Friday, August 12, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Bahrain

Now here is a country I know something about. Quite a lot, actually, from a human rights standpoint. While I have never visited this tiny island country in the Persian Gulf, I have worked with groups from there and have helped Bahraini human rights activists.

Bahrain has won a single bronze medal in its Olympic history, after a gold medal was stripped from another runner for a doping scandal. Neither of these runners were Bahraini. This is kind of typical of Bahrain. Immigrants, who do not have citizenship rights, make up more than half of the population. South and Southeast Asians make up about 45%, as Indians, Pakistanis, and others come over to work. Other Arabs make up the next largest group, with Africans coming next. There are also about 4000 Americans, most of whom work in the oil or defense industries.

The way Bahrain treats its migrant workers (not the Americans) is appalling. They are abused, denied basic rights, sometimes enslaved, sometimes murdered. The abuse still continues despite attempts at reform and changing attitudes among young Bahrainis. The country has improved enough in this area to be removed from the State Department's human trafficking watch list, but abuse continues.

However, it might not compare to how the government treats the human rights activists and the Shia. Arbitrary arrest for made up crimes is common. Torture is systemic. Here are some heroes who have been imprisoned by the authoritarian regime:

Nabeel Rajab is suffering from health issues while in solitary confinement, imprisoned for tweets. Yes, tweets. He has been in and out of jail for years now for being critical of the government. He is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

The al-Khawaja family. Zainab al-Khawaja was arrested for tearing up a picture of the king and posting "offensive" tweets. She recently fled Bahrain after being freed from jail. Her sister Maryam has also spent time in prison. Their father, Abdulhadi is currently serving a life sentence for participating in pro-democracy protests during the Bahrain Uprising. He has suffered torture and sexual abuse and once had a four hour operation to repair his smashed face using bone from his skull to graft his jaw together, as it was beyond repair. Abdulhadi is a former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Nazeeha Saeed is charged with the crime of journalism. They called it something like "working with international media."

Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested for "inciting violence and hatred," meaning he complained about discrimination against Shia. He once was exiled for daring to call for the restoration of the constitution and parliament. He returned under an amnesty deal but they arrested and tortured him anyway. He remains in prison.

There are more of course. Too many.

The Shia are actually the majority in this country where 70% of the population is Muslim. The ruling monarchy is Sunni and discriminates against the majority, often denying them housing, healthcare, and jobs. There are ongoing protests in Duraz by Shia over the arrest of Shia clerics (for being Shia) that have continued for more than two months but are not mentioned on American news. The protests began after Bahrain revoked the citizenship of prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, for being Shia. I mean, that's what it boils down to. The government has not been nice. Dozens of people have been killed in clashes with security forces, and a recent internet shutdown has prevented the protestors from communicating. Sheikh Maytham Al Salman is the latest cleric to be called for questioning. He is a free expression advocate and internationally recognized for his work on interfaith dialogue. This brave man is working to counter violence and extremism in the Middle East, but the monarchy, which is Sunni (maybe secret supporters of ISIS?), finds that threatening. They, of course, blame everything on Iran.

Bahrain routinely either takes a person's passport so he can't leave the country, or worse, strips his citizenship, so he is unable to go anywhere or get the benefits provided by the state. More than 200 Bahrainis were stripped of their citizenship last year.

What is happening in Bahrain is horrific. That the United States stands by and says nothing is nothing short of spitting on the human rights it claims to stand for. But our Saudi BFF would never stand for the US hurting its Sunni neighbor. Which just makes us hypocrites.

It's time for sanctions against Bahrain.

Capital: Manama
Major cities: none
Population: 11 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 35
Medals in history: 1 bronze
Languages spoken: Arabic, English
Heroes: Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja, Maryam al-Khawaja, Sheikh Ali Salman, Mohammed Al-Maskati (president of Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights), Yousef al-Mahafdha (VP of BCHR), Sheikh Maytham Al Salman, and all the other activists that risk their lives and their freedom to make their country better. These are true heroes.
Bad guys: the monarchy, Colonel Adel Jassim Flaifel, responsible for arrests and torture until 2002, has never been charged with a crime
Persecuted groups: Shia, migrant workers, dissidents
Current conflicts: siding with the Saudis in its war against Yemen, oppressing its own citizens, kind of cold war with Iran
Must read: My Arab Spring by Reem Zain

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