is cracking down on opposition.

"This is another step to undermine political work by the opposition in Bahrain," Radhi al-Mooswai, a leader of Waad said.

Many human rights groups were already alarmed by a constitutional amendment that allows civilians to be tried by military courts—if the case involves the military.

They argue that the amendment, which was approved on Sunday, would allow authorities to govern Bahrain as an unofficial state of martial law.

Demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres and police retaliated by firing tear gas. (Getty Images)

The 2011 protests: a watershed moment for Bahrain?

Bahrain is a majority Shiite country, but it is governed by a ruling tribe, the Al-Khalifa, that is backed by Saudi Arabia.

In 2011, thousands of people, predominantly Shiites, took streets to demand justice and greater representation in parliament. The small nation has still not recovered from the fall out.

Bahrain’s protests were inspired by popular revolts that toppled rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.

The demonstrations lasted one month. Troops from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates entered the country in March to “protect infrastructure.”

Bahraini forces demolished Manama’s Pearl monument, the focal point of demonstrations. (Getty Images)

Human rights violations: Bahrain under fire

Bahrain declared martial law. A total of 2,929 people were detained during the protests, a report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry said.

The report also said that Bahraini security forces used "excessive force" and tortured detainees.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, in response to the report, pledged that officials involved in the abuses would be held accountable and replaced.

"The government welcomes the findings of the Independent Commission, and acknowledges its criticisms," an official Bahraini statement said.

"We took the initiative in asking for this thorough and detailed inquiry to seek the truth and we accept it."

Bahraini women are known to play more of a role in public and political life than in most neighbouring countries. (AP Archive)

Dialogue: On the Backburner

“Dialogue is the best tool to find a solution to the current crisis, and this requires the beginning of an immediate period of calm,” the Crown Prince said.

“The problems that Bahrain is facing are the product of many years and cannot be solved overnight. Therefore, the solution is for Bahrainis of all backgrounds to unite and enter into an immediate dialogue.”

Opposition figures met with the Crown Prince hoping to resolve the dispute; he was initially seen as a more amenable interlocutor than others in the government.

But protesters refused after reforms were piecemeal, and humans rights abused continued. One influential Shia cleric, Sheikh Hadi Al Madrassi, said that the demonstrations were an opportunity for people to remove the existing regime —and called on protesters to reject the suggestion.

A census undertaken in 1941 prior to Bahrain’s independence placed the percentage of Sunnis at 48% and Shia at 52% of the Muslim population. But current unofficial estimates vary between 60-70 percent Shia and 30-40 percent Sunni. (AP Archive)

Iran: Behind the violence — or a scapegoat?

Bahraini authorities have accused Iran for being behind the protests and supplying arms to the protesters.

“The government has blacklisted Hezbollah and various smaller violent Shiite groups as terrorist entities, insisting that Iran is behind the violence.

“Yet its indiscriminate crackdowns have led some to view the claims of Iranian sponsorship as mere propaganda aimed at tainting any challenge to the monarchy,” said Matthew Levitt, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

“Even so, it is undeniable that low-level attacks continue to plague the kingdom with increasing frequency. And while not every such act can be traced back to Tehran, reports pointing to an Iranian fingerprint have emerged.”

Omar Mohamed, a GCC security analyst based in Bahrain, told TRT World that the country has witnessed a surge in terrorist attacks recently which has led to the deaths of a number of police officers.

“Iran has continued to target and sought to influence a growing number of Bahraini citizens, as they have done in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq,” Mohamed said.

He said that the sophistication of their methods links them to Iran.

“Security forces have discovered multiple bomb-making (IED) facilities throughout the Kingdom. These are similar to the ones used in Iraq against US troops and around the world,” Mohamed said.

“These individuals receive ideological, religious and military training in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran itself. The groups they train with in Iraq are all known to be trained, funded and supported by the Iranian revolutionary guards.”

Protests turned violent in January after Bahrain executed three men found guilty of killing three police officers. (AP Archive)

Iran previously threatened Bahrain, contending that the island nation belongs to Iran, and has made no secret of its intention to "reclaim" Bahrain.

“Using subversion to prop up the claim to Bahraini territory, Iran has for many years supported sedition by the Shia living in Bahrain. In doing that, the mullahs in Tehran trained, equipped and dispatched saboteurs and operatives to carry out their plans,” said Charles Faddis, a senior counter terrorism editor for Homeland Security Today.

On the other hand, Fahad Desmukh, a journalist based in Pakistan and a researcher for Bahrain Watch told TRT World that Bahraini authorities have sought to present the conflict as being a religious sectarian dispute, lead by Iran-instigated Shia seeking to foment an Islamic revolution.

“This carefully constructed narrative is challenged by the existence of a secular progressive opposition party like Wa'ad — which includes many prominent Sunnis — who are seeking political and economic reforms, including accountability of the government and royal family, rather than a government of the Shiite clergy,” he said.

He said that it would not be surprising if it turned out that Tehran is trying to exploit the religious sentiments of the Shiite population in Bahrain for its political purposes.

But he added that “Even if we assume that there is some Iranian involvement, it does not explain the mass scale of the recent unrest, which in its initial phases included many non-Shias, as well as the fact that the demands of the political opposition — going back decades — have always centred on achieving basic civil rights and social justice rather [than] trying to establish an Islamic revolution,” Desmukh said.

Over 3,000 prisoners are serving politically-related sentences, according to the estimations by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. (AP Archive)

Has there been any progress since 2011?

In 2015, the High Commissioner of the United Nations on Human Rights (OHCHR) said there were positive developments in human rights, but added that more is needed.

“We recognise and welcome the positive steps taken by the Government of Bahrain in order to improve the human rights situation. In particular, we are encouraged by the establishment of the Ministry of the Interior Ombudsman and its reports, the Special Investigation Unit and its efforts to investigate and prosecute alleged violations by security officials.” the statement said.

Mahamed said Bahrain has continued to make progress since 2011, but that “the issue here is that many want to pressure Bahrain to change overnight — even at the expense of its own security.”

“While the government claims that the situation has improved since 2011, the facts indicate that the space for civil liberties has been increasingly restricted in the same period,” says Desmukh referring to the suspension of Al Wefaq, and repression.

“Several political and human rights activists in Bahrain and abroad have had their citizenship revoked. The government recently restored powers of arrest to the National Security Agency which has been accused of torture.”

“And the government also recently executed 3 men despite opposition from international human rights groups claiming that the confessions were extracted under torture.”