Bahrain's Epic Fail

Nine days ago, the courageous Bahraini activist Alaa Shehabi wrote for Foreign Policy about the then sixty-four day hunger strike by Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja.  His death, she warned, "could mark a significant breaking point for the regime's efforts to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation -- and could accelerate the disturbing trend toward militant radicalization in the opposition." As of today, Khawaja remains thankfully alive. But Bahrain's ill-conceived Formula One race event has nevertheless already turned a harsh international spotlight onto the regime's ongoing repression.  And Shehabi, an academic with dual Bahrain-British citizenship whose husband was only recently released after nine months in prison, has been arrested

Shehabi's detention might seem a minor footnote given the ongoing protests, the numbers of other activists and journalists arrested and pressured, Khawaja's hunger strike, and the Formula One controversy.  She hopefully will soon be released. But her detention while assisting journalists  seems particularly symbolic at a time when Bahrain's regime has sought to burnish its international reputation and suppress critical media coverage without engaging in serious reforms at home.

This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Iniquiry.  That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability.  

Bahrain's fierce, stifling repression of a peaceful reform movement in mid-March 2011 represented an important watershed in the regional Arab uprising.  Huge numbers of Bahrainis had joined in street protests in the preceding month, defining themselves as part of the broader Arab uprising and demanding constitutional reforms and political freedoms.  Bahrain's protest movement began as a reformist and not revolutionary one, and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found no evidence that the protests were inspired or supported by Iran.  

The government's mid-March decision to forcefully clear the streets and bulldoze Pearl Roundabout, with Saudi and GCC support and accompanied by a ferociously sectarian campaign of repression, had region-wide impact.  The crackdown torpedoed a political compromise between regime reformists and opposition moderates which had seemed tantalizingly close. Regionally, it blunted the seemingly irresistible momentum of regional change.  The regime's use of a sectarian narrative to disrupt a broad-based reform movement triggered sectarian polarization in Bahrain and across the region. And the Obama administration's grudging acquiescence to the Saudi-driven fait accompli, at almost the exact same time as it began a military intervention in Libya and violence began to spiral in Syria, opened a gaping wound in American credibility.  

A ferocious battle over how to understand the events in Bahrain has unfolded in the months since the crackdown, as anyone who has attempted to report on or discuss it can attest. Supporters of the regime have argued that they did what they must against a dangerously radical, sectarian Shi'a movement backed by Iran, and fiercely contest reports of regime abuses.  The opposition certainly made mistakes of its own, both during the protests leading up to the crackdown and after.  But fortunately the facts of Bahrain's protest movement and the subsequent crackdown have been thoroughly documented by Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry [pdf].   

The BICI report established authoritatively that the Bahraini regime committed massive violations of human rights during its attempts to crush the protest movement. Hundreds of detainees reported systematic mistreatment and torture, including extremely tight handcuffing, forced standing, severe beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beating of the soles of the feet, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats of rape, sexual abuse including the insertion of items into the anus and grabbing of genitals, hanging, exposure to extreme temperatures, forced nudity and humiliation through acts such as being forced to lick boots of guards, abuse with dogs, mock executions, and being forced to eat feces (BICI report, pp.287-89). Detainees were often held for weeks or months without access to the outside world or to lawyers.  This, concluded the BICI, represented "a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody" (Para 1238, p.298).  And then there was the demolition of Shi'a mosques, widespread dismissals from public and private sector jobs and from universities, sectarian agitation in the media, and so much more. No political mistakes made by the opposition could possibly justify these acts.

The presentation of the BICI report to the King and his senior officials could have been an opportunity for the regime to come to terms with its past mistakes and begin serious efforts at turning a new political page.  Some parts of the regime, reportedly including the Crown Prince, seem to have genuinely hoped to do so. But the moment was lost.  Despite some surface changes, the regime has continued to ferociously repress protests while failing to push for meaningful accountability or serious political change.  Amnesty International recently concluded that the regime had failed to fully meet the recommendations of the BICI report and that "nearly five months after the report's publication, real change has not materialized.More deeply, "the culture of impunity within the security services identified in the BICI report has yet to result in any meaningful form of accountability." 

When I met Shehabi in Washington in February, she warned of the growing radicalization of the protest movement in the face of this ongoing sectarian campaign and continued repression. Bahraini protestors have indeed become more radical in the face of such abuses and political stalemate.   It has become harder and harder for opposition leaders to hold out for reform and compromise as resentments grew and positions hardened.  Protests have taken on a harder edge, and reports of violence have become more frequent.  The regime's heavy-handed, sectarian crackdown on opposition has radicalized the opposition and pro-regime communities alike, while discrediting reformists on both sides.  If it is not already too late to reverse this dangerous dynamic then that threshold grows near. If it continues on this path, Bahrain is likely one of the top three regional regimes most likely to face existential challenge in the short to mid-term future. 

I hope that the international backlash this week and the mounting signs of the unsustainability of their domestic strategy pushes Bahrain's leaders to rethink their approach.  They should immediately begin serious efforts at real accountability for abuses, an end to incitement, the release and reinstatement of the victims of political repression, and a genuine political opening. Their actions and words offer little reason to expect that they will, unfortunately, or that they even recognize the approaching abyss.  And this would be truly an epic fail for Bahrain and for the entire region.

UPDATE:  Shehabi was released late yesterday after 7 hours, to my great relief.  Her release changes nothing about Bahrain's underlying problems, unfortunately. 

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Cherif Bassiouni: The FP Interview

The United Nations should establish an investigation commission to collect evidence about war crimes in Syria to prepare the ground for any future investigation, leading Arab international law expert Cherif Bassiouni told Foreign Policy during a wide-ranging interview yesterday following his talk at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies [videos of both the interview and the talk will be posted shortly]. He warned that Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh should not count on his immunity deal holding up, discounted the ability of Libya's courts to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and blasted Egypt's post-revolutionary trials as focusing on flimsy, marginal cases which avoided dealing with systemic, institutionalized corruption.   

Also, he explained that Moammar Qaddafi was a sex addict whose heavy use of Viagra badly affected his decision-making -- which could complicate the ICC's efforts to convict Saif al-Islam (FP's web editors wanted that to be the lead, for some reason).

Bassiouni chaired Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry, which documented and reported on the violations of human rights during last year's crackdown on the protest movement and offered a set of recommendations for reform (it can be downloaded here in PDF form; nobody should be opining on Bahrain these days without reading and internalizing its details). Our conversation began there.

Bassiouni naturally defended the efforts and impact of the BICI. He argued that the creation of the BICI itself deserved some credit: "this is the first time in the Arab world in which a national government established a totally independent international commission to investigate its own violations." The Commission had total independence and access, he argued, even when his team knocked on prison doors at 2am to interview prisoners, and at the end "we produced a report which we read in the face of the King and the Prime Minister and 600 senior officials, which felt like reading an indictment." I tend to agree with Bassiouni that the report's documentation of the regime's abuses will be an enduring contribution, regardless of the implementation of the recommendations -- those violations can never disappear down the memory hole or be denied by regime apologists. They bear witness, and that matters. 

Our evaluation of the Bahraini government's implementation of the BICI recommendations differed, however. I pointed to the regime's very limited reforms, the regime's refusal to concede in the face of Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja's hunger strike, and Amnesty International's blunt conclusion that not much has changed. I relayed the view of many Bahrainis that the government's response to the Commission's recommendations might check off the boxes while stripping them of their meaning, and the ongoing examples of repression and abuse. But he pleaded for a case by case approach. Where efforts have lagged, he pointed to limited institutional capacity, such as a thinly staffed and trained Attorney General's office. "There has not been a single reported case of torture" since the Commission began its work, Bassiouni argued, while also pointing to the release of some detainees, the establishment of a follow-up commission, and other efforts by the government to respond to the BICI recommendations. "I know we did some good." 

But if he offered a sympathetic view of the Bahraini government's "treatment of the symptoms," he offered scathing critique of its failure to undertake any deeper political or social reforms. Such broader issues lay outside the BICI's mandate, which only extended to specific human rights violations. Bassiouni's defense of Bahrain's response to the BICI recommendations may be music to the ears of a regime eager for international rehabilitation, but they should pay equal heed to his pessimistic views about the Kingdom's political future. He is clearly disturbed by the emerging trends towards radicalization and the disappearance of the political center in Bahrain, and disappointed with the regime's failure to offer genuine political reform. The core of the problem remains the absolute hold on power by the Sunni minority. "That can't be. Things have to change. These are the causes. Unless you change the causes, they are still going to have these problems."

On Yemen, Bassiouni argued that the immunity arrangements for former President Ali Abdullah Saleh would not likely stand up any more than did promises made to former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The demands of justice might have to wait for a new political constellation, in Yemen and internationally, but the GCC immunity deal had no real legal standing. "The fact that there is a political deal at a certain time... is not binding." International law now demands individual accountability for certain crimes, which states do not have the power to waive. Nor does any sort of "former President" status protect him even if offered at home. Those outraged by the impunity granted to Saleh and his people might find some comfort in this view of the transient nature of such guarantees.

Should Syria's Bashar al-Asad be indicted by the International Criminal Court? Not until the evidence has been collected, argued Bassiouni. "I was very concerned with having the Security Council refer the Libya matter to the ICC before the investigation. I have a sense of orderliness about things. Do the investigation first, see what the evidence is, and then indict. You don't start by indicting without getting the evidence." Evidence collected only from abroad and from partisan sources could not suffice, he warned. "Mr. Okampo never had the opportunity to go to Libya to investigate, never had the opportunity to investigate in Darfur. When indictments come out on some evidence gathered from abroad, it undermines the legitimacy of the court. Me fear is that if we do the same with Syria it is simply going to add to it." Such a warning is well taken given the intense politicization of information about the violence in Syria today.

But this problem should not take the instruments of international justice out of the crisis in Syria. Instead of an ICC referral, Bassiouni "would strongly recommend having an investigative commission as was established by the Security Council in the former Yugoslavia." That commission, which Bassiouni chaired for several years, produced a 3500 page report backed by massive documentation which ultimately formed the basis for the efforts of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. He urged the same for Syria. But he also warned about repeating the mistakes of the troubled Special Tribunal for Lebanon were such a Special Tribunal for Syria to be established -- a warning which all advocates of international justice in Syria should take seriously. 

Finally, about Qaddafi's Viagra. This came up in our discussion about the competing claims on Saif al-Islam Gaddafi by the ICC and the Libyan interim government, and whether Libyan courts could possibly be "capable and willing" to try him and other top regime officials. "Absolutely not" at the current time, he answered, though it would not be impossible to create an effective body with 5-10 good judges and some training, capacity building, and international support. Such a trial would be conducted according to local law, however, which would not necessarily accord with the statutes of the ICC.  

But Saif personally posed another problem for prosecutors: establishing his role in his father's demonstrably paranoid and capricious decision-making. And here Bassiouni did, indeed, begin to speak about Qaddafi's sex addiction. (I started coughing right about then, as you'll see in the video). Qaddafi, he argued, had serious psychiatric problems for which he had long been self-medicating. He was extremely secretive and paranoid. On top of that, well, let's go to the tape: "Most people don't know, he was almost addicted, he had sexual addiction, consumed enormous amounts of viagra and other similar pills, which had a very serious negative effect when combined with his other medication." How did Bassiouni know this? Sometimes, it's perhaps better not to ask.