I'm a few hours late, but I wanted to join everyone else in congratulating our Kuwaiti friends on their parliament's approval of the bill to give women the right to vote (at last!: 1, 2). This is a sign to everyone in the region that perseverence (lots of it!) and reason can pay off in the end (sort of). Read some reactions from the Kuwaiti blogosphere by browsing through the KuwaitBlogs feed aggregator.
Why so glum boys?
PS: Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I'm trying to move the blog to a new host, so I've been busy sorting that out. I'll publish details in a day or two hopefully.
Another former detainee said that while he was interrogated at al-Qala'a in 1989, he was subjected to torture two or three times a week for a period of one month:The interrogators sometimes came for me together, sometimes separately. They would beat me with cables and sticks, and kick my head and back with their heavy military boots. Once I was tied to a chair and my ankle was pierced with a battery-operated drill. Friday nights were the worst - the guards would go out and get drunk and then come back and beat the prisoners.
After his release, he underwent surgery on his spinal cord as a result of his treatment and his body still bears other scars of torture, including cigarette burns and a four-inch knife wound on his hand.
--Amnesty International, Bahrain: Violation of Human Rights, 1991
Tomorrow, representatives of the Bahraini government will go before the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in Geneva to present its report about the implementation of policies in Bahrain to satisfy the Convention against Torture. Two separate shadow reports will be presented to the CAT by the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) and the (outlawed) Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) (in co-operation with the National Committee for Martyrs and Victims of Torture, NCMVT).
After reading the government's submission (pdf, 125KB) it becomes apparent why independent shadow reports are needed to provide a full picture of the situation. The government report is filled with long boring quotes of Bahraini laws, but very little information about if and how these are actually being implemented on the ground. The only interesting bit is the way they try to sell Royal Decree 56 as a good thing (page 8):
16 (a) (iii): In order to make this equality truly meaningful and to turn a new page on the situation that had obtained prior to the amnesty, so that it would not affect the future of the reform movement, the general amnesty erased all the criminal and civil effects arising from the commission of these and related offences and discontinued prosecutions brought in relation thereto prior to the entry into force of the Amnesty Decree. This was spelt out in Legislative Decree No. 56 of 2002, which interprets certain provisions of Legislative Decree No. 10 of 2001, by which the general amnesty for offences against national security was declared (see annexes 3 and 4). It is worth noting, in this connection, that Legislative Decree No. 56 of 2002 provides a legislative interpretation that is based on the Constitution and the law and reflects the actual state of affairs where security and stability have been provided in order to look towards a brighter future in which society will be organized in accordance with the National Action Charter and the implementation of the Kingdom’s programme of reform;
All the Bahraini human rights groups have been campaigning against Law 56, yet the government wants to pull a fast one and portray the law as being in the best interests of society. I dont think the CAT will buy it. This is very similar to when Labour Minister Al-Alawi claimed before the CERD that there is no such thing as discrimination in Bahrain. Indeed, it is a recurring theme for our government to think that it can implement reforms without admitting and reddressing the mistakes of the past. The assumption seems to be that the people will forget... but that is not the case. Personally, I don't think anything less than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will allow everyone to close this dark chapter of the country's history.
I've had a chance to read a draft of the shadow report being presented to the Committee by the BCHR. Among the points raised are:
According to one member of the NCMVT that I spoke to about two months ago, the government did actually privately propose to compensate all the victims for their torture-related medical costs, in return for not pursuing the matter in the courts. He told me that the offer was rejected because they were more concerned about the truth being released, and because they doubted the government's sincerity for certain reasons.
It is important to understand the role that torture played in the government's strategy during the dark era of the State Security Law (1975 - 2000). Not only was it used to get false confessions, but it was also used to spread fear and to prevent people from spreading information. Up until just a few years ago, people would not discuss politics in public areas without first looking over their shoulders to make sure that no one else is listening. At the time there was no internet, no blogs, no satellite tv. This was how the government managed to control the flow of information.
So how brutal did the torture have to be achieve its goal? In a 1997 report to the UNHCR (pdf 109KB), the Special Rapporteur described the situation in Bahrain's torture cells:
The methods of torture reported include: falaqa (beatings on the soles of the feet); severe beatings, sometimes with hosepipes; suspension of the limbs in contorted positions accompanied by blows to the body; enforced prolonged standing; sleep deprivation; preventing victims from relieving themselves; immersion in water to the point of near drowning; burnings with cigarettes; piercing the skin with a drill; sexual assault, including the insertion of objects into the penis or anus; threats of execution or of harm to family members; and placing detainees suffering from sickle cell anaemia (said to be prevalent in the country) in airconditioned rooms in the winter, which can lead to injury to internal organs.
A fuller picture is created when explained in the victims own words. In a 1997 report by Human Rights Watch:
Hussain, a nineteen year old from Shahraqan, told Human Rights Watch what happened after he after he was brought to Qal'a early one morning:They took me upstairs to an office, I don't know whose. There they told me to stand on one leg and bray like a donkey. "What am I accused of?" I asked. "Get some manners," the officer said, and he hit me and left. Then someone came in wearing a dishdasha [traditional white shoulder-to-ankle garment worn by men in the Gulf]. I recognized him from photos I had seen: It was Adil Flaifil. He asked me if I was Hussain Shahraqani and I said yes. He had a piece of paper marked "confidential" on top, otherwise blank. He told me to sign it. I refused. They took me to a different room and trussed me up with a pole under my knees. There were four men, two in uniform. They kicked me and took turns hitting me with a hose. After half an hour of this they took me back to Adil Flaifil, who told me again to sign. I refused again. I went back and forth several times between the hanging and beating and the questioning. At one point he [Flaifil] asked for my hand. Two people held my hand, and he burned the back of my hand with his cigarette [displays light scars].
Hussain asserted that his tormentors on this occasion also used electricity to inflict pain. Adil Flaifil, he said, "attached some wires to a piece of metal he was holding against my hand. The shock knocked me to the floor."
"Then they took me into a corridor and put my cuffed hands over the top of a door," Hussain continued:so I was hanging with my toes just touching the ground. I fell down when they finally let me off the door, and they beat me with a hose again for what seemed like a long time. They saidthey would charge me with bombings and planning attacks with bombs. Later they said I would only have to confess to incitement. I still refused. Finally they said I had to sign a statement that I would not do these things. That I did sign. They gave me one more beating, till my mouth bled, and then they let me go.
Sadly though, not everyone was fortunate enough to live to tell the story, as there have been several reported cases of detainees who died during the interrogation period. It's not for the faint-hearted but if you can handle it, there are some photos of the corpses displaying injuries allegedly caused by torture at this site (scroll down to the second set of pictures). This case was documented in 1995 AI report:
The second case is that of Sa'id 'Abd al-Rasul al-Iskafi, a 16-year-old secondary school student from al-Sanabes who died ten days (not two days, as initially reported) after his arrest. According to information received by Amnesty International, he had been summoned for interrogation by Mabahith Amn al-Dawla (State Security Intelligence) on 29 June 1995 in connection with his alleged participation in anti-government protests. He was reportedly suspected of having sprayed graffiti on walls near his home. Upon arrival at the headquarters of State Security Intelligence, Sa'id al-Iskafi was taken into custody. On 8 July, his family was told to collect his body from the Military Hospital. According to accounts received, the security forces prevented his family from burying his body in the local cemetery in al-Sanabes, and he was later buried at a cemetery in the nearby district of al-Na'im, where he was born.
It should be quite easy now to understand why the victims of torture and their relatives refuse to give up their campaign for justice. I expect that tomorrow in Geneva the goverment representatives will do their best to dodge the issue of Law 56. But one can hope...
Read my related posts: Repeal 56
Ali Abdulemam and BahrainOnline.org are the subject of an article on page A1 of today's Wall Street Journal.
Democracy Project in Bahrain Falters
MANAMA, Bahrain -- Ali Abdulemam, a young Islamic activist and founder of a popular Arabic-language Web site, made a bold decision three years ago. He started using his real name online.
He shed his pseudonym after a spurt of political change in this Gulf kingdom touted by President Bush as a model for the Arab world. The government emptied prisons of political prisoners, held elections and let hundreds return from exile abroad. "I believed you could speak and not go to jail," says the 27-year-old computer engineer, who combines his Web work with a day job at an American technology-consulting company.
In late February, amid boisterous debate about democracy following elections in Iraq, Mr. Abdulemam was thrown in prison, accused of fomenting hatred of the government and other charges.
Our Free Ali blog also gets a mention:
Before the government announced the arrests, news spread online. A crowd of protesters gathered outside a detention center where the three were held. In early March, al-Jazeera broadcast footage of Mr. Abdulemam in handcuffs. Fellow bloggers set up a FreeAli Web site. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and other groups protested. The U.S. ambassador to Bahrain privately queried the Information Minister about the arrests but didn't comment in public.
Read my previous posts about the BahrainOnline arrests
The second in the series of protests demanding constitutional reform was held today, in the empty ground next to Dana Mall (read about the first protest here). When the plan to hold the protest was announced a couple weeks back, it seemed as though the government would once again deem it illegal. However, a few days the Interior Ministry gave the go-ahead for the demonstration, so everything went smoothly today without any trouble.
Today's protest definitely felt smaller than the first one, but it was still very big. I'm no good at guessing numbers anyway, but it was especially difficult today because the venue was a perfectly flat open ground, with very few vantage points to make a decent estimate. If I were to hazard a guess I might say around 10 or 12 thousand, but don't quote me on it. It would be better to wait a couple hours for the news agencies to publish their reports. I've made another one of those panorama images to give you a sense of the scale, but I wasn't high enough to capture the full depth of the crowd. Click on the icon below to see it:
What was very significant about this protest though was that it was not a one-party show dominated entirely by Al-Wefaq, like the first one. As I suspected might happen, all of the four boycotting political societies made their presence known this time. At last. This was the first major protest in a long time that did not have a sectarian feel to it. So even though today's demonstration was smaller than the last one, for me it was more significant because it was so much more representative of the population. I do hope this will continue to be the case throughout the rest of the campaign. Below you can see a cluster of, I believe, NDAS supporters:
Incidentally, the International Crisis Group today released a report (hat tip to Mahmood) that contains an excellent overview of the political situation Bahrain, as well as urgent recommendations to all parties about what needs to be done to defuse the situation. Among the recommendations to the government is to reduce the legislative authority of the parliament's appointed chamber (the key demand of today's protest). I really hope that both the government and the opposition take the recommendations of this report seriously and show some courage.
Before the protest started a cop issued parking tickets to some of the demonstrators for parking their cars on the road island, so a small argument ensued. (Take a good look, because this is one of the rare chances you'll get to witness traffic cops in Bahrain actually doing something).
This protest had a very Woodstock-ish feel to it (not that I've ever been to Woodstock). As you can see in the photo below the protest took place in a big open ground, and people came walking in from all directions. Rather than an agry march, today many people came and sat down on the ground or a chair, and listened to the speeches and talked amongst themselves. The weather was great and the kids especially seemed to enjoy the opportunity to run around in the big open space or build castles in the sand.
In the cartoon below, on the right side it say "The Nineties" and shows a person trapped in a bottle (The height of the civil uprising in Bahrain tooke place during the 1990s). In the left panel it says "The days of reform" and shows a person in a bottle with the 2002 Consitution blocking the opening.
NDAS president Ibrahim Shareef being interviewed by a reporter from Al Jazeera television:
Speakers at the podium:
"The right to know: Premier vows Press freedom" reads the frontpage headline of today's GDN. The first paragraph of the article reads:
Freedom of speech is sacrosanct and will not be touched, the Premier told leading Bahrain journalists yesterday. Press freedom is the country's first line of defence, he said, vowing to make citizens fully aware of "every movement". (Continued)
Now you would expect a proper news article about Press freedom in Bahrain to present the opinions of both the government and those who diagree with the government. But as is all too common in the local Press and media, only the government propaganda is presented in this article. Whether it's editorial self-censorship or direct orders from the government, the Press obviously feels pressure from government.
This is why I (and most other bloggers, I suspect) am so much against the government's website registration plan. The Internet is the last refuge for those of us who want to read about and discuss issues concerning Bahrain in a free unrestricted environment. If all Bahraini website owners were to register with the government, then they would face the same pressures as our local Press. And inevitably, the level of discussion online about political issues would be dumbed down to that of our newspapers. I don't want that to happen.
On a related note, there is a short mention of this topic in the widely distributed Foreign Policy magazine.
Update (05-Apr-05): The UAE-based Gulf News (not to be confused with Bahrain's GDN) published some excellent op-eds and reports about Press Freedom in the UAE and the Gulf to mark World Press Freedom Day. Be sure to read the Editor-in-Chief's candid op-ed: Self-censorship virus plagues media. It seems that our friends in the UAE are genuinely moving in the right direction. The UAE leadership also marked the day with speeches about the issue, not unlike how our Prime Minister spoke about the issue (as shown in the article at the top). The crucial difference is that UAE leaders recognize that problems exist, and seem to want to genuinely overcome them. In his address, the Dubai's Crown Prince said:
It is no longer possible to sell illusions, to justify failure with manufactured excuses or to re-label defeats as victories. Technology has increased people's access to information and has forced the Arab world with all its states, governments and societies to face the realities and challenges of the new age.
And among the things said by the UAE's Minister of Information was:
There is a need to change the way that our media, and the people working within it, work. We need an environment that encourages innovative thinking and dialogue, even if that means that governments are embarrassed. The media should be able to question governments, and to criticise their policies if there is something to be criticised.
These guys are talking about changing the situation, whereas the Bahraini leadership talks about the prevailing status quo as though it is absolutely perfect. Bahrain could learn a thing or two from its brethren.
I attended a small performance of devotional singing by Bahraini sufis this evening. It was a few days late, but the purpose of the event was to celebrate the Prophet's birthday. It was a very moving performance, which involved about ten men singing devotional poetry in heterophony, following one lead singer (no instrumentation). They had excellent control over their voices, producing an extremely rich and powerful overall sound.
I was quite surprised to read the announcement of this event in the newspaper a couple days ago, because prior to that I had no idea that there were any active sufi groups in Bahrain. I knew that they must have existed on the island in previous generations, but when I asked around most people didn't have any idea about what sufism is. But today I learned that there are actually several sufi orders represented on the island (including the Qadiriya, Naqshbandiya, Azeemia). I'm wondering now... does anyone know if any of the shia sufi orders are active in Bahrain?
Around 40 or 50 people showed up today in front of the Ministry of Information to protest its decision to press charges against the BahrainOnline trio. Although the three (Ali Abdulemam, Hussain Yousif and Mohammed Al-Mousawi) were released from prison in March, they still face charges for the material that was posted on their website, and are not allowed to leave the country.
Despite this however, the government is going ahead with its plan to obligate all Bahraini websites to register with the Ministry of Information, ridiculously claiming that "it is intended to protect people running websites". In this article in today's Bahrain Tribune, Jamal Dawood (head of Press and Publication at the MoI) claims that "many" website owners have already come forward to be registered. But this can't be too many since most the popular online forums have agreed that they will not register. And certainly all of the bloggers I have spoken to are ardently against the registration also (including myself).
A couple of posts ago I mentioned that Batelco (Bahrain's sole ISP) had blocked Proxify.com. Well it seems that today Batelco has taken steps so that users can't access blocked sites using many of the freely available proxy servers. Not to worry though, as there are many other ways to get around this. But this is significant. Earlier, Batelco's block on sites was just nominal and very easy to get around. But it seems that now the government is actively trying to make sure that blocked sites are actually blocked, to go along with its website registration mandate.
And I have also been informed by a friend that my blog is no longer accessible from computers at the University of Bahrain's Sakhir campus. (I'll take that as a compliment for now).
Well, happy World Press Freedom Day all.
So I've added Bahrain as a metro on Upcoming.org, which is a nifty free online events calendar website. The cool thing is that the site publishes RSS feeds and iCal feeds, and it will send e-mail reminders, so that you don't have to check the site everyday to find out what's happening. I've started adding events, but it would be good if others would add stuff too. Let's see if it works. Click here to check it out.
On a related note, don't forget that Alliance Francaise has arranged a French Cinema Week this week, in which they are screening a French film everyday at Dana Cinema (for FREE, of course). There are only two movies left though. Tomorrow (Tuesday) is Moi César, 10 ans 1/2, 1m39, and on Wednesday they're screening the much celebrated Podium.
More from my backlog of unfinished posts. So way back in December 2004, a week or so after he was released from prison, I interviewed Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, the vice-president of the now outlawed (but still active) Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Somehow I never got around to posting about the interview until now, so sorry for the delay. Even though the Al Khawaja Affair is old news now, many of the issues discussed in this interview are still very relevant today (so that's my lame excuse for this being so late).
A bit of background for those of you who are new. On Sept 24, 2004, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja delivered a speech as part of a symposium about poverty and economic rights in Bahrain, in which he criticized the Prime Minister. The next day he was arrested and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) was shut down on orders from the government. During the two months that he was in prison as the trial went on, his supporters held protests on a regular basis. On the morning of Nov 21, the court sentenced Al Khawaja to one year in prison, but it was announced later in the day that he had been given a Royal Pardon from the King and was released. The BCHR remains outlawed by the government, but it has been very active nonetheless. You can read all of my posts about the Al Khawaja Affair here.
My interview with him took place on Dec 2, twelve days after his release from prison -- so bear in mind that some of the stuff discussed may be outdated. I got his phone number and gave him a call telling him about my blog, and he was was kind enough to invite me to his home and make the time to speak with me.
Click here to read/listen to the interview
The interview was recorded on video, but to save download times for you I'm only sharing the audio, reduced down to 16kbps quality. I've also edited out most of my own voice in the audio to save space (and because I can't stand listening to my own voice... and sorry for the sound of me saying "uh huh" throughout the interview... I didn't realize that the microphone was picking it up). I've written below my question (paraphrased, not the exact question), followed by a link to Abdulhadi's response. The sound files have been placed in a little Flash player, so what you need to do is click on the Flash icon below each question, which will open up a new browser window and load the player. (If you have just arrived from Venus and you don't have Flash already installed for your browser, then get it from here). The files are anywhere between 100KB and 300KB each, so it may take a while to load depending on your connection speed. Please email me or leave a comment if it's not working for some reason.
Also bear in mind that what is presented here is not the entire interview, just clips. And that not all of the clips are in their original order. On with the show:
Q: Why did you choose to publicly criticize the Prime Minister?
Q: What would be achieved if the Prime Minister was replaced?
On Old Guard vs Reformists:
Q: Didn't your statements of criticism sideline the progress made by the Crown Prince's reforms project (McKinsey) to some extent?
Q: What indications are there that make you so convinced that real economic reforms will not take place under the current government?
Q: In what way do you think your statements "weakened" the Prime Minister and the Old Guard?
On the urgent needs of the people, and the campaign to satisfy them:
Q: What kind of activities will this future campaign consist of?
Q: What will be the specific objectives of this campaign?
I asked him to respond to criticism that the effect of the planned demonstrations and strikes would hurt the economy rather than help it.
I then put forward the idea that public criticism of the Prime Minister or the government might make it harder for the Reformists within the regime to implement change. I reminded Abdulhadi that "saving face" and reputation is a big factor in regional politics, and suggested that public criticism might only provoke the Old Guard to seek means to strengthen its own position.
Since Abdulhadi didn't buy my argument that criticism might cause the Old Guard to strengthen itself, I asked him to explain specifically how the activities of the campaign would necessarily translate into political change.
I wasn't fully satisfied with his explanations of how the campaign would necessarily activate change, so I kept questioning him on the subject for a while. But then he admitted that he doesn't have all the answers regarding the specific dynamics of political change, and further explained that as a human rights activist it is not his responsibility to have them.
Abdulhadi's statements against the Prime Minister were very political in nature, and some people thought that this did not fall under the domain of human rights. So I asked him for his opinion on where the border (if any) between human rights and politics lies. I also asked him to respond to criticism that the BCHR's relationship with Al Wefaq is too close.
A bit more about the BCHR's relations with Al Wefaq and other groups.
That's it for now. I will try to write a follow up post with my own feedback and an analysis of what was discussed in light of recent events. But for right now, that's all.
Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm at Bahrain's decision announced on 24 April 2005 to oblige all websites dealing with the country to register with the ministry of Information. "This does not happen in any democratic country and is a threat to press freedom," the organisation said. (Continued)
It also contains the details pertaining to us bloggers:
[Jamal Dawood, head of press and publications at the information ministry] admitted that he did not know what a weblog was, but said that even personal websites would have to comply with the new procedure. He added that it would not be possible to register online and registration would have to be done directly at the information ministry. After each registration was validated, the person in charge would receive an ID number that would have to be posted on the site. [wtf???]
Do the government officials who are inventing these laws even know what the internet is?? It sounds as though a government employee from the "Vehicle Registration" department at the Directorate of Traffic got moved to the Information Ministry. Surely this is a joke of some sort. I can't wait to find out what else they have in store for us.
I'm just wondering... does this mean I have to register my Flickr account with the ministry also?
Do read the full RSF statement.
Update (27-Apr-05): I've been reading over the RSF article and wanted to bring to your attention this quote from Mr Jamal Dawood:
"Registration will be automatic and no-one will be turned down whatever the content."
Does he really expect people to believe this when just two months ago three website admins were arrested due to the contents of their site? And after the GDN reported that the government will continue to block websites "inciting hatred against prominent figures, ministers and leading officials". This reminds me of when Labour Minister Al Alawi stated before a UN Committee in Geneva that racial discrimination does not exist whatsoever in Bahrain.
Oh and guess what? The government has now blocked Proxify.com also. They really seem to believe that it's possible to control the internet.
Update (28-Apr-05): The story has been picked up by AP News: Bahrain site registration sparks protests (via Business Week). Also, our local paper, the GDN also has two articles about the story: This one featured as the frontpage headline story and this one inside contains a quote from our very own Mahmood!
Here are some photos I took this afternoon in the Manama suq, which has been all decorated for the celebrations tonight of the Prophet's birthday and that of Imam Ja'far al Sadiq. I was there later in the evening also for the actual celebrations, but my camera died on me so I don't have pictures of the beautiful lights. (And I ate one too many platefuls of biryani).
It's really quite cool how just last month the town was draped in black, and now it's bursting with colour. It's beautiful. You can't help but feel the joy.
Click here to see the rest of the photos (there are lots more).
Of course, what would a photoset be without kids:
As you can tell, I quite like all the brocade material draped everywhere. Here are a couple details if anyone cares: