Emboldened by military, political and diplomatic support from the US and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s unrepresentative minority ruling family handed down harsh sentences to pro-democracy activists in the island-state on June 22. Eight were sentenced to life in prison for “plotting to overthrow the government.” They were among 21 opposition figures tried by a special security court. Others got sentences of up to 15 years.
The judge, fearing strong reaction of the defendants, read the sentences quickly. This, however, did not deter prominent defendants from speaking out. Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni political leader of the Waad Party, cried out in court: “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. Our people want freedom.” Rights campaigner Abdulhadi al-Khawaja shouted: “We will continue to fight for our rights and our people” as he was handed a life sentence. When his daughter Zainab shouted three times, “Allahu-Akbar”, a woman military officer clamped her hand over her mouth and Zainab was hustled out of the courtroom. Abd al-Jalil al-Singace, head of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, and Shaikh Hassan Mushaima, who returned from self-imposed exile in the UK in February, were also handed life sentences.
The court verdict sparked mass protests in the tiny island state that was the scene of peaceful protests in February and March before the regime cracked down brutally killing scores of protesters. A state of emergency was declared. Hundreds were arrested; many have disappeared. Even doctors and nurses were arrested for treating those injured in demonstrations. Masked soldiers have since occupied hospitals in Bahrain. The injured were dragged from hospital beds and hauled away. Torture has been widespread and at least four youth have died under police torture. Doctors have complained they were forced to sign confessions after undergoing torture.
The Khalifahs, the minority ruling family, had promised a national dialogue to start this month but with the harsh sentences handed down by a special security court, this would be little more than a farce, if held at all. People have called for democratic reforms and greater rights and freedoms. Since Bahrain’s majority population is Shi‘i, the regime and its backers have tried to turn people’s legitimate demands into a sectarian issue going so far as to accuse Iran of “meddling” in its internal affairs by instigating people. The only foreign troops in Bahrain are those from the US navy’s fifth fleet, the Saudis and Emiratis. There are no Iranian troops in Bahrain. Further, the Bahraini minority regime has recruited mercenaries from Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen into its police force to crush peaceful protesters demanding their basic rights.
There is systematic discrimination against the Shi‘i majority; they suffer from high unemployment, poor housing and are denied high-level positions in government. All top positions in the country — government, police and armed forces — are occupied by the Khalifahs. Following the recent uprisings, hundreds of Shi‘i employees have been fired from their jobs making life even more difficult for them. Government vigilantes armed with metal bars, vandalize neighbourhoods, smashing cars, store windows as well as homes. Young people are randomly dragged from their homes and many have simply disappeared. Their only crime is that they are asking for fundamental rights; and for the Khalifah family, their other “crime” is that they are Shi‘i, as if they have no rights or dignity. Regrettably, some Muslims have also swallowed such sectarian propaganda.
Unless people are given their fundamental rights, there will be no peace in the island state no matter how many are sentenced to life imprisonment. The urge for basic freedoms is a natural right and cannot be denied for too long.