21st Nov, 2012 –

When Amnesty International describes a “worsening situation” in Bahrain in its most recent report, most Bahrainis will wonder what they are talking about.

With celebrations of the Muslim New Year, the Shia holy month of Muharram and Ashura over the past couple of weeks, Bahrain has enjoyed some of the calmest days since trouble broke out in February 2011. The streets have been mostly free of protests, Gulf tourists flooded in to enjoy Bahraini hospitality and many hard-pressed small businesses managed to turn a decent profit for the first time in months.

Arguably, it is all a question of perspective. Sitting thousands of miles away in Geneva ticking boxes on a clipboard, perhaps it’s not all that obvious how most Bahrainis are feeling about developments in their country. And arguably Amnesty’s concerns about the temporary halt on licensing protests and withdrawal of nationality from certain figures deserve serious consideration.

However, Amnesty’s report dangerously mixes together two separate issues, on one hand implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which Amnesty wrongly asserts has been “shelved”; and on the other, measures to restore life in Bahrain to normal and to use the judicial process against those who broke the law.

Let’s first look at the Government’s record in implementing the BICI recommendations, which Amnesty dismisses so cynically:

Ø  Abuses: Over 17 officers, including high-ranking figures, faced trial over torture or violence charges. Those found guilty face prison. A further 30 security personnel face charges and the new Special Investigation Unit is investigating over 122 cases.

Ø  Unfair dismissal: 98% of protesters dismissed from jobs have been reinstated. 

Ø  Compensation: $6m disbursed to 36 families of those who died; & 116 cases of injury.

Ø  Torture: The Penal Code has been amended to ensure that the definition of torture is clear and rigorous and loopholes don’t allow violators to escape justice.

Ø  Retraining and reforming the security sector: Thousands of police have received human rights training and a robust new code of conduct.

Ø  Retraining judges: Extensive training in international legal standards.

Ø  Reconciliation: Initiatives include $500,000 to NGOs for reconciliation programs and legislation against incitement of hatred, racism and religious intolerance.

Ø  Places of worship: Around 30 sites suffered damage. Reconstruction is ongoing and in the remaining cases issues related to planning status and title deeds are being resolved.

Ø  Freedom of expression: New legislation protects journalists and ensures civilians can’t be penalized for expressing their views. The Public Prosecution dropped all charges that overlap with freedom of opinion (334 cases).

Ø  Constitutional reform: Including legislation which empowers elected MPs to interrogate and even sack Ministers, and strike down Government policies.

The Government says that it has implemented over 140 of the 176 BICI recommendations. Many recommendations awaiting full implementation require cultural change and take time.

What Amnesty calls “spiraling repression” broadly refers to a set of measures aiming to restore calm and stability to Bahrain. To the degree which they have succeeded these measures have been highly popular amongst the majority of Bahrainis who just want to get on with their lives after two years of disturbances, rioting and political and economic paralysis.

Amnesty is wrong to sweepingly paint anyone who has been detained as a “human rights defender”. Amnesty refuses to seriously engage with the charges these figures face, including incitement to violence, organizing illegal demonstrations and seeking to forcibly overthrow the Bahraini state. Several of the most notorious figures publically put their names to a plan for violently installing an Islamic Republic in Bahrain.

Admittedly the Twitter-related charges against Nabeel Rajab were ridiculous and thankfully rejected by the courts; but likewise the due judicial process should be allowed to take its course to decide the innocence or guilt of these figures.

Amnesty importantly does cite a number of important case studies in its extensive report and makes numerous recommendations, some of which are deserving of serious consideration by the authorities.

Citizens for Bahrain agrees with Amnesty that the Government of Bahrain, like all Governments, needs to continuously scrutinize and improve its human rights record and address serious shortcomings.

Citizens for Bahrain also shares Amnesty’s concerns over several of the more illiberal measures which have been introduced in recent months, such as the withdrawal of citizenship of 31 individuals. Any such measures should only be considered if they are demonstrably in the public interest; and where these measures are taken against figures who are proven to be a danger to the public.

By failing to produce evidence to justify such measures the Government of Bahrain weakens its own ability to argue that such actions are appropriate, proportionate and necessary.

Where we strongly disagree with Amnesty is by discussing the BICI recommendations as if they almost exclusively relate to the handful of issues which Amnesty is campaigning on most noisily.

By concentrating exclusively on the temporary protest ban and “prisoners of conscience”; and giving an unfairly negative spin to ongoing trials against police officers accused of abuses Amnesty presents an unfairly skewed picture of the Bahrain situation.

As we argued above: Key BICI recommendations tackled the issues of unfair dismissal of protestors, destruction of holy sites, compensation, and reform of the security and justice sectors. Amnesty was rightly very vocal about these issues 12 months ago. However, now these matters have been resolved, these important reforms are being conveniently ignored because they do not fit the picture Amnesty wants to portray of a nasty regime “brutally repressing” its citizens.

In fact, we citizens are reaping the benefits of these important reforms – as well as the much-maligned measures to restore order. We’ve never felt less repressed!

Human rights shortcomings in Bahrain are infinitely less sensational and scandalous than catastrophic abuses in Syria, Burma and Iran. While Amnesty International understandably wants to keep Bahrain in the forefront of public attention – not in itself a necessarily bad thing – it is wrong to grossly mis-contextualize the situation in Bahrain in order to achieve this goal.

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