An Appalling Arrest in Bahrain

When Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested earlier today, he asked the plainclothes police officers who had spent the previous half-hour searching his house and confiscating his cellphone and other electronic devices why they were arresting him.

“We don’t know,” he was told, according to an RT interview with Rajab’s wife Sumaya. “We don’t know, but we have been ordered to do so.” And they took him away. Thirty officers were involved in the raid and arrest, which is believed was led by Bahrain’s Cybercrime Unit.

The arrest comes on the same day that the United Nations Human Rights Council opened its 32nd session in Geneva, Switzerland. Yesterday, six Bahrain human rights activists were prevented from boarding flights from Bahrain to travel to the UNHRC sessions. Bahrain has long employed that tactic of repression: forbidding activists from leaving the country to tell the world what is happening behind closed borders.

This is the third time Rajab has been arrested since the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011. Last year he was charged with “harming civil peace” through his use of Twitter. The Tweets earned him solitary confinement.

In previous incarcerations, Rajab had been tortured but last year he was not, which he took as an encouraging sign, he told VICE News after his release. His “treatment this time was much more respectful, … [which] ‘led me to believe that they want to release me.'”

Rajab was released last July through a pardon from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for “health reasons.” Pardons for health reasons—or for any reason—are always a good thing, but rarely do such single-reason pardons indicate a general relaxation of the policies that may lead a repressive nation to detain, charge with crimes, convict, and imprison individuals.

Indeed, the events of the past week—the forced exile of human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja (pictured at top last week with Rajab) and her two children, the travel ban imposed at the airport on the six activists, and Rajab’s arrest—make it appear that Bahrain has re-entered (if it ever left) a repressive phase. After Rajab was released in July 2015, a one-year travel ban was imposed on him. As we are still within that one year time period, Rajab was not attempting to travel to Geneva for the UNHCR sessions. He was arrested anyway.

As of this afternoon, Monday, June 13, the organization that Rajab heads, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been reporting that Rajab was not allowed to speak with his lawyer and has still not been informed of the charges against him.

With these three actions, Bahrain has effectively silenced Bahrain’s human rights defenders, to use an eloquent phrase from a BCHR statement.

Bahrain is an American ally. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed there; every once in a while some members of Congress with human rights interests will raise the possibility of our moving our Fifth Fleet and its several thousand sailors elsewhere and just as quickly lobbyists will take to the airwaves and visit the halls of Congress in defense of our good ally Bahrain. (For those readers who are viewers of the several Sunday morning programs devoted to politics and policy, please be aware that most if not all of those who are brought on as “experts” about a given story find most of their expertise in their wallets.)

In the last two decades, Bahrain first transformed itself from a nation that employed torture and long prison sentences without trials into one that did not. In 2001, Amnesty International celebrated the change. It did not last long. By 2007, it was known that Bahrain was employing torture once again and subjugating its Shiite majority population, much like its close ally, Saudi Arabia. By 2011, human rights organizations were alarmed and Foreign Policy magazine listed it as third out of eight of “America’s Unsavory Allies.”

The nation has been ruled by one family, the Al Khalifa dynasty, since 1783. That family still occupies about 50% of all government positions. In 1999, the current leader, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, inherited the title of Emir on the death of his father; in 2002, confronted with the re-institution of a parliament and elections, he re-structured the government to make certain that democracy could not touch the Al Khalifas and he declared himself a permanent fixture in any government, the first-ever King of Bahrain.

The Al Khalifa clan and thus the government of Bahrain are Sunni, but the population is majority Shiite. That sort of split between population and non-representative government always leads to a form of apartheid for the disenfranchised population, especially when it has numbers on its side. In 2011, as the Arab Spring protests and government crackdowns spread across the region, Bahrain’s crackdown was notoriously bloody: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to quell the protests. Dozens were killed. That word “torture” appears in report after report, again and again, like similarly colored plastic bricks snapped together to make a portrait of a recognizable human face.

Bahrain’s allies in world business were dismayed and the United States briefly delayed some arms sales to the country, which sparked Bahrain to pursue a course in 2011 and 2012 that looked and sounded so much like reform that its international relationships were saved. Simply repeating the word “reform” many times in a row is not reform. That was Bahrain’s approach, however, and it worked. Human rights organizations have regularly listed Bahrain among terrible violators, and the world is deaf to it. Bahrain’s money, its many arms deals (just one was a $90 million agreement with Lockheed Martin in 2013 on top of a sale of a dozen fighter jets), and its lobbying efforts keep us willfully deaf.

In his opening statement this morning at the UNHCR sessions, High Commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al-Hussain of Saudi Arabia spoke about Bahrain: “At least 250 people in Bahrain have reportedly been stripped of their citizenship by the Government because of their alleged disloyalty to the interests of the Kingdom. In addition to these severe restrictions on freedom of expression, which contravene Bahrain’s international human rights obligations, an indefinite ban on gatherings in the capital has been in place since 2013. Dozens of people–including minors–have been prosecuted for participating in protests. Repression will not eliminate people’s grievances; it will increase them.”

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid Al Khalifa, responded on Twitter: “We will not delay our journey and the policy of our reformist King. We will not allow the undermining of our security and stability and will not waste our time listening to the words of the High Commissioner who is powerless.”

An ominous statement. Of course, if a country like Bahrain would heed the request of the United Nations High Commissioner, that position would not be “powerless.” Both Bahrain and the UNHCR would benefit from enhanced international esteem. This point always seems to elude repressive governments.

Human rights activists have released several letters demanding Rajab’s immediate release and have been posting the statements on Facebook VK, Twitter, Instagram.

An article about today’s arrest from RT:

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