Insulting the King of Bahrain

CNN reports that on August 30th, Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja was arrested upon arrival in her home country. Al-Khawaja tweeted Saturday that she had been “denied entry,” and would begin a hunger strike until she was allowed into Bahrain. Fifteen minutes later, she added that she’d heard guards planning to deport her, and that they’d told her repeatedly that she wasn’t a citizen. The next day, she tweeted this statement:

The activist was returning home in hopes of seeing her father, also a prominent dissident, who has been in jail since 2011. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison on charges related to organizing and participating in pro-democracy protests as well as plotting to overthrow the royal family, has been on hunger strike since August 24th, and is now very ill. Her sister is also a prominent activist, tweeting from the account @AngryArabiya.

Maryam al-Khawaja remains at Isa Town women’s prison on charges of “insulting the king, participating in the ‘Wanted for Justice in Bahrain Campaign’ of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; and assaulting a policewoman.” She has not been permitted contact with her lawyer so far.

Bahrain has a history of human rights abuses, but they have increased exponentially since the 2011 Bahraini uprising. According to Al-Akhbar English, many dissidents, both young and old, journalists and international athletes, doctors and patients, have been arrested and detained since the revolution. There are currently 10 prisoners convicted of insulting the king behind bars.

The Bahraini revolution begun on February 14th, 2011 as a call for increased political freedoms and the end of alleged discrimination by the Sunni government against the majority Shi’a population. After a February 17th incident when the Bahraini monarch sent military forces and tanks into a camp of demonstrators, protestor sentiment shifted in favor of the removal of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. On March 14th, troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE arrived and assisted in a government crackdown on the protesters. The next day, the king declared a state of emergency and instituted martial law. Though this action effectively quashed protests for the next three months, there have since been a number of both large and small scale demonstrations, including one in March 2012 attended by over 100,000 people. Thousands have been arrested in connection to the protests. King Hamad created the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry on July 1st, 2011 to investigate the events of that year, and in November of the same year, the group of independent experts released their findings. Under “General Observations,” the report states in part that:

“The security forces carried out the arrests without presenting an arrest warrant or informing the arrested individual of the reasons for arrest. In many cases, the security services of the GoB resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property. The fact that a systematic pattern of behaviour existed indicates that this is how these security forces were trained and were expected to behave. Many detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody. This again indicates certain patterns of behaviour by certain government agencies.”

Why hasn’t anything been done about Bahrain in the past? Why aren’t we hearing much about it in the news now? Well, it’s a fair question. According to The Guardian, in February 2011 the White House expressed “strong displeasure” about the mounting tensions in the region. A month later, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “The use of force and violence from any source will only worsen the situation,” and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman was sent to Bahrain in order to advise King Hamad and his government to talk with the opposition. But, excepting the use of official dialogue advocating negotiation and peace, and the dispatch of a few representatives to the region, the U.S. has done very little to interfere within Bahrain.

In fact, outside of this recent verbal and diplomatic strain, the U.S. and Bahrain have enjoyed a very close relationship since the country’s 1971 inception. This may have something to do with the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet has been based in the area that became Bahrain since shortly after World War II, and relies on this location to keep a close watch on Iran. Just this March, a $580 million expansion of the Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain extended the naval presence in the region until the “middle of the current century.”

Ships participating in International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013 are underway in formation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
Ships participating in International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013 are underway in formation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Sandberg.

Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, may have put it best: “We are victims of being a United States ally. We are victims of being in an oil-rich country that many people don’t want to upset and anger.”

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