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Bahrain: Brute Force and Soft Power – Bahrain Centre for Human Rights


November is going to be a critical month in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Today three officers of the Gulf Air union will appear in court on unspecified charges concerning “national security”. In a fortnight a group of sports journalists and athletes that includes the country’s top-scoring footballer, A’ala Hubail, are to be tried for “illegal assembly and inciting hatred against the regime”, and on November 28, the doctors arrested at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, already tried in a military court, will, after international outcry, have their appeal heard in a civilian court.

In the middle of this period, on November 23, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) – set up by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and chaired by the international jurist, M. Cherif Bassiouni – will produce its report into whether or not there were human rights violations during the spring uprisings.

A lot rides on this report. The fate of hundreds of protestors already imprisoned or still going through the courts may depend upon it. And for the Bahraini state – where financial services have overtaken oil as the nation’s prime business – at stake is its credibility on the world stage and ability to do business in the international market. In America, after objections from a handful of senators, Hilary Clinton has decided to delay a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain until the BICI’s findings are announced; while complaints raised by international trade unions and the European Parliament about the mistreatment of workers have put the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement in jeopardy.

Since the uprising began on February 14, the Al-Khalifa Sunni ruling elite – governing a nation that is 70% Shia, and where the King’s uncle, with a forty year incumbency, is the world’s longest-serving Prime Minister – have proved themselves expert at combining antique methods of control with modern ones: not only the use of foreign troops, martial law, military courts and torture, but ‘soft’ power attacks on civil society. To date, nearly 3000 workers have been dismissed, television and social media are being used to name and shame ‘traitors’, and American and British PR and intelligence gathering firms such as Potomac Square Group and Olton Ltd have been employed to ensure that the government’s story is the one the world is listening to.

The stories they are trying to suppress are those being told by Faisal Hayyat, one of the sports journalists being tried, or Habib Alnabbool, the Chairman of the Gulf Air union, also on trial. “I was tortured by the Bahraini army and by security men connected to the Ministry of the Interior”, said Hayyat. “They tied my hands from behind, blindfolded and beat me with pipe, cable and their military boots.” Alnabbool also claims that after his arrest he was handed over to the Ministry of Interior, where, he says, “I was interrogated, humiliated, blindfolded and forced to sign documents I wasn’t allowed to read”.

Hayyat is one of more than sixty journalists who have been arrested. “There is no real journalism, no room for expressing opinions”, he says. When Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s main opposition paper, was closed down for a day its editor-in-chief, Mansoor Al-Jamri, was forced to resign; he was reinstated four months later but in October he and three colleagues were fined 1000 Bahraini Dinars ($US2650) for “publishing news that defamed the image of Bahrain abroad”. Alnabbool also feels that rights guaranteed him under the constitution to speak publicly about his area of work have come under attack. He was warned by Gulf Air’s CEO, Samer Majali, not to talk to Al Jazeera or to other press. Alnabbool is part of the largest group of victimised workers in Bahrain where twelve companies (Gulf Air, Alba, Batelco, and nine others) have been responsible for 919 dismissals.

Gulf Air over Bahrain

All these companies are related to Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, the Mumtalakat Holding Company, which has substantial shares in each of them. This is important because it appears to link the victims of torture to the royal family. “Mumtalakat companies sacked workers”, Alnabbool said, “and then passed their names to the military prosecution”. Mumtalakat is presided over by the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. He appoints the board whose members include one of four Deputy Prime Ministers, Khalid bin Abdulla Al-Khalifa, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, the Minister of Works, and Gulf Air’s Chairman, Talal Al Zain.

“During the implementation of the ‘national safety’ [martial law] by the army”, said Alnabbool, “it was not safe to go into work. Samer Majali sent an email to all his employees, stating that workers who stayed away because they feared for their own or their family’s safety, would not be penalised.” Despite this, the blanket grounds given for dismissal in the Mumtalakat companies was “non-attendance”. At Gulf Air there were 230 dismissals and Majali sent an email to his remaining staff inviting them to inform on fellow workers. “This email was used by some to settle personal issues”, Alnabbool said.

Since then, union executives have been prevented from entering their office in the Gulf Air premises, and holding meetings with their members. The International Trades Union Confederation say that 59 union leaders have been fired, and two unions have been dismantled altogether: in March Bahrain Petroleum (Bapco), where 293 workers were dismissed, dissolved its company union, and in April the Bahrain Teachers Association was closed down, and its president and vice-president arrested.

Faisal Hayyat, targeted by Bahrain television for his participation in a Freedom for Journalists rally, 2011

Faisal Hayyat, targeted by Bahrain television for his participation in a Freedom for Journalists rally, 2011

Alongside these attacks on trade unionists, public vilification has continued. There are many websites such as Bahrain Online and Bahrain Arabia on which photographs of workers on demonstrations have been posted, their faces circled and names identified. One site, Awakened Giant, has 131 photographs identifying Gulf Air pilots, engineers, ground staff and cabin crew. “The government have closed down opposition sites”, Alnabbool says, “but continues to allow these people to target workers, to list their names and addresses, to call them traitors and conspirators. It’s fear and fear only that they’re spreading, and it sets people against one other.”

After international pressure the King, the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince have all made announcements that sacked workers should be returned to work, but these announcements are perhaps for western ears: the Mumtalakat companies have been slow to respond. At Gulf Air, where all of the dismissed workers are Shias, only 136 staff have been reinstated. Of these, however, 79 have not been returned to their former posts but are now required to spend their working hours cramped into a room 7 by 21 metres with only 30 chairs between them, an environment Alnabbool describes as “totally disgusting”, pointing out also that they are finger-printed on their way in and out and checked regularly throughout the day. “It’s possible these companies are using the political situation in Bahrain to restructure”, says Jane Kinninmont, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House. “Some have been riddled with corruption and Gulf Air is losing money.”

Foreign businesses operating in Bahrain like DHL have also been caught up in the political situation. Shukri Hassan, president of the Bahrain DHL union and eight of his colleagues have been charged with “violating national security”, though their case has been temporarily suspended without reason being given. And senior staff at RSCI Bahrain, the prestigious training college run by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where twenty medical staff have been arrested and imprisoned, asked three students to swear a loyalty oath to the Bahraini royal family. The RCSI in Dublin have since apologised for this, calling it “unacceptable”.

There are some in Bahrain who believe the King set up the BICI in order to give himself a weapon with which to fight more conservative elements in the Al-Khalifa family. If so, he may find that he gets more than he bargained for. Should Bassiouni’s report reveal even a fraction of the human rights violation protestors claim have taken place, the country’s reputation as one of the most forward-looking of the Gulf states will be tarnished, and conducting twenty-first century business while presiding over an archaic political system that breaches human rights, as well as ILO and OECD guidelines, will become more difficult.

The Al-Khalifas are already spinning the BICI report. On Sunday the Crown Prince said that after last year’s cancellation, Bahrain was now “safe” to stage next year’s Grand Prix, and that the BICI report would allow the country to “move on”. He made no mention of the 27 workers who were sacked at the International Circuit, where the Grand Prix has its home, nor of the allegations that some of these were tortured after arrest. Mumtalakat have a financial interest in the Grand Prix because it owns 42% shares in the McLaren company, and because, as the Crown Prince said on Sunday, the “race is what ties Bahrain to the world”.

The protestors share one thing in common with the Crown Prince: they also want to “move on”, but their idea of progress and modernity is not the same as the Al Khalifas’. “We want a civil state”, Faisal Hayyat says, “not a backward country where we are subjected to the armed forces and security police.”

This article appeared on 14.11.2011 as Latest Bahrain Trials Begin Tomorrow on the ITF website, on Counterfire as Bahrain: western-backed police state puts trade unionists on trial, and on the Gulf Air Trade Union website as Latest Bahrain Trials Begin Tomorrow. On 15.11.2011 it was picked up on the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights website as Latest Trials Begin Tuesday and on The Bahrain Justice and Development Movement site, where it appeared as Bahrain Trials and the BICI.

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