When the series of uprisings we know as the Arab Spring started taking place last year, the Western world reacted with praise for the pro-democracy movements facing bullets and tear gas to overthrow the tyrants who claimed possession of their countries. As the rebellion spread across North Africa and into the Middle East, those who had previously claimed that certain cultures were immune to democracy were left blushing. Eventually this wave of uprisings reached the shores of Bahrain, the small island nation lying in the shadow of Saudi Arabia.
On the 14th of February, 2011, a protest march was organized in the capital city Manama designed to make it clear that Bahrainis demanded “greater freedom, social justice and political and constitutional reforms”. The protest was attended by 25% of the adult population and made its command centre the Pearl Roundabout, a symbolic monument at the heart of the capital. President Obama made no mistakes in informing us which side he was on: “Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States”.
The reaction of the ruling Al Khalifa family was predictable nonetheless. Within a week of the first march, seven people had been murdered by the police forces and hundreds more were injured. Having seen what determination and resilience had achieved in other countries, the Bahraini protesters dug their heels in and refused to be beaten into submission. Many of these protestors now had little to lose. Thousands had been dismissed from their workplace, and almost 500 students had been expelled from university.
When King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa introduced a ‘state of safety’, the protestors realized the worst was ahead of them. Soon tanks and armoured jeeps from Saudi Arabia began lining the streets. During this time, the police brutality increased and the city hospital became fortified, a military guard turning away or arresting protesters in need of medical help. Nabeel Rajab, an award-winning human rights activist, explained this violent reaction. He said Bahrain was “ruled by families who will destroy the whole country rather than leave power.” This became obvious when websites critical of the regime started being closed down and activists began disappearing.
The climax of the protest was broadcast worldwide. Tanks and riot police charged the encampment at Pearl Roundabout and then tore down the monument; a move activists saw as a “symbolical cleansing of the city” from dissent. When protestors retreating from the burning smoke decided to collect some used ammunition as evidence, the metal canisters they gathered surprised them. The tear gas and ammunition was manufactured and sold by Western countries, the same ones who were condemning the Bahraini regime.
They found evidence of “US-made tear gas canisters and 37mm rubber multi-baton rounds”. Amnesty International released a report late last year which found that the among the main arms suppliers to Bahrain were the “UK and USA”. In 2010, Britain sold “assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, submachine guns, small arms ammunition, […] tear gas/irritant ammunition, and all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection” to the Bahraini regime, despite protests from various human rights groups.
Eventually President Obama reacted to the brutality. In October the U.S. froze a $53 million arms deal to Bahrain, realizing the weapons would be used against its people. It seemed Obama had kept his word, and remained in alliance with the now bruised and battered activists. Earlier this month however, the deal, minus the more conspicuous weapons of violent repression, was allowed to go ahead. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland claimed “for national security interests we have decided to release additional items and services for the Bahrain Defense Force […] for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities”.
This move came in light of some efforts by the King of Bahrain to investigate the police brutality, which took the form of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. But these tenuous steps had almost no impact on the suffering Bahrainis. Democratic congressman Ron Wyden, who is leading a group of fellow politicians opposing the new deal, claimed that “the Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse”.
In a report published by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (which reads like a ‘Tyranny for Dummies’), a list of reports show exactly the type of torture King Khalifa’s goons have been carrying out. One man was “forced to swallow the spit of the masked security forces” while being told his wife and daughter were being raped by other police officers. Another detainee was told to “apologise to the King on camera” but refused, and was severely beaten as a result. A group of doctors, arrested for sympathizing with wounded protestors, were “forced to record false statements on Bahrain TV” under threat of further torture.
Said Yousif Al Muhafda, a member of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights, says “the same people who are responsible for torture are still in their positions. All the people who were involved in and responsible for the violations are still in their positions”. Human Rights Watch also claim that “very little has changed” in the island kingdom, and have found evidence of “unfair trials, with defendants denied legal representation and with confessions obtained through torture”. In recent days Bahraini journalist Ahmed Radhi has been arrested without warrant during a pre-dawn raid after his comments about the Bahraini government on BBC Arabic Radio.
This is the regime whose abuses are being sponsored once more, and what many called the Arab Awakening is now being forced back to sleep. The ‘business as usual’ attitude Obama has decided to adopt not only betrays those still risking torture and life imprisonment for a better Bahrain, but reassures the sadistic regime that their bludgeoning to death of freedom will have no consequences, and will in fact be rewarded with more tools of repression.