20 July 2011

National dialogue doomed as Al-Wefaq pulls out and crackdown continues

Poet Ayat al-Gormezi (left) with her lawyer Reem Khalaf. Al-Gormezi, who was arrested in March and sentenced to a year in jail after reading an anti-government poem to protesters, was freed on 13 July but with conditions
Poet Ayat al-Gormezi (left) with her lawyer Reem Khalaf. Al-Gormezi, who was arrested in March and sentenced to a year in jail after reading an anti-government poem to protesters, was freed on 13 July but with conditions

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The prospects for peace in Bahrain are not looking as bright now that the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, has pulled out of the national dialogue, and the government continues to crack down on its critics, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and other IFEX members.

Al-Wefaq said in a statement that the dialogue, which was launched on 2 July and aimed at making political reforms after the unrest that started in February, would "not reach a radical political solution to the crisis."

Al-Wefaq said it was "vastly underrepresented and marginalised in the dialogue ... whose results have been determined in advance."

BCHR says that only 35 of the 300 seats at the national dialogue were allocated to opposition parties, and that some of the leaders who should be at the table are instead in jail. Plus, says BCHR, none of the important issues are up for discussion, such as the discrimination against Shia workers, the direct election of the Prime Minister, the release of political prisoners, and the deaths of more than 30 protesters.

Al-Wefaq's withdrawal will "remove any legitimacy the talks gained from their involvement," says BCHR.

Since the launch of the national dialogue, few concessions have been granted and most good news has been tempered. Ayat al-Gormezi, a poet and university student who was arrested in March and sentenced to a year in jail after reading an anti-government poem to protesters, was freed on 13 July, reports the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International.

But her release is conditional on not travelling outside Bahrain or speaking to the media about her detention, and the charges on which she had been jailed have not been dropped, says WiPC. She told reporters that she was beaten, electrocuted and threatened with sexual assault while in custody, including being tortured by a female member of the royal family.

While rights activists are hopeful that more Bahrainis will be released before Ramadan starts on 1 August, it's almost certain that former BCHR president Adbulhadi al-Khawaja, renowned blogger Abduljalil al-Singace and the six others that were recently given life sentences will not be among them. A further 13 people received sentences of up to 15 years in the same case. Their appeal has been postponed until 11 September, when it will be heard before a criminal court, after being transferred from a special military court, reports BCHR.

But even during the dialogue, "the government has not stopped firing teachers and other employees, attacking protesters and torturing political prisoners," says BCHR. Human Rights Watch says that more than 2,000 workers have been fired since March, apparently as punishment for taking part or supporting pro-democracy protests.

In a recent report, "Targets of Retribution", Human Rights Watch has documented serious government abuses against doctors, nurses and paramedics who treated injured protesters, as well as injured protesters themselves, such as charges that are pending against 48 medics.

"The attacks on medics and wounded protesters have been part of an official policy of retribution against Bahrainis who supported pro-democracy protests," says Human Rights Watch. "Medical personnel who criticised the severe repression were singled out and jailed, among the more than 1,600 Bahrainis facing solitary confinement and ill-treatment in detention and unfair trials before a special military court."

As recently as last week, Dr. Mohsen Tarif, a consultant psychiatrist who works in Salmaniya Medical Complex (a hub for treating injured protesters), was arrested by security forces, says BCHR.

Last week, Front Line (the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders) was part of an Irish delegation to Bahrain that investigated the detention and torture of medics who helped treat protesters.

Pro-government supporters, including members of a journalists' association, brought a 14 July press briefing by the Irish delegation to a halt and then publicly shamed Reem Khalifa, a journalist for the daily "Al-Wasat", who had earlier this year condemned the deaths of protesters and called for the King to intervene, report BCHR, Front Line and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). When she tried to stop a camera from filming the ordeal, she was charged with verbally abusing and physically assaulting a government supporter. The state media then carried out a smear campaign against her.

Many journalists have been in the firing line, with BCHR reporting the death of two in detention. They have been "intimidated, interrogated, smeared in government-owned and -aligned publications, and harassed and sued by government supporters," reports CPJ.

CPJ reveals that numerous critical journalists have been subjected to the same tactics, including local journalists Maryam al-Shrooqi, Lamees Dhaif, Naziha Saeed, Mazen Mahdi and international journalists Mohammed Fadel and Fredrick Richter.

RSF says that the authorities continue to try journalists and media before military courts, and are keeping reporting about the ongoing trials under strict control. It is calling for a response from the international community that includes the dispatch of a UN special rapporteur to Bahrain. In calling for an investigation into recent human rights violations in Bahrain, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is now backing a high-level international mission.

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