On 28 January, Bahrain’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction and life sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the banned opposition Al-Wefaq party. He, along with two colleagues – Ali Alaswad and Sheikh Hassan Sultan, both sentenced in absentia – were found guilty of plotting, with Qatar, to overthrow Bahrain’s regime. Sheikh Salman was already serving a four year sentence for, amongst other charges, “denigrating and disparaging the interior ministry”.
The trio had previously been acquitted of treason charges. That decision, based on the conclusion that there was no evidence to support a guilty verdict, was subsequently overturned on appeal and the original conviction reinstated. Foreign observers and international human rights organisations have argued that the charges are without merit and form part of a wider effort to suppress any criticism of the ruling Al-Khalifa family, but to no avail.
The incident is also part of an attempt to malign Qatar. Though the alleged plot was said to have occurred in 2011, the authorities only brought the charge in August 2017, shortly after the launch of an air, sea and land blockade of Qatar by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain. The timing was, to say the least, curious.
For years, the Bahraini regime has claimed that Iran is behind every effort by its citizens to call for change. Until the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, this claim was viewed with scepticism. For decades, the Shia majority population has suffered from discrimination at the hands of the Sunni Al-Khalifa. Yet Iran did little to intervene in support of the Shia. Indeed, it could be argued the Ayatollahs abandoned them to their fate.
It was when a peaceful protest – joined by both Shia and Sunni Bahrainis – took control of Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama in February 2011 that the sectarian card was played, not by Iran, but by Al-Khalifa. The protest was quashed by force, with the support of Saudi and Emirati security forces which entered the country in March 2011. Dozens were killed, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested in a brutal clampdown. Nearly all were Shia Bahrainis.
Facing international condemnation, King Hamad Bin Issa Al-Khalifa formed a commission of external human rights experts – the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). Its verdict was damning: the government had authorised the use of excessive force and was largely responsible for the murder and mistreatment of its citizens. One point, often overlooked, is that the BICI report found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the unrest.
In the face of intense and often brutal security measures, activists continued to demand change and the ruling family stuck to its claim that Shia Iran was behind both peaceful protests and violent confrontations. The United States, while broadly supportive of the regime – the US Fifth fleet is headquartered in Manama – did, through the State Department, consistently raise concerns over the treatment of activists such as Nabeel Rajab. Rajab is a prominent human rights defender who has been repeatedly jailed for criticising the government and calling for peaceful reform.
All that changed with the presidency of Donald Trump. In May 2017, during his first overseas trip as president, Trump travelled to the Saudi capital Riyadh. There, he met with Gulf leaders including King Hamad. Trump told the king: “Our countries have a wonderful relationship together, but there has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration.”
This was the signal that Al-Khalifa wanted to hear. There would be no further US concern about human rights abuses. Furthermore, when John Bolton took over as Trump’s National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo was installed as Secretary of State, the Bahraini authorities were delighted to see two hawks who would confirm to the president that it was Iran who was behind the demands for reform.
Now there were willing ears in Washington to listen to and accept the regime narrative: calls for human rights, free speech and an empowered parliament were just part of an insidious Iranian plot to destabilise Bahrain and use it as a beachhead to threaten other Gulf states.
Thus Pompeo, citing no evidence, remarked on 10 January that “Bahrain has exposed the IRGC (Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps) proxies that are active in its country and […] is working to stop Iran’s illicit maritime activities in its region”.
Brian Hook, an acolyte of Bolton’s and the US special representative for Iran, argued: “Iran […] has tried to weaken national identity in Bahrain and create sectarian divisions. But Bahrain’s leaders have responded by deepening their commitment to peaceful coexistence and religious freedom.” As happens so often in the Trump White House, Hook, with no experience of or expertise in the region, blithely turned truth into lie and lie into truth.
If there were any lingering doubts about the new approach of the State Department, an unnamed but senior officer had this to say prior to Pompeo’s Manama visit: “In Bahrain, the Iran policy will be front and center. Bahrain is a front-line state, if you will, in our Iran strategy. Iran seeks to agitate the Shia population in Bahrain through weapons trafficking and various other means.”
On 30 December, Nabeel Rajab had his latest appeal denied. He is currently serving a five-year sentence for criticism of the war in Yemen and for objecting to mistreatment of prisoners in Bahrain’s notorious Jau Prison.
Two days after Pompeo visited Manama, prison authorities placed a glass barrier between Rajab and his family. Conversations can only be conducted through a phone and are monitored. Neither he nor the family can touch one another. Visits have been restricted to once a month. A similar treatment has been meted out to another human rights activist, Abdulhadi AlKhawaja, who is serving a life sentence despite playing no active role in the protests of 2011.
Cruel and vindictive are the words that spring to mind. Such treatment is enabled, and indeed applauded, by President Trump and the Iran hawks that surround him. In another time, we would have been revolted by such behaviour. We would have raised our voices in anger. Yet though we must still do so, we will not be listened to. We now live in the time of Trump, where lies confound truth, where – as in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – torture and murder are easily acquiesced to, morality drowns and authoritarians flourish.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.