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Bahrain: The First Step Is Admitting You Have a Problem

12/08/2015 11:32 am 11:32:59 | Updated 08 December 2015

When in October this year the United Nations' top anti-torture expert and investigator Juan Mendez told the international community that the Government of Bahrain has repeatedly rebuffed his many visitation requests, he must have been venting his frustrations. In the past four years, the small Arabian Gulf monarchy has twice cancelled scheduled visits by Mendez, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, to follow up on a steadily growing mountain of reported acts of Bahraini torture piling on his desk. According to Bahrain's government, these cancellations were only due to "logistical difficulties," and they state that the kingdom remains committed to the Special Rapporteur's visit.

At this year's Manama Dialogue, the annual Bahrain-based international security conference, however, Major-General Tariq al-Hassan, Head of Bahrain's Public Security Forces, criticised the Rapporteur's "prejudice". According to al-Hassan, Mendez had previously expressed his bias in favor of "uninvestigated" claims of torture against the government.

This unscripted remark offers the first glimpse through Bahrain's façade of international cooperation, and may be the first public revelation of Bahrain's biggest problem: a complete lack of political will for reform.

Such a rare break from Bahrain's usual PR spin is somewhat refreshing. The Bahrain government has spent nearly five years instituting new methods of repression and authoritarianism, constricting freedom of speech and locking away all peaceful dissidents. At the same time, it has cast a smoke-screen over these acts with public promises to implement security sector reforms, uphold international human rights standards, and cooperate with international human rights bodies and mechanisms, all while simultaneously institutionalizing its mechanisms of repression.

Back in 2011, with almost a third of its entire citizen population on the streets demanding human rights and political changes, the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi troops, instituted a wide-spread and violent crackdown. Dozens were killed, hundreds were injured, and hundreds more were arrested in the government's panic to maintain its hold on power. Under international scrutiny for the widespread violence, mass torture and arbitrary imprisonment, Bahrain's King Hamad instituted the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). In November 2011, the king took the Commission's 26 recommendations "to heart," vowing security sector reform, an end to torture, and guaranteed accountability.

However, four years on, Bahrain's only "reforms" have been to legally prohibit protests in the capital, criminalize speech critical of the king and his ministers, and ensure impunity for its security forces. Such "reforms" serve only to insulate the kingdom's repressive tendencies. Systematic torture, a key problem which the BICI identified, continues to be practiced in interrogation centres and prison, as a new report by Human Rights Watch shows.

Important to this backwards rights trend is the United Kingdom, whose GBP £2.1 million (USD $3.2 million) 'reform assistance package' has been limited to tinkering on the edges and failed to help bring meaningful, positive human rights or democratic change. Any small positives the UK has helped bring is reversed by the new naval base Bahrain is building for Britain. The UK has entrenched the government status quo.

From this position of power, the government of Bahrain continues to suppress freedoms and use torture. Indeed, over the past year, Bahrain has moved to imprison almost all political opposition leaders, arrest and revoke the citizenship of human rights defenders, journalists, activists and religious figures. These are among cases that Special Rapporteur Mendez sees flooding his office. Earlier this year, Mendez joined with a number of his colleagues to document a joint case of 39 minors, aged 10 to 17, who faced systematic torture and arbitrary detention in Bahrain. Over the summer, a different body of UN Experts on Arbitrary Detention took their criticism a step further, obliquely noting that the "systematic and wide-spread" nature of these abuses could potentially amount to "crimes against humanity."

Despite Bahrain's external commitments to international standards of human rights, accountability and transparency, Major-General al-Hassan's recent commentary only serves to underline the Kingdom's true intentions. In the past, this would remain a deep secret. But perhaps al-Hassan's new-found honesty over his complete ambivalence toward international human rights is a step in the right direction. As the saying goes, "the first step is admitting you have a problem."

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei is director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Michael Payne is international advocacy officer at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.

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