Five years after Bahrain’s revolution, five new ways to protest

Human rights defenders in the country continue to shine a light on the regime’s abuses, writes Erin Kilbride.

Women march in a pro-democracy rally outside of Manama, Bahrain. 5 July 2013. by Erin Kilbride

If you look quickly at the state of Bahrain's pro-democracy movement five years after the 2011 uprising, you could be forgiven for believing that the government emerged with some scratches, but largely unscathed.

The sheer number of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and peaceful activists in prison, on trial and in exile suggests that the Al-Khalifa monarchy has finally silenced its fiercest critics – a task it has been trying to achieve literally since it was installed into power. After half a decade of rounding up activists accused of taking part in the 2011 uprising or the human rights and democracy movement that followed, the government has faced only a fraction of the international criticism it deserves.

The European Parliament has adopted the occasional resolution calling for the release of an imprisoned human rights defender; the US State Department churns out a yearly human rights report confirming what most observers already know about Bahrain’s ‘abysmal’ record on freedom of speech, assembly, and the right to a fair trial; for a few years, some American arms shipments to the Gulf kingdom were halted following the violent government crackdown on peaceful protestors.

Human rights defenders from 85 countries at the 2011 Dublin Platform protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Dublin, Ireland in solidarity with human rights defender and former Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. 15 September 2011.

Photo: Front Line Defenders

And then there's every Bahrain junkie's favourite President Obama quote from 2011:

‘[M]ass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.’

In the five years since President Obama said it, the quote has appeared in dozens of op-ed pages, at least eight published books, and the DC-based NGO Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain had it printed on coffee mugs.

Unfortunately, Obama's words about opposition leaders in prison remained just words. Arms sales to the kingdom partially resumed in 2012, and dropped further restrictions on military aid in 2015, less than two weeks after a Bahraini court sentenced the country’s highest-profile opposition leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, to four years in prison for criticizing the government. Many prominent activists and politicians are still in jail, and the aforementioned dialogue between the regime and opposition parties is nowhere to be found.

Anyone who thinks the resolve of Bahraini human rights defenders has faded along with the potential for freedom isn’t looking close enough

Five years on, international experts have understandably labelled Bahrain’s prospects for reform ‘bleak’, ‘quashed’, and ‘fading’. But anyone who thinks the resolve of Bahraini human rights defenders has faded along with the potential for freedom isn’t looking close enough.

Every day acts of defiance continue. Political prisoners in Manama’s infamous Jau Prison refuse to wear criminal uniforms – because they are not criminals. Defenders kept in prison cells with young boys argue with guards to have the children moved to juvenile centres, but hold night time ‘human rights education classes’ in their crowded cells. Human rights defenders who have been forced into exile in Europe after receiving violent threats in Bahrain utilize their time abroad to research the Gulf arms trade, detail the record of Bahraini officials engaged in torture and other crimes, and find new advocacy targets. And back in Bahrain, anonymous human rights defenders continue to document and tweet out reports of arrests, tear-gas attacks, and house raids.

The government destroyed ‘the square’ and ‘the roundabout,’ but, as it turns out, the activism of Bahrain's human rights defenders is not shape-specific. Over the past half-decade, as the Bahraini government has continued its attacks on civil society leaders, those same defenders have proven that no matter where you put them, they are still human rights defenders.

Graffiti at a protest in a village outside Manama. 7 July 2013.

Photo: Erin Kilbride

Five years on here's a look at five places Bahraini human rights defenders (HRDs) are refusing to quit:

1. In Prison

The Bahraini regime can't seem to learn its lesson on this one. Arrest after arrest, sentence after sentence, HRDs use their time in prison to document – if only in their minds – the abuses of prisoner rights they witness in their own cells. Multiple international rights groups working on Bahrain can cite phone calls they’ve received from prominent activists who quickly rattle off instances of torture, denial of medical treatment, or unsanitary conditions, reporting as much information as they can before the phone line is cut.

The Bahraini regime can't seem to learn its lesson

Hussain Jawad, Chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights was detained for 90 days in late 2013. During that time, he compiled over 30 stories about children under the age of 18 who were verbally abused, denied access to textbooks and exams, and kept in crowded cells with grown men. Once released, Jawad became the go-to source for information on minors jailed in Bahrain’s adult prisons. In March 2014, Jawad told me that he and other adult prisoners had set up a makeshift, youth-counselling centre in their cell. A year later, security forces raided Jawad's home, and he ended up back in prison after a two-day interrogation. During a phone call with his wife, Jawad told her he was spending his days behind bars ‘teaching human rights classes to youth in his cell.’

Bahraini HRDs use the time spent behind bars to speak with victims first-hand and to relay reports of abuse after they are released – for those that are – or on elicit telephone calls for those who aren't. Perhaps more importantly, it puts them in a prime position to keep doing what they're best at – documenting abuse in the darkest, most hidden locations and promoting human rights in places it's most needed.

2. In Bahraini Villages

Bahrain has a network of activists that continue to visit homes, protests, and hospitals to collect information about ongoing rights abuses. On a weekly basis the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reports the updated numbers of arrests and detentions as well as how many children are currently detained. The European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights collects and publishes photos of arrest warrants to showcase the trumped up charges most activists are handed. Every morning independent activists tweet out lengthy lists with the names of those arrested the night before – which are then shared around as mothers search for their sons. Collectively, they are the documentation team that just won't quit.

3. In South Korea

In 2013, Bahrain Watch, a British-based advocacy group run by both Bahrainis – some of who were HRDs in Bahrain and went into exile to avoid detention or other repressive measures – and non-Bahrainis, revealed that Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior had requested 1.6m teargas canisters from South Korean distributers. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights police have killed at least 89 people since 2011, more than 40 of whom died from direct shots to the head with tear gas canisters or from tear gas suffocation.

According to the leaked document acquired by Bahrain Watch, in 2013 the government placed an order (yet another) for 1.6 million tear gas shells, 145,000 stun and flash grenades, and 90,000 tear gas grenades – otherwise put, more than 2.5 canisters per Bahraini citizen. Bahrain Watch launched a global Stop the Shipment campaign, which went viral on social media, received endorsements from the likes of Noam Chomsky, and saw the group’s founder link up with South Korean activists to stage anti-shipment demonstrations at Seoul City Hall. Thirty-one Korean NGOs held a protest outside South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program Administration, Korea's tear gas export licensing authority, and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions followed suit, calling on authorities to stop the shipment.

After months of campaigning, the Financial Times reported that South Korea denied two requests from Korean companies to export tear gas to Bahrain due to the ‘unstable politics in the country [Bahrain], people’s death due to tear gas and complaints from human rights groups.’ The report revealed that the order was larger than Bahrain Watch originally knew. The government was set to import 3 million tear gas canisters – four for every one Bahraini citizen – had the activists not stopped the shipment.

4. In Solidarity

In the summer of 2014, when American police began using teargas to dispel protesters demonstrating against racist police violence, photos coming out of Ferguson, Missouri became increasingly indecipherable from those taken by citizen journalists in Bahrain, Palestine, Turkey, and other well-worn teargas-filled communities. As American media began to delve into the harmful effects of teargas, chemical weapons survivors across the world offered up techniques to Ferguson’s residents. Bahraini human rights defenders, activists, and the average village resident – many of them now tear gas experts – offered up tips: milk not water, no rubbing, run against the wind.

As their own reform efforts have been persecuted at home, Bahraini human rights defenders have remained active in their support for other communities’ human rights campaigns. A 2012 solidarity trip to Gaza by Bahraini medical professionals included some of the medics who had been detained, tortured, and convicted for treating wounded protestors during the government’s brutal assault on Pearl Square. Dr Nabeel Tammam, whose conviction was later overturned, was originally charged with illegal gathering and distributing false information to the media. Tammam has a long history of supporting Gaza on medical and solidarity missions, and organized the 2012 ‘humanitarian stand’ in response to Israel’s ‘latest’ atrocities against Palestinian civilians.

5. In the News

‘The forgotten revolution’ is a favourite refrain of protesters in many countries – Bahrain included – where people feel like international media has abandoned, or altogether ignored, coverage of their struggle. Of course, there is never enough press; there will never be enough press. But hardly a week goes by without a Bahrain human rights issue headlined in a major international paper, and in a majority of these pieces, it is not Western NGO or think tank heads cited as experts, but Bahraini human rights defenders themselves. Over the past five years, HRDs have proven more media savvy, creative, and just plain likeable than the $32 million PR machine they’re up against. Indeed, they’ve proven their resiliency, and the next ‘expert’ to think the revolution is dead has another think coming.

Erin Kilbride is the Communications Fellow at Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.