Lord Avebury, the Vice Chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group in Britain
By Karen Dabrowska
(Tripoli Post UK Correspondent)
On the second anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain, there has been no political change. Throughout the length and breadth of North Africa the previous anti-people regimes have been overthrown even if there is still a long way to go before they become stable democracies with freedom of expression and the rule of law.
In the Gulf including Bahrain, however, hereditary autocracies remain in power, supported by the UK and the US, the supposed champions of democracy.
In a seminar held in London on, Bahrain, the revolution the aims and the failed regime, Lord Avebury, the vice chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group summarised recent developments in the country.
When the present ruler inherited the emirate in Bahrain from his father, he promised to undertake political reforms, with free direct elections to a legislature that would have sole power to enact laws. He obtained the approval of the people for this proposal in a referendum but then issued a Constitution based on a two-chamber legislature, the second being appointed by him and both having equal powers.
All the laws are introduced by the executive and crucially, the ministers are also all appointed by the king. Most of them are members of the royal family, three of whom run the show.
It is this autocratic system that people want to change, and quite rightly so. They no longer call for transition to a constitutional monarchy, but for the al-Khalifas to be eliminated altogether from the system of government, and in accordance with their right to freedom of expression they are entitled to make that demand.
That’s what the revolution is all about. In the two years since it began, dozens of people have been murdered on the streets, in their own homes, and in the custody of the security forces.
Hundreds more have been arbitrarily detained and convicted in unfair trials, or dismissed from their employment in both the public and private sectors. Places of worship have been destroyed. Scholarships have been terminated and students sacked.
The Bassiouni Commission documented those violations of human rights in its 500-page report published in November 2011, but their analysis covered only the events in February and March 2011.
Now the problem is that although the king promised to implement all the Commission’s recommendations, not only have most of them been ignored, but the abuses cited by the Commission continued and some new ones have arisen, such as the deprivation of citizenship of 31 people out of the blue without due process.
The main recommendation to have been ignored was that all persons charged with offences involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, should have their convictions reviewed and sentences commuted or, as the case may be, outstanding charges against them dropped.
Sir Nigel Rodley, a former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and one of the commissioners told Human Rights Watch that “in calling for the convictions to be reviewed, the commissioners intended that the government should free those convicted for exercising basic rights”.
He added that: “In the absence of any prior criminal charges, or any other charges, such persons should be released and their criminal records expunged of those charges”
The British Government’s response to this is that while they are deeply dismayed that the convictions originally obtained on 13 principal opposition and human rights activists by a military court through the use of confessions extracted by torture had been upheld by a civilian court, the proceedings in that court were sanctioned by paragraph 1720 of the report.
That paragraph recommended that the Bahraini authorities should “make subject to review in ordinary courts all convictions and sentences rendered by the National Security Courts where fundamental principles of a fair trial, including prompt and full access to legal counsel and inadmissibility of coerced testimony, were not respected….”
But Sir Nigel’s interpretation is that only if there were any charges outstanding against the 13 defendants from before their prosecution in the military court, or other charges that were outstanding at the time of the military trials, did the question of retrials come into the picture.
Even assuming that retrials on the charges in the military court of espionage and trying to overthrow the government were permissible, they would have had to conform to the “fundamental principles of a fair trial” as mentioned in the paragraph cited by the British Government.
That must be the reason why they were “deeply dismayed” by the court’s decision to uphold the sentences, and we should be demanding that they be quashed.
There needs to be a concrete demonstration of the international community’s abhorrence of the victimising human rights defenders and opposition leaders doing their job of opposing the government and trying to change it.
The immediate opportunity that presents itself is the Formula One race scheduled for the end of April in Bahrain. In 1985 the Anti-Apartheid movement made a huge contribution towards ending white monopoly rule in South Africa by organising a boycott of the race there by several teams, leading to the suspension of F1 races in South Africa until apartheid ended in 1992. We need a similar campaign now against the discriminatory regime in Bahrain.
Meanwhile, the officially sponsored dialogue between the government parties and the permitted opposition has staggered off the ground, with a three hour meeting on at the beginning of February. The only decision they made was to meet again until otherwise decided on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Al-Wefaq reluctantly agreed to take part in spite of their demands for a proper agenda being ignored. They are asking for a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister, whereas the 'Alliance for the Republic’, who are not invited, echoing the chants of the demonstrators, call for more fundamental reform, as their name implies.
Asking for a change of government attracts criminal penalties, as Hassan Mushaima the leader of the Haq Movement discovered when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and that no doubt explains the modesty of Al-Wefaq’s stated demands.
It might be possible to see their proposals as an interim measure that would allow a popular elected government to determine the final shape of a new constitution, but that’s not going to happen.
Even their limited objectives are not remotely likely to be satisfied by this process, and it will come to grief in a few weeks, as its predecessor did when it rapidly became clear that it was going nowhere in July 2011. What happens after that is impossible to foresee, except that the Al-Khalifas’ days are numbered, as Christopher Davidson predicts in his book ‘After the Sheikhs’.
If the UK and the US want to have friendly relations with a liberated Bahrain, they need to consider how they can help in the process of peaceful transition, and that can only happen if all sections of the community are involved, including those represented by the political prisoners.