VISIT FROM THE BAHRAIN INSTITUTE FOR RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY - 14/7/16

On the 14th July 2016 the Southend group hosted a group of activists and exiles including members of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD*). Joining us were BIRD’s Director of Advocacy, Sayed Alwadaei, alongside four victims of torture and abuse, (Isa, Moosa, Saber and Ali). All had to flee the Kingdom as a direct result of the brutality of the Khalifa regime. They spoke with passion and in often harrowing detail of their fight for human rights and democracy; their experiences under imprisonment and torture in Bahrain - and their subsequent experiences since seeking refuge in the UK. 

For any readers only subliminally aware of the Kingdom of Bahrain - perhaps, as a tax free haven for expatriate westerners, or for the annual Formula One motor race; it may be helpful to provide some detail of the history, economy and people of Bahrain.

Bahrain is an offshore archipelago in the southern Persian gulf, once famous for its pearl beds and is made up of more than thirty islands most of which are tiny coral outcrops. The main population centre is Bahrain island which makes up about 85% of the country's land mass and covers an area of more than 350 square miles. The capital of Bahrain is Manama and the main port: 'Mina-Salman' is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and provides deep water anchorage as well as access to the Persian gulf, Arabian sea and Indian ocean...'Mina' is also the base from which the conduct of naval and other operations are effected in the vitally important sea-lanes used in the transport of commodities, including oil products from: Iraq, Iran, Saudi, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. The Islands of Bahrain are thus: amongst other things : an energy depot and naval facility for western military campaigns, 'R&R' centre for US and UK military personnel and arguably the key intelligence gathering and military strategy centre in the region. 

It is these geo-strategic advantages that have made Bahrain an important trading centre since ancient times. in 1783 the Khalifa family (adherents of Sunni Islam and originally from Qatar) captured Bahrain from the Persians and in order to secure the territory entered into a series of treaties with Britain: culminating in Bahrain becoming a British protectorate in 1861. This status changed to full independence in 1971, though in practice the strong associations between the regime and our own systems of Government and Monarchy continue. The Sheikdom's wealth and long standing relationship(s) with the western elite(s) and intelligence agencies allow the projection of significant influence and anybody who speaks out against the regime is rarely beyond 'reach'.....

The population of Bahrain is around 1.4 million, about half of which are immigrants of temporary status mostly from South-east Asia.  In regard to the permanent citizens ; despite the efforts of the Khalifa regime to skew the population demographic by encouraging and financing free movement of 'politically friendly' (Sunni) Arabs from other parts of the Middle East, to fulfil key roles in the Military, Police and Internal Security agencies, the reality is: - it is (Shia) Bahrainis that make up the great majority of the population. Unfortunately, the interests of this increasingly 'non-silent' majority are woefully under-represented and their 'per capita' wealth and employment prospects post the 2011 (Pearl Roundabout) uprising continue to decline. There are of course also poor Sunni Bahraini's that feel some of the same sense of alienation, but in recent times their dissatisfaction has been muted, partly because they make up a (far) smaller community and perhaps more significantly because they are somewhat suspicious of the (mainly Shia) opposition activists and leaders. 

Bahrain is not a poor country and has declared crude oil production of around 50,000 barrels per day. Significantly, a further >200,000 bbpd of Saudi-light feedstock is provided to the Bahraini government 'free and gratis' and total declared  revenues from refined product sales amount to more than **$2 billion annually. As well as profits from oil, Bahrain's economic standing is further enhanced by the global banking and financial community that has traditionally seen neighbouring Saudi Arabia (largest GDP in the region) as the de-facto underwriter of the Bahraini economy. Whilst this relationship ensures the ruling elite enjoys unfettered access to low cost borrowing for investment, the 'slow' vector of the money means that majority of Bahraini's do not see it, nor benefit from it. Moreover, the economic imbalance between the Saudi (GDP ~ $700 billion USD) and Bahrain (GDP< $35 billion USD) economies, places the Bahraini government under pressure to maintain political stability 'by any means'. This translates to tacit encouragement on the part of the Saudi's to ensure Bahrain's leaders rely , where necessary on the uncompromisingly brutal measures to quell dissent, that are a matter of routine in Saudi Arabia. It is a matter of record that neighbouring Saudi has an appalling history of human rights violations and its rulers make no secret of their opposition to the political reforms needed in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.

The experiences our guests reported during their visit to us; as disturbing as they are, are not at all uncommon among Bahraini's and speak of a system that seems to view everything from: pernicious surveillance, through physical harassment and arbitrary imprisonment, to kidnapping and even execution: as acceptable methods of (often  extra) - judicial correction. The wider experiences of the community they represent also bear witness to the disproportionate way in which the regime administers the archipelago's land, property and wealth. 

In their pursuit of justice and human rights our Bahraini guests reported some truly horrible experiences. One: who was tortured by a member of the security services (and ruling family) confronted his tormentor when he visited London recently.  He simply asked two questions : 'Do you remember me ? and 'Why did you torture me' ?, the unrepentant torturer answered: 'Yes, I do remember you and : so what'... Another of our young guests described the sexual abuse he had suffered during arbitrary detention and another: of the threats, intimidation and inhuman treatment suffered by his family. However ,the final personal account, perhaps because the abuse described occurred here in the United Kingdom or perhaps because of my own experiences in regard to Bahrain; had a special resonance. It related to the experiences of a Bahraini who having escaped torture and persecution by coming to the UK, discovered that his computer had been deliberately infected with the infamous 'fin-fisher' spyware :enabling the Bahraini authorities to carry out invasive surveillance upon him remotely  - even though the regime had revoked his citizenship making him stateless***. It is worth emphasising that the 'fin-fisher' spyware is produced by a British Company (Gamma Industries) and was used to collect this private data in the United Kingdom. Looking around the room, it was evident that a number in our audience found this revelation quite shocking. The view taken by many organisations with wide ranging remit ('Bahrain watch', 'the Internet Protection Lab', 'Amnesty International' and 'Privacy International') is perhaps less surprising. All concur that Gamma industries should  be held accountable for providing technology and assistance to the Bahrain Government that allowed them to conduct the continued harassment of exiled Bahrainis whilst they were under the protection of the government and people of the United Kingdom.

In his book: "First Light"  - King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, the present Monarch of Bahrain proudly describes how:  'the Bahraini's have fought to protect their identities from the time of the very advent of Islam in the seventh century, through the appearance of the European and Ottoman imperial powers', to what he calls : "the (era of) consolidation of the national identity under the Khalifa family, - rulers of the archipelago for more than 150 years " The reality is that no such consolidation has or will ever take place until and unless the majority of the population are included in the decision making processes and begin to benefit from their birthright - the natural resources and wealth of the island.  As things stand at present : consolidation means: subjugation and domination: and the notion of national identity exists only in the pages of King Hamad's1994 publication.  For any hope of the Khalifa utopia of: a 'one nation Bahrain' becoming a reality, - the brutality must be put aside, the issues of inequality addressed and the political system rendered demographically proportional - and thus fully democratic.

As our meeting came to a close the audience agreed unanimously that our Bahraini friend's stories were:, provocative, humbling and unforgettable and as somebody who spent a good number of years living and working in Bahrain I feel particularly blessed to have met these extraordinary people, so typical of the regular citizens of Bahrain to whom I and my family owe much. For their cosmopolitan and welcoming nature and for the friendships formed whilst living in their very special but deeply troubled country. 

I hope one day we may all be able to return to a safe, prosperous and universally just Bahrain.

Andrew Jefferson- August 2016

 

* BIRD is a non profit organisation dedicated to the advocacy, education and raising of awareness for the need for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

**Excerpt from the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) publication: "Refinery of the future", 2007. (Note : 85% of the Island's finished oil products are exported)

***According to Amnesty International at least 208 Bahraini's have been stripped of their Nationality.

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