7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018

Putting Bahrain together again

Previously known as one of the best destinations for expats and the financial hub of the Middle East, 'Business Friendly' Bahrain is now rocked with sectarian-fuelled tension and violence and has become a place to avoid, with main highways routinely blocked with oil slicks and makeshift barricades.

I would like to examine whether the King and, perhaps more importantly, his advisers can repair the damage.

Very few would doubt His Majesty King Hamad's sincerity and genuineness. All who meet him are struck by his openness, kindness and true passion to do the right thing for his people. The question is: does he have the right people around him, right advisers to put Bahrain together again?

The King's decision to establish the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) is a clear example of his openness and sincerity. A commission with no limitations, charged with looking at every aspect of the unrest. How many other kings, queens, presidents or governments would be prepared to do this? Not many, if any.

The BICI consists of very great and credible men, each an expert in matters of law and human rights. Amnesty International described them as "an impressive line-up of independent international experts."

Surely, they are the best people to take advice from and get Bahrain back together. Certainly, the BICI recommendations have, on their face, been very noble and decent - commutation of all death sentences, release of medical personnel charged with unrest-related offences, compliance with the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. All well-meaning, but, and it's a big but, will this put Bahrain together again?

My fear is that it won't. It seems Bahrain's society - the "pro-government" and "opposition" are unhappy. The "pro-government" faction feels that the BICI's suggestions undermine Bahrain's legal system and ignore the existing political framework, while the "opposition" consider the commission a whitewash exercise.

There can be no denying that at the King's behest Bahrain has adopted many of BICI's recommendations. Some death sentences have been commuted, while others remain subject to appeal, medical personnel allegedly involved in the unrest have been released pending a complete retrial and many public sector employees and students reinstated in accordance with the international covenant. But is this working?

To be fair to the commission, it isn't their role to fix Bahrain and indeed we shouldn't expect this of them. However, it would be remiss of us and those advising the King to treat advice from the commission as a cure for all ills and such recommendations should not be implemented until the likely consequences have been considered. The commission's role is to engage in fact-finding and try and deliver a genuine narrative of what happened during February and March. It is not a substitute for Bahrain's political framework and cannot (and should not) override Bahrain's legal system.

It seems to me that those advising the King have been too quick to adopt the commission's suggestions and dare I suggest have not fully thought through the consequences. Indeed, have they made matters worse? What was the immediate consequence of medical personnel being released? Rioting increased and roads were blocked with oil slicks and chains. As a further consequence, the pro-government faction felt dismayed and became concerned that Bahrain's legal system had been sacrificed for international brownie points. Surely, the King's advisers considered and fully evaluated the likely reaction to adopting the commission's suggestions? I wonder.

Looking at the issue of law and order, we saw in the UK how strict criminal sentences were quickly passed down to those involved in serious public disorder. Special courts headed by district judges were employed, working through the night to quickly dispense justice. Two rioters who used Facebook to incite violence were each sentenced to four years in jail.

Their appeals were dismissed on the basis that their case would be a deterrent for future rioting and violence. The rioting ceased within three days. What about Bahrain? How does it deal with serious public disorder and the use of social media to incite violence and rioting? Well, the honest answer has to be "not sure".

The National Safety Courts established during the National Safety Period were looking at such crimes and applying Bahrain law, however, their decisions have been undermined with the blanket decision of a retrial for the "doctor cases". Obviously, we don't want innocent people subjected to criminal procedures, but what is the legal basis to require a retrial for the "doctor cases"? Were the previous trials unsound? Or is this a knee-jerk response to adopt a recommendation of the commission in the hope that it will make everyone happy?

The sad conclusion is that this decision has raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the National Safety Courts and creates a doubt as to the application of due legal process. To the "opposition", this move is evidence of the injustice of the National Safety Courts, whereas to the "pro-government" faction, it shows an inability to uphold law and order and a rejection of the legal system. Did the King's advisers consider these consequences?

The future for Bahrain shouldn't be in the hands of the King's advisers alone. Voices from all segments of Bahrain's society need to be involved in the healing process and in this regard it would seem more beneficial to implement recommendations of National Dialogue - recommendations which emanated from a wide representation of Bahrain's society, not just advisers.

I am confident that Bahrain will get back together again, but it needs more than the King's advisers to do this.

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