Bahrain’s unreported oppression continues – with a little help from the West

The Frontline Club – 24 August 2012

At an event hosted by the Frontline Club, an expert panel of speakers shed light on the ongoing oppression of political opposition in Bahrain, one of the most under-reported aspects of the Arab Spring, and the government’s systematic use of Western public relations companies to manage the regime’s global reputation.

In the early months of 2011, thousands of Bahraini citizens took to the streets to demand greater representation and more equitable treatment of the country’s Shia citizens, who make up 70% of the population. Dozens were killed, and hundreds more were incarcerated or went missing.

But, as moderator and The Guardian‘s Comment is Free editor Brian Whitaker explained, the story has been overshadowed by events in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and buried by governments in both the West and the Gulf region that see Bahrain’s royal family as political allies.

“This doesn’t justify the repression that is happening in Bahrain, and it doesn’t reduce the need for people’s rights there,” he said.

Organised by advocacy group Bahrain Watch, the event highlighted the organisation’s efforts to draw attention not only to the brutality of the Bahraini government, but also to its use of international PR firms to hide its activities from the global community.

“Opposition has been suppressed by methods including incarceration and torture, extra-judicial killing and the excessive use of force,” said Marc Owen Jones, doctoral candidate at Durham University and member of Bahrain Watch.

“This has resulted in the death of at least 60 protestors, and probably more.”

The government is using what Jones described as “soft tactics” to influence international opinion, including the recruitment of international PR firms to “delegitimise the pro-reform movement and push the government narrative.”

“Since February 2011, contracts have been awarded to 18 companies, 15 of which total $32.5m – and this is a conservative estimate,” said Jones. “All of them are based in the US and the UK…the largest being M&C Saatchi and Bell Pottinger.”

These activities continue unhindered by the governments of the UK and the US, earning London the unofficial title of the “world’s reputation laundering capital”, said Jones.

“It’s worth exploring whether these companies can be targeted here,” said pannelist Adam Hunt, a human rights solicitor and partner in Deighton Pierce Glynn.

“Companies can be excluded from competing for UK government contracts if they are found guilty of professional misconduct.”

Bahrain’s leader, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, has set up a commission of enquiry to investigate abuses by the regime. But the panel concluded that although the commission’s findings were important, its report was nothing more than window-dressing.

“There continue to be daily allegations of abuse of protestors and there have been no convictions of anyone with any level of responsibility [within the regime],” said Carla Ferstman, director of international human rights organisation REDRESS.

“The most galling aspect is that they are documenting human rights violations but not doing anything about them,” said Jones. “It’s just a testament to impunity.”

The regime has hidden the worst of its excesses from the public eye and now tortures people in secret detention centres, explained Mohammad Al Tajir, a human rights lawyer who was tortured and detained for more than three months by the regime for speaking publicly in favour of the release of political prisoners.

When Al Tajir was arrested, his bank account was frozen and his wife was told that he was dead.

“The problem is that there is no will to bring justice,” said Al Tajir. “Confession is still the only evidence in most cases. Torture has not stopped. Out of 20 people arrested, 10 will have to go to hospital.”

Asked what they expected of Bahrain in the months to come, none of the panellists had high hopes.

“I’m not optimistic at all,” said Jones. “Maybe we’ll see the release of some prisoners. But I don’t see any sincerity in any of the reforms.”

This blog also appeared on the Frontline Club website. To view the original post, click here.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.