Monday, December 18, 2006

Seminar on Bahrain today

The theme of today’s seminar is Bahrain: Elections without democracy or human rights, and we have to say first that democracy isn’t simply a matter of graciously allowing people to cast votes for a national parliament every few years. Hitler came to power through a vote in the Reichstag in 1933; Mugabe is the elected head of state in Zimbabwe and is backed by a Zanu-PF majority in his Parliament, and even the North Koreans have a Supreme People's Assembly elected by popular vote. I was interested to see that the President of that Assembly sent a message to King Hamad on Bahrain’s National Day expressing his belief that the relations between North Korea and Bahrain would grow stronger in their mutual interests.

No doubt people would say it is unfair to compare North Korea with Bahrain, but they share more than one feature of their political systems. Both have hereditary executive heads of state, who are above criticism and are generally surrounded by sycophants, and in both, the people have no say in choosing their governments. For Bahrain, this was underlined again when King Hamad appointed his cabinet just after the elections, perhaps to insinuate that there was some connection between the two events. The new Prime Minister – if one can use the adjective to describe a man who has held the post for the last 36 years – is Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The first deputy Prime Minister is Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa al-Khalifa. The Court Minister is Shaikh Khalid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa. The Defence Minister is Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. The Minister of State for Defence is Dr Shaikh Mohammed bin Abdulla and so on. Altogether 11 of the 23 cabinet ministers are members of the royal family, and they hold most of the important jobs. So the election has made no difference whatsoever to the government, and the US State Department list this as one of 13 major human rights problems in Bahrain in their latest report of March 2006.

In spite of the marginal role played by the parliament, however, the al-Khalifa realise that it is important for several reasons. First, it enables them to masquerade as a constitutional democracy on the world stage. Second, it is hoped to deflect popular opinion away from genuinely democratic reforms, which would mean that the king would be reduced to a figurehead role, as in democratic monarchies such as Thailand, the Netherlands and Nepal, at least until the new constitution comes into force, under which the king becomes a non-person, constitutionally speaking. Third, it could act as a channel through which some lesser grievances might be aired harmlessly and thereby dispersed. The trouble with that is that in the absence of internal self-determination, all other human rights and freedoms are conditional on the will of the ruler.

But if the elections were genuinely free and fair, it is possible that the elected chamber might have been ready to flex its muscles on some of the major issues of the day: the impunity enjoyed by the torturers of the previous régime including the notorious Scot Ian Henderson, who dares not return to Britain to enjoy his ill-gotten estate in Devon in case the British police arrest him; the rampant corruption which means that while some people get very rich in Bahrain, the poor remain poor; the discrimination against the Shi’a in employment rights, and particularly in the public service; the demographic engineering of the population by the illegal award of citizenship to large numbers of foreigners including Saudi Arabians and Syrians; the restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, documented by international human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as, of course, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, whose website is blocked in Bahrain.

The opposition Islamic National Accord Association might raise some of these issues, though they have already said they won’t talk about consitutional matters such as the powers of the nominated upper house, the Shura Council, which has an effective veto against anything the elected members decide, or about the discrimination against the Shi’a, which could be dealt with effectively by equality legislation if there was the political will. But the opposition would at least have been able to pass resolutions, for instance on the appointment of a parliamentary human rights committee, if the elections hadn’t been gerrymandered to ensure that Sunni loyalists won. Meanwhile the Shura decided to get their oar in first and establish their own human rights committee. According to Mahmood’s Den, described by the FCO as ‘a respected blogger’ they were told to do this to counter the prospect of a Human Rights committee in the elected Council of Representatives.

Unfortunately, no foreign observers were allowed to monitor the elections, but the constituencies were so blatantly distorted that it was impossible for there to be free and fair elections, however good the polling day arrangements may have been. The Hawar Islands, awarded to Bahrain by the International Court of Justice in its judgement on the territorial dispute between Qatar and Bahrain, were uninhabited, but the authorities created a rotten borough by posting a few naturalised Sunni foreigners there to ensure that a government sympathiser was elected. At the other end of the scale, Sitra, with a population of 30,000 Shi’as, elected one member. The southern province, a Sunni area with a population of 15,000, elected 6 members. These and other gross anomalies meant that although according to the ‘respected blogger’, the Shi’a made up 62% of the electorate, they only gained 17 seats to the Sunnis’ 23. But to be absolutely sure of getting this result, the authorities also allegedly bussed the naturalised foreigners and military personnel into constituencies where their votes could have the greatest effect. We shall conduct an analysis of the gerrymandering and election malpractices and publish the results.

We also need to look at the connections between the Bandargate operations and the manipulation of the election results. Money flowed from the taxpayers via the secret organisation run by Shaikh Ahmed bin Atiyattallah al-Khalifa – another royal, head of the Civil Informatics Organisation, a government intelligence outfit, and brother of a notorious torturer - into the pockets of Sunni election candidates, a variety of front organisations, a pro-government newspaper, and websites that foment sectarian hatred. Obviously, Shaikh Ahmed couldn’t have conducted such an extensive operation without authority at the highest level, and the al-Khalifas have closed ranks.
The Bahrain government’s response to these allegations was to expel Dr al-Bander, to refuse popular demands for a thorough independent investigation, and now to reappoint Shaikh Ahmed as a Cabinet Minister.

Meanwhile, there are signs of a return to the bad old days of the nineties, and as we commemorate the martyrs of December 17, 1994, the start of a dreadful era for Bahrain when thousands were imprisoned without trial, and many were tortured, some to death, history seems to be repeating itself. Two activists, Dr Mohammad Saeed Matar and Hussain Abdul Aziz Al Habshi were snatched off the street just over a month ago without a judicial warrant and were denied access to lawyers during interrogation. Apparently their ‘crime’ was to print and distribute leaflets calling for a boycott of the fraudulent elections, and when a demonstration against this violation of the right to freedom of expression was planned last week, heavily armed forces were rushed to the spot to threaten the protesters and stop their meeting,

When I met the king nearly two years ago I said to him that the essence of democracy was that it never reached finality, but continued to broaden out to meet the needs of all the people, and he appeared to agree with me. The process got stuck, however, and only the king has the power to ensure that it moves on. Unless there is the political will at the top to ensure that elections are fair, that demographic engineering of citizenship is halted; that genuine freedom of expression is advanced, and that there are mechanisms not only for hearing grievances but actively remedying them, Bahrain’s fledging democracy will perish in its infancy.

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