Rebuttal

Bahrain: We Take Human Rights Violations Seriously

Manama responds to Freedom House's report knocking the country's democratic transition.

Dear Editor,

Despite our accessibility and continuous communication with Foreign Policy in correcting the misconceptions detailed in your articles, you continue to endorse loose claims irresponsibly and avoid providing readers with an official statement. This is evident in your most recent article, "Slouching Toward Democracy" by Vanessa Tucker, and we'd like to take this opportunity to promote balance through providing an official statement to the charges made.

The author begins her analysis by stating, "not every Arab Spring uprising has produced democratic progress." We want to first clarify that the Bahraini government never considered themselves a part of the "Arab Spring" movement, as the demands supported by the uprising did not represent the majority of the Bahraini population. Actually, Bahrain began on its path to democracy in 2002, well before the regional upheaval. This resulted in constitutional reform and introduced the bicameral Parliament, which has carried out three general elections to date. This was a historic undertaking and an unprecedented move ahead of most countries in the region. Therefore, for Tucker to suggest that "real reforms have not materialized" in the last decade is an assertion drawn from ignorance.

Secondly, the author demeans the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) report as another "democratic false start." This report was led by renowned international experts and its critical findings were acknowledged and accepted by the government, as well as most opposition parties and their leaders. As a symbol of commitment, the government enforced a three-month self-imposed deadline to implement the vast majority of the report's recommendations.

The government of Bahrain takes human rights violations very seriously, and has instituted corrective measures to address them. Today, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) and an ombudsman in the Public Prosecution office receive and address any complaints regarding human rights. To date, these offices have probed 122 cases, including police officers up to the rank of colonel. Of the 122 cases, 13 were referred to court, resulting in three verdicts against the officers. Investigations and legal action are ongoing. These are more than a "few" held accountable. In fact, as recently as last week, the Bahraini courts charged seven more police officers for mistreatment and torture allegations -- all were lieutenants at the Ministry of Interior. Anyone with genuine interest in the country's progress would have picked this up from the highly publicized charges which were carried in international media.

Additionally, an ombudsman in the Ministry of Interior was established to supervise the new police code of conduct and to discipline security personnel. Reinforcing the government's insistence on policing reforms, the Ministry of Interior announced last week that it is hiring 500 police officers, including 100 women, from the country's five governorates, thereby making the police force more representative of all communities. The Minister of Interior reaffirmed the institution's move from public order policing to a human rights-based approach. The new cadets will receive training in compliance with internationally recognized human rights standards for the next six months. Moreover, the government has allocated $5 million to compensate those who died during the unrest, covering all cases mentioned in the BICI report.

These are merely the most recent examples of the reform progress directed towards human rights and not representative of all the steps Bahrain has taken in recent years. The number of reforms implemented in this short period of time were recognized and acknowledged by international governments in the recent U.N. Universal Periodic Review, where Bahrain's acceptance of over 90 percent of the BICI recommendations prompted the Human Rights Council to accept Bahrain's response with no objections.

On the political front, amendments to the constitution last month granted a significant shift of power to the democratically elected chamber of parliament. These include further oversight and scrutiny over the government, and provide that all new ministerial appointments must be approved by the parliament (who can vote to reject the entire government, including initiating a non-cooperation motion against the prime minister). It is quite bewildering how the author can label the implementation of reforms as "stalled."

Another clarification Tucker appears unaware of is the fact that no medical professionals were targeted during the unrest because they provided aid to injured protestors. The BICI report stated the medics "moved in and out of their roles as political activists and medical personnel" and that most of the ground floor of the Salmaniya Hospital, including the emergency section, the intensive care unit, and the administrative section, was taken over and controlled by medical personnel, resulting in difficulties in the emergency section.

Finally, it is important to highlight that Bahrain guarantees the right of expression to all. The country has 20 political parties, all of which have expressed their concerns through legal and peaceful means for many years. The welcoming of the BICI Commission is a clear indication that the government does not shy away from scrutiny, but invites it. However, the government rejects this right when it is exercised through illegal methods. Obstructing and causing harm to the lives of others, as well as to public and private property is a violation of the right itself. The country has experienced many of these so-called "non-violent demonstrations," which have resulted in injuries to over 1,500 officers, and thousands of vandalism cases.

Bahrain is a transitioning democracy, and as the author stated, this is "unachievable overnight, or even in a few years." Yet the author's opinion and dismissive attitude is indicative of the limited research that was carried out before publishing this article. We would hope that in the future the opinions and articles appearing in your magazine would be grounded in facts and provide the opportunity for constructive debate.

VANESSA TUCKER RESPONDS:  

Belying the Bahraini government's claims of progress is the fact that the suppression of nonviolent activism, as outlined in my article and detailed in the Countries at the Crossroads Bahrain report, has continued far into 2012

The government is still brutally clamping down on protests. This includes its unprecedented "weaponization" of tear gas, which has resulted in serious head and body wounds, an increase in miscarriages and respiratory illnesses, and more than 30 deaths.

The government continues to deny freedom of speech to its citizens. Activist Nabeel Rajab was jailed in July 2011 for an "insulting" tweet in which he suggested that the prime minister was unpopular, and was later sentenced to three years in prison for "inciting" protests despite the lack of substantive evidence of his supposed offense. A number of journalists remain in exile and the government has also targeted social media users who voice their dissent online. In addition, the government has on multiple occasions refused or revoked the entry of independent human rights groups seeking to investigate abuses.

The three convictions of police officers Mr. AlBinali notes pale in comparison to the many unjustified convictions of human rights defenders, including the recent upholding of life sentences for eight peaceful activists. Convictions against doctors that Mr. AlBinali claims were not targeted were recently upheld and protesters must still avoid hospitals for fear of government harassment.

Mr. AlBinali points to Bahrain's participation in the U.N.'s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and acceptance of the UPR's (nonbinding) recommendations as a demonstration of its efforts. But there is real reason to doubt that the recommendations will be carried out given that the government later targeted the activists who testified during the UPR process. They were also publicly ridiculed in the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

Bahrain's failure to implement the BICI reforms is well-documented and has been criticized by a collection of governments and independent experts. Even the U.S. government, which has been lenient toward Manama on this matter, recently recognized that progress has stalled.

Finally, Mr. AlBinali describes a number of incremental political reforms over the last decade, but elections to date have been manipulated to weaken the opposition and the current prime minster (the king's uncle) has been in office since 1971. Until the system allows for a regular and peaceful rotation of power among competing parties or groups, it cannot be regarded as democratic.

The Bahraini government can continue its very well-funded campaign to deny the ongoing abuses, or it can begin a genuine, good-faith effort to build real protections for human rights.

Vanessa Tucker is the director for analysis at Freedom House, and oversaw the production of Countries at the Crossroads 2012.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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