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Bahrain: On the outside looking in

Khalil Al-Marzook, a senior leader in Bahrain’s main opposition party Al-Wefaq, didn’t pull any punches when he was asked about the way the west is responding to the Bahraini government’s claims that it is committed to reform: “they are misleading themselves and misleading the international community.”

Earlier, Britain’s foreign secretary Phillip Hammond had commented on the extent to which the Gulf island kingdom is carrying out a reform agenda. Hammond made the remarks in the House of Commons while defending the UK’s decision to open a naval base in Bahrain.

“It is a country which is travelling in the right direction,” Hammond said. “It is making significant reform. The crown prince who is charged with this agenda is directly engaged and has made significant progress even over the last few months.”

“This is actually the contrary to what is happening in Bahrain,” Al-Marzook told MEMO. As far as he is concerned Crown Prince Salman and the government have given the opposition nothing.

“If you look at the repression of freedom of expression, at the brutality of the police when they attack peaceful demonstrators, at the trials of human rights activists, and the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman (secretary general of Al-Wefaq), they indicate that even the basic fundamentals are not there.  When you look at this, there is no reform in Bahrain.”

Sheikh Salman, who was arrested three weeks ago, is facing charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.” Al-Marzook says the charges are patently untrue, noting that all of the sheikh’s speeches are in the public domain and that the sheikh has consistently called for peaceful protest in the nearly four years since a pro-democracy  movement was crushed by government troops and security police.

“This guy is a leader of peace, this guy is the one who has preserved Bahrain and the region from severe violence. So if Britain and the international community allow him to go to trial, it will enable the authoritarian regime to repress Bahrain even more. Everyone, not just the UK, but everyone in the international community should call for his immediate release, and the dropping of all charges.  ”

Al-Marzook said that the battle against the Islamic State had shifted the west’s emphasis away from human rights and the call for democratic reform. That, in his view, is only serving to fuel the fire of jihadist terror:

“One of the main sources of extremism is unfairness and injustice. Everyone is against IS, everyone understands the threats of IS but the only way to deal with terrorism is to have a parallel path: military action together with inclusivity, respect for human rights, making people feel they are comfortable with their governments. If you are not providing this, you are providing the incubators for the extremists. And they will grow in number.”

He pointed to new anti-terrorism legislation in Bahrain that is being used to crush dissent and under which Sheikh Salman has been detained and human rights activists like Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja have been charged, convicted and jailed: “What we are seeing is that anyone voicing the demands of the people or supporting them, they are harassed, they are arrested, they are silenced.”

Indeed, earlier in the week Rajab was convicted and sentenced to six months for insulting a public institution and the army in a tweet.  He is appealing the sentence but is banned from travel outside the kingdom.

“I think for Nabeel Rajab as well as other defendants, the space they work in is getting smaller and smaller. The only real human rights activist not yet in jail or forced to leave the country is Nabeel Rajab. So if he is detained or jailed or deported there is no one left to speak out in Bahrain. And with all the problems in Bahrain, this is not healthy.”

Al-Marzook said he is worried that while the world is preoccupied with ISIS and the need for security in the battle against terrorism, Bahrain’s government will move to ban all political societies: “The mood within the regime is to demolish the political workspace. And this is very dangerous. The international community must not allow (a ban) to happen.”

Al-Wefaq’s leader said that many people in Bahrain feel abandoned by the outside world:

“Although the people are persisting in moving ahead with their demands, they are seeing the international community is not helping.  They see hypocrisy when the West supports the Ukrainians and the Syrians and when the West talks about the necessity of inclusivity in Iraq but they don’t talk about Bahrain. They feel the hypocrisy.”

Al-Marzook insisted that Al-Wefaq had made the right decision to boycott elections in November of last year. The boycott infuriated the British government and was much criticised by friends and foes alike. But he remains unapologetic:

“If we had taken part in the election it would have legitimised the current unjust system.  And there is no hope to change the system because none of the international community wanted to give us guarantees that they would support real reform if we went into the election. They wanted to be able to say ‘you have participated and you have the tools within the system to change.’ But we tried this for twelve years.  It didn’t work then and it will never work. So we feel we took the right decision and we also feel that the international community has changed its position from supporting reform to supporting the regime.”

With Al-Wefaq outside the political framework and with a growing sense that the world has forgotten about Bahrain’s struggle for democracy, Khalil Al-Marzook has little to be optimistic about:

“We don’t see interest from the ruling family, nor from its strategic allies to sort out what is happening in Bahrain, to end the crisis and try to find reconciliation.  There was some hope in the past three years but now we don’t see it. Nobody knows what will happen but it is not going to be positive.”

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