The King’s Speech: Bahrain’s reaction to the events unfolding around the world

What is happening across Africa and the Middle East truly is history in the making. No-one knows this better, one contends, than those still clinging to power in nearby States. Once a seemingly untouchable elite, the rulers of these lands are now very much aware of their own humanity.

In February, in the centre of Manama, when Bahrain saw its first example of a political uprising since the events engulfing Egypt, King Hamad ibn_Isa_Al_Khalifa reacted by releasing some 23 political activists being held. This isolated action, however, is not enough to secure the Monarch’s security.

Closer inspection of the case of the prisoners released in February uncovers the extent of Bahrain’s civil restrictions- the activists had been held under Bahrain’s controversial “Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts no. 58”, [MPO1] since October last year. This law contains broad definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts and also allows for extended periods of detention without charge or judicial review. The trial of these political activists was so fraught with issues of fair trial, allegations of torture and freedom of expression that both Amnesty International and Frontline have been monitoring and heavily criticizing Bahrain’s executive and judicial system. As reported, the proceedings themselves were a shamble as trial observers recognised symptoms of torture upon the defendants. Defence lawyers withdrew from the case, after the Court, presided by Ibrahim Sultan elZayed, refused to investigate allegations of torture.[MPO2]  The Court replaced them with State-appointed lawyers, but defendants refused to be represented by them, forcing some of the lawyers to withdraw and inform the court they could not do their job without their clients’ cooperation. The Bahrain Bar Society rejected a subsequent move by the Justice Ministry to discipline the lawyers. On 24 January 2011, FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) released an “Observatory” and called for “urgent intervention” in Bahrain. Within their report they issued a list of the 24 lawyers being brought before the disciplinary hearing by the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs. No action was taken by Bahrain’s authorities following this report. However, exactly one month later, on 23 February, Gulf News reported that the 23 activists being held were released. This came following the end of disciplinary proceedings against the lawyers 20 days earlier by the King who reportedly made a statement highlighting the cooperation between the justice ministry and the Bahrain Bar Society and insisted on the partnership between them.  

 It seemed, for a while at least, that the events of January and February had an effect on King Hamad. This particular leader, who, having been in office for 39 years, is the longest-serving unelected prime minister in the world, appeared to be listening to his own people, without international intervention. One of his recent  concessions, dropping charges against Mr Mushaima, a senior Shia figure, and allowing his return to Bahrain and the sacking four government ministers, looked like a further step towards the kind of dialogue the people of Bahrain are demanding. It remains to be seen whether this particular ruler will be spared the fate of presidents Mubarak and Gadaffi in Egypt and Libya respectively. The king’s speech is now but one voice in a debate which is currently being witnessed by the international community amid growing reports that further dissidents are being attacked, as Bahrain’s people demand more from their leaders.

 Indeed it was reported on 15 March that Bahrain has declared a state of emergency whereby it was noted that the Bahrain Defence Force may take measures and procedures necessary in the name of security as well as any “other measures” deemed necessary. This is a worrying development for dissidents living in Bahrain as dialogue is all too easily quelled for the sake of ‘security.’ Essentially, what has been demonstrated so far is that the Bahrain people demand more and only when autocratic analogue is replaced with true, democratic dialogue may the King truly relax.

by Faye Bovingdon

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