On Nelson Mandela Day, BCHR: The struggle is for a better Bahrain

Today, July 18th, marks Nelson Mandela International Day. It is on this day that we recognize Mandela, the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, and its ties to other movements for freedom and liberation from any and every kind of oppression.

Born in 1918 as Rolihlahla Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, lawyer, and politician had lived through times that may seem archaic and possibly even irrelevant to some today. However, the struggle of South Africans against apartheid is a history that should be continually taught to generations, so that they may find inspiration in their own fight against any form of exploitation or repression. To read more, the following article by BCHR dives into his life and struggle in more detail.

In the case of Bahrain, how can Bahrainis learn from and employ the tools of liberation that Mandela and his movement used in their own struggle? First, it is important to recognize how the two movements are similar. South Africa’s case is a formal system of Apartheid, where the legal system clearly delineated between whites and blacks. It was a form of white supremacy that was embedded in the law and dictated where people lived, got educated, who they could marry, and much more. The Bahraini system and South African Apartheid are in no way equivalent. However, there is a common thread of segregation and discrimination in both.

In Bahrain, the closest thing to formal apartheid by sect was evident in the Bandargate report. The report was leaked by former Bahraini government official, Salah al Bandar and the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development. The report outlines how government officials, led and financed by Minister of Cabinet Affairs and head of the Civil Informatics Organization Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa led a systematic initiative to fuel sectarian sentiment against Shi’as in the country. Over $2.5 million was invested into this multi-year plan, which consisted of different methods of fomenting sectarianism, including:

  • Paying stipends to poor Shi’as who convert to Sunni Islam
  • Expediting the naturalization of foreign nationals of Sunni sect
  • Spying on Shi’a Organizations

All of these carefully orchestrated policies were used to shift the demographics of the country, manipulate elections, and create sectarian sentiments within Bahrain.

Although the sectarian policies are clear and need to be counteracted, with regards to dissent, the Bahraini government is equally brutal to both Sunni and Shia activists. Ibrahim Sharif, Sunni activist and head of the (now forcibly dissolved) secular political party, Waad, was imprisoned for five years between 2011 and 2015 for a pro-democracy speech. In prison, he was subjected to various kinds of physical torture, psychological abuse, and solitary confinement. Other activists who are still in jail are figures such as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Abduljalil Al-Singace, and Hasan Mushaima. Al-Khawaja, who is a human rights activist, was subjected to severe abuse, a startling episode of which included him being sexually assaulted by prison guards, and being beaten to the point of having multiple facial bones permanently damaged.

Mushaima, a prominent opposition figure, suffers from diabetes and is deprived of critical medical care, resulting in him having difficulty walking, swelling in multiple parts of his body, and general decline in health to the point of fearing for his life. Al-Singace, also a human rights activist, academic, and blogger was recently subjected to degrading treatment by officer Mohammed Yousef Fakhro, according to a report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. All of these individuals, and countless others, are sentenced to life in prison simply because they voiced their opposition against sectarianism, autocracy, and human rights abuses in Bahrain. “The struggle is for a better Bahrain. It always was and it will continue to always be. That is what we in BCHR are engaged in for example, a fairer society, a just judiciary, a safe environment for all”, says Nedal Al Salman, President for Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR).

In summary, we see that the South African struggle against apartheid and the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain share many similarities. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his activities against apartheid and advocated for a more unified society. Similarly, countless Bahrainis continue their advocacy for democracy and representation and struggle against sectarian policies, even if it means years of jail and torture. These individuals’ sacrifices are the epitome of selflessness. Their sacrifices will be remembered and will fuel future generations to continue to advocate for their rights and a fight for a more democratic and less fragmented Bahrain.