On the tenth anniversary of the “14 February” movement in Bahrain: What really happened? 

On the tenth anniversary of Bahrain’s 2011 Uprising, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) held a webinar titled “Bahrain: What Really Happened?” The webinar addressed the current human rights situation in Bahrain, discussing the course of the uprising and the authority’s methods and tactics to quell the peaceful movement. It also evaluated the role of the international community during the past decade in Bahrain and the media coverage of the uprising. The webinar was moderated by Ghiwa Farroukh, the advocacy assistant at BCHR.

Asma Darwish, the advocacy officer at BCHR, opened the webinar by recalling the events of February 2011 and its aftermath. Asma highlighted the government’s violent response to the peaceful protests and its organized campaign to pursue dissidents. She pointed to the ineffectiveness of the subsequent reforms that were carried out in response to Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), as the government continued to restrict freedoms of expression and assembly, imprison critics, and sentence political prisoners to death and lengthy prison sentences. Asma stressed that the crackdown on dissent intensified starting in 2016, where the government dissolved all opposition parties, closed the only independent newspaper in the country, and executed many political prisoners whose trials marred by torture allegations. Finally, she pointed that the silence of the international community has emboldened the Bahraini government to continue to suppress dissent without being held accountable. 

Devin Kenny, a GCC researcher at Amnesty International, opened his speech by reviewing the scale of repression that has been going on in Bahrain since 2011 and drawing attention to BICI’s findings. He pointed out that thousands were arrested, and at least 19 were killed due to excessive use of force by the security forces in 2011. Among those arrested are prominent figures and civil society leaders, such as Sheikh Abdulwahab Hussein, Sheikh Muhammed Habib al-Miqdad, Sheikh Abduljalil Makki al-Miqdad, Hasan Mushaima, Abduljalil al-Singace, and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, among others. The repression escalated in 2016 and 2017, where opposition parties were outlawed. Devin also referred to the banning of BCHR in 2004 in retaliation to a speech delivered by Abudlhadi al-Khawaja denouncing the Prime Minister at the time. He stressed that the institutions which have been outlawed since 2011 had legally registered with the government to affect change. Yet, the government has expelled them from lawful political life, which is a clear indication of how much the space is closed in Bahrain. Devin concluded that Bahrain is more repressive now than it was at the start of this millennium.

Tara O’Grady, founder and executive director of Human Rights Sentinels, started by drawing similarities between her own country Ireland and Bahrain; both have had their share of crackdowns on protest and civil society movement. She praised the peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 2011 Uprising, despite the hefty security presence. Tara described the Bahraini government’s response to the uprising in 2011 as “the most vicious attacks against peaceful demonstrators and a heinous assault on the sensibilities of people around the globe.” She emphasized the idea that the human rights violations that happen to others should concern us all as human beings. She recalled that the arrest of Nabeel Rajab is what drew her attention to the struggle of the Bahraini people, praising him as an internationally respected hero, as Nabeel has been calling for dignity, self-determination, and freedom of religion for everyone. Tara denounced the government’s contradictory behavior in financing sports, scientific and educational activities, while hunting its citizens with tear gas and shotguns. Overall, Tara brought a human element to the webinar by talking about her entry into the field of human rights and how Nabeel Rajab and Bahrain  inspired her life and gave her hope.

Amirouche Nedjaa, the executive director of Mena Media Monitoring, talked about the media coverage of the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. He considered that the Bahraini revolution was muted and silenced by the media; It was repressed on the ground and by the media. He recalled the freedom of expression realities in Bahrain, pointing to its low ranking in international indexes like that of Reporters without Borders and Freedom House, which categorizes Bahrain as an authoritarian country. The government blocks online content, prosecutes Bahraini journalists, and harasses foreign reporters. Bahrainis who dare to speak to journalists risk going to jail. Amirouche assessed the media coverage of the civil unrest since 2011, pointing to a real blackout on the uprising and its aftermath. He also referred to insignificant coverage of the Bahraini situation, which has been biased and inaccurate in most cases. Many of the media coverage have attributed the uprising to a sectarian conflict and foreign interference. The government resorted to all possible means to limit international media from covering what was going on. The current coverage of Bahraini government repression only comes from human rights organizations, while there is almost zero coverage from mainstream media.

Antoine Madeline, director of international advocacy at the International Federation for Human Rights, started by calling for moving ahead with human rights organizations collective action, regarding the human rights crisis in Bahrain, by addressing the context within which the Bahrain situation has been approached and drawing lessons from it. Bahrain’s location and context have played against the resolution of the crisis for three main reasons: 1- its geographic location and the geopolitical status in the region (the military bases in the country). 2- the war in Yemen has overshadowed the criticism that the international community was making on Bahrain. 3- major voices from Bahrain civil society have been silenced from speaking out at the international level, for example in the case of Nabeel Rajab. Antoine also pointed that the government’s response to the international community criticism has been successful by convincing them that reforms are taking place. In fact, the strategy of the Bahraini authority was a move from outburst repression in the Pearl Roundabout to silenced repression on a daily basis. He finally addressed the challenges of how to move ahead with this situation, analyzing the effectiveness and efficiency of the international levers of influence in human rights organizations’ hands. 

Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, started by speaking about Abudlhadi al-Khawaja and recalling his enthusiasm at the beginning of the uprising to support the Bahraini people in their struggle. He praised al-Khawaja as one of the leaders of the Bahraini pro-democracy movement. The Uprising demands were legitimate. Yet, it was faced with a deadly crackdown, where human rights defenders paid a heavy price. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is still in prison serving a life sentence, as are other activists, such as Naji Fateel and Abduljalil al-Singace. Khalid stressed that the focus should be on releasing human rights defenders and activists from Bahraini prisons. He expressed optimism about the situation in Bahrain as long as there is a strong human rights movement and people still have the determination to defend their rights. Khalid referred to the tenth anniversary of the Bahraini uprising by saying, “On the 10th anniversary of the peaceful popular movement of the Bahraini people, we need to send a united call on the international community to help free human rights defenders in Bahrain, to stop the persecution of journalists simply for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and most importantly to respect public freedoms, including freedom of expression, and of peaceful assembly.” He also pointed to the deteriorating conditions in Bahraini prisons, which many activists repeatedly protested. Finally, Khalid stressed the necessity to appeal to all concerned governments and international organizations to apply serious pressure on Bahrain to immediately release all prisoners of conscience.