On the last day of May, Bahrain released a pro-democracy activist from prison; Zainab Al-Khawaja had been in custody since March. Her “crime” was to rip up a picture of the Gulf State’s King Hamad Al-Khalifa.
We can forgive her for being angry. Her father is serving a life sentence for his participation in pro-democracy protests; Zainab and her sister have been in and out of custody since the 2011 demonstrations. Their country is run by a small, corrupt mafia who capitalise on sectarian differences within the population and rely on foreign sponsors — Saudi Arabia, the United States and Britain — to sustain the economy and thus the ruling clique’s legitimacy. By normal standards — at the very least those applied to Iran — Bahrain’s rulers should be facing sanctions. The human rights abuses there are horrific.
The Al-Khalifa family are smart though, and have turned the focus away from the oppression that has characterised their rule for decades. Since 2011, they have, in particular, convinced the world that it is Iran, not pro-democracy activists, stirring-up unrest in the tiny kingdom. The same Iran, remember, is already tied up with the war of the century in Syria, fighting Daesh in Syria and Iraq, maintaining its curious relationship with the Kurds and backing the Houthis in Yemen. Iranian intelligence agents have a lot on their hands, and even though they probably look on approvingly at pro-democracy activists in Bahrain it is highly unlikely that they have the time or inclination to provide material support to them.
Nevertheless, as I have reported previously, the Iranian connection with the unrest in their country is one that Bahrain’s Al-Khalifas have cultivated artfully in recent years. Iran is the great bogeyman of the West, indeed the region. Mention Iran, and a whole host of your own faults can be forgiven, even torture. For the economically secure middle class Sunnis in Bahrain, most of whom support King Hamad and his family, the same artful application of anti-democracy propaganda works. The people in the villages aren’t really pro-democracy, claims the official narrative; they are stooges of Iran, so the Sunnis have no need to pay much attention to their suffering.
There is more art in the Khalifas’ ways of repressing their own people; in fact, it is almost impressive to watch how artful they can be. “Let’s be clear; Bahrain is releasing Zainab Al-Khawaja as a PR stunt,” says Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). “She should never have been in prison to begin with, and in the last twenty-four hours, Bahraini courts have increased an opposition leader’s prison term from four years to nine, rendered over twenty people stateless and upheld the death sentences of torture victims.”
Human Rights Watch has also noticed the sinister juxtaposition, the skilled use of the release of a female prisoner, her baby in tow, to cover up other injustices. “Bahrain,” explains HRW’s Nick McGeehan, “appears to be developing a revolving door policy for political prisoners, built on the idea that you can soften the blow of locking up one of your critics, by releasing another one shortly after. It’s a cynical ploy that only the most credulous ally would take as evidence of progress.”
“Credulous” is far too generous a description of Bahrain’s allies in Britain, who have become openly cooperative in the repression while the US has marginally softened its support. There is, presumably, a condition: don’t go too far; don’t make the British media pay too much attention to Bahrain, seems to be the warning from British officials to their counterparts in routine meetings in Manama. Above all else, say the British, don’t embarrass us.
The art of effective repression, then, is simple. Don’t kill too many people all at once, and keep a low profile. Release one high profile prisoner, like Al-Khawaja, while locking-up more, like Shaikh Ali Salman, the opposition leader mentioned by Alwadaei who had his sentence increased by an appeals court. The court found him guilty of “attempting to overthrow the regime”, a charge of which he was acquitted last year. No matter, the fine art of repression is to remember that memories are short, and people switch off if you make the charges so ludicrous and repetitive; oh, and it helps if you present figures like Salman as an Islamist stooge of Iran. Just another political prisoner, just another day at the office for Bahrain.
With Salman banged up for another five years, the former leader of the secular Wa’ad political society, Ebrahim Sharif, also appeared in court to appeal against his 1-year sentence on charges related to free speech. His case was postponed. Zainab Al-Khawaja’s release came hours after an appeals court upheld a number of death sentences for which BIRD documented allegations of torture surrounding the original criminal trial in 2015. The day before Al-Khawaja’s release, twelve Bahrainis were stripped of citizenship, and on the same day that she tasted freedom, eleven more were made stateless.
It is not just the artful release of one prisoner to hide the abuse of several more that should be of great concern to the rest of us; it is the frequency of arrests more generally. When President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt rounded up thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members in one fell swoop, following a playbook Hosni Mubarak and Gamal Abdel Nasser knew well, it garnered international attention. When, each week, you look at the numbers of arrests in Bahrain, it is more of a drip effect. A dozen at a time, perhaps twenty in a bad week. The killings are few and far between, rarely going above single figures in a month, sometimes not at all. It is repression at its most skilled; repression that is so slow yet effective that it maintains its momentum while the world barely notices. Most of all, it keeps Bahrain’s allies in the West happy; there are no public relations disasters and embarrassments to deal with, like Sisi in Egypt. The trick is to arrest, torture and kill as many people as is necessary to keep the revolution in check, but not so many that the foreign media notices.
Josef Stalin once implied that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. That is no longer how the world works. Keep it low, and keep it slow. King Hamas Al-Khalifa and the ruling family are masters of that art, and the British government stands by and holds the paint, props up the easel and lets the masters carry on with their work.