Bahrain: Democracy protests build as national talks approach


Protests against the Al-Khalifa regime have escalated in Bahrain ahead of the two-year anniversary of the uprising's start in mid-February and planned national talks between the opposing camps. The protests were spurred on by court rulings against jailed activists and more deaths caused by security forces.

On January 13, 88-year-old Habib Ibrahim Abdullah died after inhaling tear gas fired by security forces at a protest in Malkiya, sparking protests in the capital. Security forces attacked demonstrators at his funeral the same day.

Then on January 26, eight-year-old Qasim Habib Ja'far also died from tear gas during a demonstration in Karbabad. Four days later demonstrators at his funeral in Daih were also attacked.

Press TV reported over the past months, several Bahrainis including other children have died due to gas inhalation. Amnesty International called for investigation of tear gas-related deaths last year.

On January 7, Bahrain's highest court upheld prison terms for 13 activists for their roles in protests in 2011. The sentences were originally handed down by a military court in 2011, ranging from five years to life imprisonment.

The sentences were upheld by a civilian court in September last year, leading to the failure of this final appeal. Among the seven activists sentenced to life imprisonment were prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and opposition leader Hassan Mushaima.

Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement that the Bahraini court “has proven its inability to protect the most basic rights guaranteed in Bahrain's constitution and the international treaties it has signed ...

“These cases did not mention a single recognisable criminal offence, instead pointing to speeches the defendants made, meetings they attended, and their calls for peaceful street protests in February and March 2011.”

Press TV quoted Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa division, as saying: “This unjust decision will confirm the view of many that the judiciary is more concerned about toeing the government's line than upholding the rule of law and the rights of all Bahrainis.”

The ruling was in stark contrast to the government's investigations of security forces abuses. The HRW World Report 2013 found the government “investigated allegations of wrongdoing involving more than 120 officers. However, most of the prosecutions involved low-ranking officers and did not include high-ranking officials or any Bahrain Defense Forces personnel.

“Human Rights Watch has been able to determine that courts have convicted four officers accused in the deaths of two protesters and the permanent disabling of another, and have acquitted at least three.”

The obvious inequality between harsh sentencing of dissidents and lenient treatment of security forces fuelled the huge protests that followed the ruling. Demonstrations have continued on daily, including in the capital city, Manama, defying the government ban on protests there.

The protesters demand an elected prime minister replace current PM Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa — in power since 1974 and the uncle of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifah — and the release of political prisoners.

At a protest on February 6, Press TV reported a spokesperson from Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group, called for “the establishment of a transitional government, which represents different national factions in the Bahraini society”.

The mounting pressure led to a statement from the Information Affairs Authority on January 21, in which King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa invited all parties to a national dialogue.

The talks were scheduled for February 10. The last attempt at talks in 2011 failed when Al-Wefaq walked out, citing the government's continuing attempts to muffle the opposition.

Many in the opposition groups have low expectations for outcomes this time around. Jameel Khadhim, a senior official with Al Wefaq, said: “The talk of dialogue is still no more than a media show.”

It was revealed that only lower-ranking government officials would attend the talks, which promises little chance of important matters being resolved.

Press TV quoted an Al-Wefaq spokesperson saying: “Agreeing to dialogue does not mean that they stop the rallies.” Some protesters have been heard voicing their complete rejection of talks, chanting “No dialogue with killers”.

Meanwhile, British company Gamma International UK and an unnamed German company have been accused of providing surveillance software to the Bahraini government.

The software called “FinSpy” collects the contents of emails, Skype conversations and address books and can activate cameras and microphones on devices to capture audio and images.

Bahrain Watch, a monitoring and advocacy group, has been monitoring FinSpy in Bahrain and other countries. In a February 6 statement Bahrain Watch refuted Gamma International's claims that the software was stolen during a demonstration and was never purposely sold to Bahrain.

On February 1, various advocacy groups filed a complaint with the OECD alleging breach of guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The complaint says: “If both companies did in fact export surveillance software to the Bahraini government, and are continuing to maintain these technologies for use by the Bahraini authorities, the complainants believe this would make them culpable of aiding and abetting the Bahraini government in its perpetration of human rights abuses.” The OECD has the power to launch an investigation into these allegations.