Bahrain is a tiny island in the Persian Gulf, run by the Al-Khalifa monarchy which has been in power for more than two centuries. The population of Bahrain, including nationals and expatriates, is around 1.4 million. At the time of the spark of the Arab Spring, the number of pro-democracy protestors compared to the population was high. At big demonstrations, the number of protestors would reach 600,000.
After seven years, half of the population in Bahrain are still unable to achieve their demands— or at least, some of their basic demands to end the systematic ongoing persecution and discrimination. Local activists say that the revolts are not new, and that they have a history of resistance and fighting back against the regime. Young protestors and activists recall the 1990s uprising they took part in during their teenage years or that their parents participated in, while the older generations mention a century of demonstrations and resistance. Some of the political prisoners have been prisoners during 1990s, were released and later, re-arrested during the Arab Spring protests.
The Al-Khalifa dynasty has been growing stronger after centuries of rule. Their rule in Bahrain dates back to a time in which there were no human rights organizations to monitor or document events. Most of the information obtained about the history of the Al-Khalifas is from old storytellers who pass to the young generation what their fathers and forefathers told them.
A folk tale describes how the Al-Khalifas came to power. Farmers, fishermen and pearl divers populated the Island of Awal, now known as Bahrain. Al-Khalifas were Bedouins who were not from the island. The story suggests that they came from Zubarah— a remote desert place in what’s now identified as Qatar. With the help of other Bedouin tribes, Al-Khalifas invaded the island with their arms that despite being primitive were of great power. Local farmers, fishermen and divers were na ve. They were simple people who were experts in farming, fishing, and diving, but they had no fighting skills. They could not overcome the powers of the Bedouins. Al-Khalifas confiscated the lands of the farmers and declared themselves the rulers of Bahrain. Since then, Al-Khalifa has been the ruling family. It is hard for storytellers to trace the timeline of when the events happened. A tale is a tale and what human rights organizations are dealing with now is a reality.
The British occupation further legitimized the Al-Khalifas as the rulers of Bahrain. Bahrain officially gained its independence in 1971— the occupation left, but the dictatorship was established further. Upon leaving Bahrain, the British gave Bahrainis a choice to either stay with the Al-Khalifas or be under Iran. Inspired by their nationalist Arab spirit, they chose the Al-Khalifas. The monarchy never appreciated the nation that despite a history filled with brutality, adhered to their nationalist identity.
While few of the activists I spoke to mentioned sectarian tensions, such issues have never been absent from the island. Bahrain’s indigenous majority is Shia, while the ruling monarchy is Sunni. According to several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the majority Shia community — which complains of being politically marginalized by the ruling Sunni minority — has continuously been staging anti-government demonstrations, sit-ins and rallies since 2011.
Years before the Arab Spring, those who lived in Bahrain were aware of a conspiracy unveiled by Salah Al-Bander, a British citizen resident in Bahrain. Al-Bander, who was a strategic planning chancellor of the Council of Ministers Affairs in Bahrain, leaked a 216-page report in Arabic. As a result, he was deported from Bahrain.
According to the report, Sheikh Ahmed bin Ateyattallah Al-Khalifa was the head of a network that would ensure the marginalization of Shias. He is also the Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs and the Head of the Central Informatics Organization.
Al-Bander was friendly with me and open to chat about the situation in Bahrain. However, he refused to be quoted. The project revealed in the leaks was a form of demographic engineering that aimed to reduce the indigenous Shia population from majority to minority status (or at least equal to the Sunni population).
To implement the project, authorities recruited media outlets and intelligence expertise to influence people and to spy on Shia activists and members of the opposition. Moreover, the Al-Khalifa government began to recruit Sunnis from the Arab region and neighbouring countries. Many of them have been naturalized and are now Bahrainis.
On the other hand, authorities stripped members of the opposition, journalists, protestors and ordinary people of their citizenship. Since 2011, the Bahraini authorities revoked the citizenships of more than 550 people.
February 14 marks the anniversary of the Pearl Revolution— a historic date that will never be forgotten in Bahrain. Inspired by Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrainis had a dream of a democracy on their island. Unlike their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahraini protestors demanded reforms rather than the fall of the regime. Most of the demands revolved around the idea of having a constitutional monarchy that would respect human rights and treat everyone equally despite their religious, sectarian and ethnic differences. In 2011, protestors faced arrests and death. According to Amnesty International, at least 35 people died during protests in February and March 2011. During the same year, Amnesty International and several other organizations reported that at least a further 20 died in the context of ongoing protests and excessive use of force by the security forces.?In mid March of 2011, a state of emergency was declared and Saudi troops joined Bahraini government forces in the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. The attacks didn’t deter protestors and many held signs saying, “I’m the next martyr.”
On February 14, 2011, Bahrainis flooded the streets of Manama. Reports from opposition sources estimate the numbers to be hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators. Inspired by the Egyptians, Bahrainis decided that their Tahrir Square would be the Pearl Roundabout, hence the name “Pearl Revolution.”
It was not a historic landmark, but rather a roundabout with a pearl-topped monument in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Six pillars representing members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held the pearl tightly in place: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Any change in one of the members of the GCC would affect the rest. It is believed that this might be one of the reasons that some GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia formed the Shield of Al-Jazeera, troops that helped Bahraini forces in attacking protestors.
For protestors, the Pearl Roundabout meant that change was possible and their pro-democracy peaceful protests would inspire those around them. However, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, it was challenging to follow the news from Bahrain. On February 17, I spent the night checking news from social media. Fragments of news revealed that there was a brutal crackdown and an attack launched at the Pearl Roundabout. Later, in March 2011, the Bahraini and Saudi forces demolished the pearl statue and replaced the roundabout with intersection to remove any traces of the demonstrations and rallies. It is impossible to erase memories engraved in people’s minds, however.
Despite the attacks and violations, a code of silence was and continues to be established when reporting on the situation in Bahrain. The island is home to the US Fifth Fleet and the ruling family is a Western ally. This could have made the international media cautious of appearing to side with Bahraini protestors. At the same time, as in any dictatorship, there is high censorship in Bahrain when it comes to local and national media. In June 2017, the government of Bahrain ordered the suspension of Al Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper. Most Bahraini pro-democracy activists, progressive journalists and their allies find social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, as their only platform to report on the human rights violations. However, an activist posting on social media takes the risk of being detained at any time. A prominent Bahraini human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, is facing up to 18 years in prison for “speech crimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, in Rajab’s case, those are tweets and media comments critical of his government.
Naser Al-Raas was usually awake during the night chatting with activists in Bahrain and sending them solidarity messages. There is seven hours’ time difference between Ottawa and Manama. He would receive calls from political detainees like Nabeel Rajab who spent the few minutes allotted in prison to call him.
While in Canada, Al-Raas wanted to experience the Bahraini social media activist atmosphere. With his smartphone in his hand, Al-Raas was a non-stoppable tweeting machine. He tweeted, retweeted and interacted with his tens of thousands of followers from all over the world. Using Twitter as a channel, he continuously urged politicians, activists and media from different parts of the world to stand up for human rights in Bahrain. Naser was often surrounded by his laptop and a screen, viewing videos of Bahraini protests, whether from archive or recent ones. When I visited him and his wife in 2014 I feared being tripped over the entangling wires of his activist tools. Social media were the amplifiers of his voices.
Al-Raas had a sticker with Amnesty International symbol on his laptop that says, “Talking to me could get you arrested.” That’s not an exaggeration— talking to an outspoken activist in Bahrain puts anyone under a risk. When I met him, he showed me solidarity videos that he created to show support to political prisoners and their families in Bahrain. We watched several videos and his wife Zainab Ahmed shared her memories of being at the Pearl Roundabout where they met for the first time and fell in love.
Al-Raas, a Canadian-Kuwaiti, was visiting some family members in Bahrain. He came to the Pearl Roundabout to observe and refrained from participating in any protests. Al-Raas was at Bahrain International Airport when armed masked men surrounded and abducted him on March 20, 2011. They confiscated his Canadian passport; he described the way he was arrested as “kidnapping.” When I met him in Ottawa, memories of torture and ill treatment in detention in Bahrain haunted him. He was tortured with electric shocks, beaten and experienced solitary confinement.
Al-Raas’s health was at risk while he was detained. He had two open-heart surgeries and needed anti-clotting medication that he was deprived of during detention. “[Al-Raas] was very badly, brutally tortured during that time and was subject to unfair legal proceedings,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. Al-Raas was released and acquitted of all the charges in February 2012. The days of detention, torture, and searching for a spot to hide were over. Sadly, he died less than five years later, In September 2016,. He was undergoing medical tests in preparation for a heart and lung transplant when his heart failed.
The Bahraini authorities arrested thousands, including children. Children under the age of 15 were held in Juvenile Centre, but were also allegedly subjected to human rights violations. “Many [children] were seized during raids while they were playing at home and even at a local swimming pool,” according to Amnesty International.
Arrests and violations have not stopped as Human Rights Watch released their 2018 annual report confirming that: “Bahrain continued?its downward spiral on human rights during 2017 as the government harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, and prosecuted human rights defenders and their relatives on charges that should have never been brought.” In 2017, Bahrain courts sentenced to death a total of 14 people.
The Al-Khalifa government promised to implement human rights recommendations following Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) that was established by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa in June 2011. The role of the commission was to investigate and report on events, including allegations of excessive use of force on protestors and torture, which happened in Bahrain from February 2011 and the sequels of the events. I had a conversation in July 2013 on Twitter with Bahrain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Khalid Al Khalifa in which I asked him about the implementations of international human rights organizations’ recommendations in Bahrain. He said that Bahrain is a well-developed country and the government is serious and committed. He denied any allegations of systematic torture. Six months later, I tried to ask him again about any developments regarding the implementations of the BICI recommendations or any other changes. He had never responded again. Getting any response from Bahraini government officials was challenging.
Years later, in January 2018, Human Rights Watch mentioned that “the oversight bodies that the government set up in 2012 in response to a recommendation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, failed to perform their stated mission of investigating credibly allegations of prison abuse.”?Regaining the peaceful Island of Awal, home to fishermen, farmers, and pearl divers, is not going to happen any time soon. That’s part of the beautiful history of the land. But in order to live in peace, the government must halt the violations, release prisoners of conscience, and implement reforms that enable Bahrain’s population to live in harmony.
Yusur Al-Bahrani is a Toronto-based journalist and an editor of Peace.