By William Fisher
The Public Record
President Barack Obama said on Friday that he was “deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.” He said the United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur.”
The he went on to say, “ We express our condolences to the family and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations. Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly.”
He concluded: “The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”
But many observers said there was something missing from this picture: There was not a word about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose troops earlier this week rumbled over the 26 km causeway separating Saudi Arabia from Bahrain, to help Bahrain’s ruling family to maintain its grip on power in the face of growing protests and demands for economic democracy.
In what has lamentably become characteristic Obama behavior, the President ignored the two 900-pound gorillas in the room. One of those gorillas, Saudi Arabia, is said to be close ally of the U.S., a major supplier of its oil, a recipient of much U.S. military aid, and a steadfast partner in the so-called “war on terror.”
The other gorilla is Bahrain itself, thought (until very recently) to be a reliable U.S. ally, like Saudi Arabia, an intrepid warrior on terror, and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The United States provided around $20 million in military aid to Bahrain in 2010. The slap on the wrist Bahrain received from the American President today is not likely to require medical attention.
Prior to the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. viewed Bahrain as a reasonably enlightened Arab state. During a visit to Washington in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raved, “Bahrain has demonstrated that multi-ethnic, multi-confessional societies can address their challenges through peaceful reform and representative institutions.”
Cables by US diplomats claimed that King Hamad “understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression.” Several of the 2009 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Manama characterize King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as an enlightened and deeply pro-American ruler who, since assuming the throne in 1999, has fostered reconciliation with the Shi’ite Muslim majority and has undertaken serious political and economic reforms,” Reuters reports.
As for The House of Saud, it evidently gets a pass on Obama’s assertion that “people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly.” In Saudi Arabia they have no such right. And the country’s aging king is currently in the process of trying to buy off his people with announcements of massive appropriations for job creation and job training, plus substantial individual money gifts for every Saudi citizen.
So far, that strategy appears to be working — despite some announcements and preparations for a “Day of Anger” in the Kingdom, and some minor skirmishes between police and would-be democracy demonstrators.
Should that strategy show signs of weakening, there is little doubt about what the Saudis would do to quell any rising sentiment for a more equitable, representative government.
Meantime, Reuters is reporting that Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy asked the State Department to probe whether Bahrain had broken a U.S. law that prohibits aid to foreign security forces who violate human rights. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is the author of that legislation.
Bahrain is now under a state of martial law, after fresh violence left as many as eight people dead.
Amnesty International revealed evidence of the Bahraini security forces’ systematic use of excessive force in cracking down against protesters. In a new report, “Bloodied but Unbowed: Unwarranted State Violence against Bahraini Protesters,” the organization documents how security forces used live ammunition and extreme force against protesters in February without warning and impeded and assaulted medical staff trying to help the wounded.
The report, which is based on first hand testimonies given to an Amnesty International team in Bahrain, comes as the country is gripped by further violence, after Saudi Arabian and UAE forces entered the small Gulf state three days ago and Bahrain’s King declared a national state of emergency.
“It is alarming to see the Bahraini authorities now again resorting to the same tactics that they used against protesters in February but on an even more intensive scale,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It appears that the government has decided that the way to deal with protests is through violent repression, a totally unsustainable position and one which sets an ominous example in a region where other governments are also facing popular calls for change,” he said.
Dr. Hani Mowafi, a US medical doctor who was part of the Amnesty International team, found a pattern of fatal and serious injuries during February’s violence showing that the security forces used live ammunition at close range, and apparently targeted protesters’ heads, chests and abdomens.
They also fired medium-to-large caliber bullets from high-powered rifles on 18 February.
The worst violence before today took place early on the morning of 17 February, when five people were killed. Witnesses told Amnesty that, in scenes that would be repeated on 16 March, tanks blocked access to the Pearl Roundabout as police used shotguns as well as tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, many of who were camping there.
One witness told Amnesty International that on 17 February riot police were shooting from different angles, including from a bridge over the roundabout, while protesters desperately ran for cover.
Among the injured were people clearly identifiable as medical workers, who were targeted by police while trying to help wounded protesters at or near the roundabout.
“All the actions of the security forces against protesters since February must be fully and independently investigated. Those responsible for ordering and unleash lethal force against peaceful protesters must be identified and held to account.”
“There must be no impunity for unlawful killings, assaults and other abuses against both protesters and medical staff.”
Amnesty says it has identified some of the ammunition found in the aftermath of the raid on Pearl Roundabout on 17 February. It includes US-made tear gas canisters, US-made 37mm rubber multi-baton rounds, French-made tear gas grenades, and French-made rubber “dispersion” grenades, which fragment into 18 pieces and produce a loud sound effect.
The organization called on governments who supply weapons to Bahrain to immediately suspend the transfer of weapons, munitions and related equipment that could be used to commit further human rights violations, and to urgently review all arms supplies and training support to Bahrain’s military, security and police forces.
Following the Bahraini security forces’ use of unwarranted force against protesters, the UK government revoked some licenses for arms exports to Bahrain, and the French authorities have suspended the export of security equipment to Bahrain.
Amnesty’s report charges that “mass peaceful protests demanding political reform have shaken the Gulf state of Bahrain since mid-February. In response, the security forces initially sought to suppress the protests with brutality, killing seven protesters, injuring hundreds of others and assaulting paramedics.”
It adds, “Proper, transparent investigations that ensure accountability and justice for the victims, and a strong government commitment to respect human rights are needed now.”
Bahraini protesters today told Amnesty of bloody scenes on the streets as government security forces stepped up their violent crackdown on demonstrations and blocked access to hospitals. Government forces also surrounded hospitals and attacked doctors trying to help the wounded.
At least six people were reportedly killed in the capital Manama amid continuing protests as the army used tanks to flatten the peaceful protest camps set up in recent weeks to demand reform in the Gulf state.
“The distressing reports and images coming out of Bahrain today provide further evidence that the authorities are using lethal and other excessive force to crush protests, with reckless disregard for human life,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.
“Wounded protesters have also been prevented from accessing medical attention by government forces. The Bahraini authorities must immediately put a stop to this bloodshed,” he said.
Security forces attacked the mainly Shia protest camp at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout camp early on Wednesday.
Family members of those wounded at the roundabout and people trying to approach the area told Amnesty International that the army opened fire on them without warning.
“I was walking towards the Pearl Roundabout… We were 5km from the roundabout when we were shot with live ammunition – one shot came one meter away from me. There were two tanks in the street and a helicopter above us,” said Nabeel al Rajab, director of the banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Amnesty is also receiving testimonies from medical staff who were prevented from treating the victims of violence. For example:
“We are waiting to do something and the army is not allowing us. We know there are hundreds injured and they are not allowing them to come here,” said one doctor at the central Salmaniya hospital who did not wish to be named due to safety fears.
“A doctor went to the gate this morning trying to come in and the army beat him. They also threw tear gas and another type of gas at the emergency entrance of the hospital.”
In a funeral procession today to mourn a dead Bahraini pro-democracy demonstrator, anti-government participants shouted, “down with King Hamad.” The crackdown that killed this activist was targeted to mainly Shi’ite protesters, which angered Iran.
Bahrain’s ruling family are Sunni Muslims, while a large majority of its people are Shia. The Shia majority contends it is discriminated against in terms of funds for public works projects and government jobs.
Virtually all reputable human rights organizations are condemning Bahrain’s violent military crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.
Neil Hicks of the New York-based Human Rights First group, said “The militarization of the conflict in Bahrain will lead to further violence and violations of basic rights and freedoms. It will not address the underlying causes of the unrest – institutionalized sectarian discrimination, the absence of representative government and the lack of legal protections for basic freedoms of assembly, and association.”
“Suppression of dissent in Bahrain with the backing of the Gulf Cooperation Council runs the risk of extending unrest to other countries in the Gulf region with sectarian tensions, including Yemen and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia,” Hicks said.
The organization called on U.S. government officials to condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and urge the Bahraini government to initiate wide-ranging negotiations to implement necessary political reforms.
“In light of disturbing reports that security forces are blocking medical treatment for the injured, that interference in the provision of necessary medical treatment should stop immediately. In addition, the U.S. needs to intensify its outreach to the government of Saudi Arabia to make clear its objection to the violent suppression of dissent in Bahrain or anywhere in the Gulf region,” the organization said.
Hicks concluded, “Inflaming sectarian tensions in Bahrain will not ensure stability in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
For the past decade Bahrain has promoted itself as a liberal state in an authoritarian neighborhood, on the basis of reforms by King Hamad al-Khalifa, who took power in 1999. These reforms included holding elections – though for a parliament that lacked authority – and largely abolishing torture.
The Bahraini government insinuates whenever possible that its Shia citizens, upwards of 65 percent of the population, would turn Bahrain into an Iranian client state if so allowed.
But independent observers have for several years been raising concerns about the country’s return to the dark practices of the past.
In February 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the revival of torture. A trove of reports by government doctors backed up victim accounts that security forces were again suspending detainees by their arms and legs and using electro-shock devices.
In August, the government instituted a crackdown that began with arrests of opposition activists on charges of being part of a “terror network” and soon extended to the arrests of hundreds more, including children, many on vague or non-existent charges.
The government dissolved the board of a human rights group that had suggested detainees should not be abused.
Authorities blocked websites of opposition parties, including Al Wefaq, which won a majority of votes in the October elections.
As for the “terror network,” the testimony of government agents regarding information allegedly provided by unnamed sources made clear that the defendants were being tried for political opinions rather than for any criminal acts.
Authorities denied these defendants access to counsel or their families, and most defendants alleged that security officials abused them to elicit confessions.
The government denied these allegations, but hasn’t explained the defendants’ wounds displayed in open court.
William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.