The days surrounding my interview with Khalil Almarzooq are frantic. Shaikh Ali Salman, the Secretary General of Bahrain’s main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, is shortly to appeal against his conviction on charges related to inciting violence and advocating the overthrow of the ruling monarchy, the notorious Al-Khalifa family.
As Assistant Secretary of Al-Wefaq, Almarzooq wants to draw attention to the irregularities in the trial, and he is not alone. In recent weeks, Human Rights Watch has issued a special report detailing the long list of abuses against Salman’s legal rights. It is hard to reject the criticism. For charges which relate to the allegedly incendiary content of Salman’s political speeches, it seems strange that the judge apparently refused to view a YouTube recording of the Islamist leader speaking; such recordings are freely available online.
Instead, the court was forced to rely on a second-hand account from a government official at the interior ministry. According to the mandarin, Salman had said: “The people have bigger and bigger force in them! All that you need to do is call forth this force. I’m talking now about military force.” As a quick review of the original speech confirms, Salman had actually, and very clearly, said, “I am not talking about military force.” (Emphasis added.)
Salman escaped a life sentence on the most serious charge, but faces a four year sentence for inciting hatred, insulting public institutions and promoting disobedience.
Two days after I talk with Almarzooq, a bomb goes off just west of Manama, Bahrain’s capital, outside a police station. A group calling itself Al-Haidariya Battalion claims the attack. It is the latest in a series of mysterious bombings undertaken in Bahrain. Nobody has heard of Al-Haidariya before.
I want to know what Almarzooq thinks of the violence. “The regime is putting into prison the people who are urging the youth to refrain from violence,” he says, “and then trying to accuse us of terrorism.”
Certainly Shaikh Salman’s arrest last December provoked mass protests, and there are frequent low-level skirmishes with the heavily-armed and Western-trained Bahraini police force; mainly fought with rocks, there are occasional Molotov cocktails. Yet the vast majority of protests against the regime are entirely peaceful.
In fact, there would be little logic in the pro-democracy movement adopting terrorist tactics; what international support they have would dry up instantly and the government would feel vindicated in the mass arrests, arbitrary detentions and killings that have come to characterise Bahrain over the past four years. Figures like Salman, regarded as a moderate, have been imploring Bahraini protesters to remain peaceful.
Al-Wefaq, a Shia Islamist group, is bedevilled both at home and abroad over its supposed affiliation to Iran and Hezbollah. The party denies this emphatically.
“The people making these allegations do not want to see democracy. Full stop,” Almarzooq tells me, saying that the allegations are made up to discredit the pro-democracy movement as a whole. “Our foreign policy would be non-interference, but we condemn terrorist attacks anywhere in the world, whether they are Muslim, Jewish or Christian.” Instead, he suggests, Bahrain must focus on developing its human resources.
“The key problem is how to move our education to be more productive, to capitalise on the talents of the Bahraini people. We could transform the country into a service hub for the region, like Malaysia, or Singapore. We could grow our middle class.”
He stresses that Bahrain doesn’t have natural resources like its wealthier neighbours. “Our only strategic asset, is our people.”
Almarzooq points to Bahrain’s accommodation shortage, with tens of thousands still waiting for social housing. “Some of these people have been waiting for twenty, twenty-five years,” he says, his voice rising in a noticeable sign of genuine compassion.
Talking at length about the need to improve higher education and skills development for ordinary Bahrainis, this is clearly a cause close to Almarzooq’s heart.
Bahrain’s economy, like the other Gulf States, is dominated by a foreign workforce. Though he claims otherwise, Al-Wefaq’s party line is subtly anti-immigration. “Seventy-five per cent of jobs are going to expats,” Almarzooq says, “while our country still has very high unemployment rates and low wages. Experienced expats contribute to the economy but our economy needs to provide jobs for the locals.”
The official claims that should Al-Wefaq ever reach a position of influence over government policy, his party would never implement quotas or ask foreigners to leave. “Many of these people have skills we need,” he explains, “but with skills and training, we can grow our middle class too.”
Inequality in Bahrain is not helped by sectarian prejudice. Shia Bahrainis find it hard to get university places, find jobs and get promotions. The daily humiliation of checkpoints and document checking has left many Shia feeling that they are second-class citizens. The Sunni Al-Khalifas have tried to position the latest uprisings to the international community as a Sunni versus Shia sectarian conflict; Al-Wefaq denies the charge.
“Would you call Nelson Mandela sectarian?” Almarzooq retorts. “Would you call Martin Luther King sectarian? The ones that are doing the oppression are the sectarians, not us.”
Both Shaikh Ali Salman and the theological leader behind Al-Wefaq, Shaikh Isa Qassim, received their theological training in Qom, Iran, during the eighties before turning to politics. Salman and Qassim have both spent time inside Bahraini prisons.
“We are not looking for a religious state,” insists Almarzooq. “We are looking for a civil state. Our view of the world, our view of equality and inclusivity comes within the framework of international law and human rights treaties.”
He plays down the significance of the theological training received by Salman and his colleagues, and compares theologians-turned-politicians to politicians with backgrounds in medicine or information technology. To be fair, tens of thousands of scholars receive training in Qom each year. Yet the question lingers; is Al-Wefaq simply trying to export the Iranian revolution to Bahrain?
“Replicating the model in Bahrain would not work,” he adds. “We have a different demography and different regional relations.” This is an oblique reference to the show of military strength displayed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates when they sent tanks into Bahrain to quash the initial 2011 uprising. “We also respect people’s right to worship the way they want; we wouldn’t interfere in their religious practices.” The statement, if true, stands in contrast to the Al-Khalifa’s recent demolishing of Shia mosques. It is also very different to Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are banned.
In the background, the increasing support of the British government for the ruling Al-Khalifas clearly irks Almarzooq. “A lot of people think that British policy on Bahrain is wrong, and that it’s going the wrong direction. The other foreign embassies all say Shaikh Salman is not getting a fair trial, but not Britain’s.”
Since 2012, the British government has provided a package of technical support to the Bahraini government which it says is directly improving Bahrain’s notoriously political judiciary, reducing instances of torture and putting the country on track towards a more inclusive political settlement. These are steps that British foreign ministers boast about frequently in parliament, particularly when questioned on why the UK appears to be stepping up support for such notorious human rights abusers.
“What effect has all this training by the British government had on the Bahraini judiciary?” Almarzooq asks. “People want to see an outcome from this support, it seems to have had no effect.”
Later that week, the UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, and a special working group on Bahrain confirms that torture is still commonplace in the Gulf State’s prisons. Torture has also been used to extract confessions for the mysterious bomb attacks; some of those convicted are now facing the death penalty.
A report from the independent human rights group Bahrain Institute for Rights and Development, based in London, has also found that the new prisons’ ombudsman set up by the British government for the Bahrainis is severely lacking. Far from being an independent oversight body, it has proven to be an ultra-cosmetic exercise in false accountability. Thousands of Bahrainis remain behind bars, including children, often rounded up after each bomb attack in seemingly random pogroms.
“We are not asking the UK to stop helping the Bahraini government, of course not. What we are asking is that Britain helps both the Bahraini government and the Bahraini people,” Almarzooq says. It’s a simple request.
Shaikh Ali Salman’s appeal is scheduled for Tuesday, 15 September.