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Fast Cars - Bahrain's Response to the Protest Movement Is the Equivalent of a Reckless Joyrider

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A confession (freely offered, no coercion involved). I recently attended a "speed awareness" course. This is a half-day session the police allow you to go on if (like me) you're caught by a speed camera doing 37mph in a 30 zone. I learnt a lot actually, including that the UK's annual death toll on the roads is falling and, yes, speed cameras are a key reason for this.

Great. I'm not a petrol-headed Clarkson type and to me it's genuinely impressive that Britain has - somewhat astonishingly - just about the lowest per capita road fatality rate in the entire world. It's 2.75 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year (compared to 4.4 in Germany, 6.4 in France, and 7.2 in Italy). So when I read a story in the Bahraini newspaper the Gulf Daily News about recent achievements in Bahrain, the road stats leapt out: "Fatal traffic accidents fell from 75 in 2012 to 59 until October of this year." Good, more progress. Except... actually, isn't that an increase, not a "fall"? (Since when was 59 deaths in nine months a lower fatality rate than 75 in 12 months?)

Actually, it's true that Bahrain's death-on-the-road rate is globally quite respectable - about 10.5, similar to the USA and better than regional neighbours like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - but the journalistic spin about "progress" is dubious and the entire front-page article is basically a puff piece for the Bahraini authorities, beginning with: "As the year draws to a close, the Bahrain Police Force continues to perform their duties professionally and in accordance with the law. The Police Force is based on strict discipline, effectiveness and competence with the main goal of serving the public."

Well, back in the real world Bahrain's police force sometimes perform rather less than professionally. For example, there's the case of 13-year-old Salman Mahdi Salman, who was allegedly hit in the face repeatedly by police officers during an interrogation at al-Budaiya' Police Station in the capital Manama in August. Salman says that he was threatened with more beatings if he didn't "confess" to anti-government activity. Two police officers are also said to have threatened to arrest Salman's parents. He's since been charged with "illegal gathering", "riots" and "attacks on security patrols".

Okay, perhaps this is a one-off, or maybe the abuse allegations are unfounded. But then there's the case of 16-year-old Mohammad Mohammad 'Abdulnabi 'Abdulwasi, who was arrested in a raid on the family home by riot police who allegedly didn't show an arrest warrant, broke the main door and stole money and other possessions from the house. Or what about 'Ali Muslim Ebrahim's case, a 15-year-old boy arrested after the police turned up at the family home in al-Hidd, in northern Bahrain, in the middle of the night (2.45am) on 8 September, saying 'Ali's name was on their wanted list (though they didn't produce an arrest warrant)? At the police station 'Ali was reportedly beaten about the head during questioning and forced to "confess" to "participating in illegal gatherings", "throwing Molotov cocktails" and "rioting".

These are just three cases, but there are more like them (some considerably worse) in a new Amnesty briefing on the treatment of children by the Bahraini police and judicial authorities. Fifteen-, 16- and 17-year-olds have been jailed in adult prisons, and even younger children have been locked up in a juvenile centre run by the Ministry of Interior and staffed by police officers at night. More generally, nearly three years on from the crushing of the 2011 Pearl Roundabout protests, Bahrain is still convulsed by regular unrest, with a seemingly unending cycle of security force tear-gassings, arrests, further draconian anti-protest laws and ... small-scale but persistent protests (the Economist describes how in some villages walls are blackened by layers of anti-government slogans - painted over by the authorities and repeatedly re-applied by protesters).

Bahrain has become trapped in an endless circuit of protest-clampdown-further protest-further clampdown. The way out was apparently missed by the authorities long ago (when it reneged on promises to reform) and instead we've had police officers acquitted of murder and torture charges (or given lenient sentences), and protesters - including children - given very long prison sentences.

There are dozens of examples of Bahrain's punitive crackdown (see here, here and here), including a recent case involving 12 opposition activists jailed for 15 years for allegedly setting fire to a car warehouse (lawyers say they "confessed" after being tortured). And we're back to cars ... As with the crackdown on protesters during this year's Bahrain Grand Prix (and some pretty crude government propagandising during the 2012 Grand Prix) it seems, oddly enough, that you can't get away from motor vehicles when you start looking at Bahrain's human rights record. F1 cars basically go around in circles, and this is a pretty good description of the depressing, progress-free situation in Bahrain. Maybe it's time for Bahrain's leaders to stop acting like the governmental equivalent of joy-riders, take their foot off the accelerator and go on a course of some kind. Preferably a human rights one.

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