December 15, 2011
by Sara Yasin
A few weeks ago, I traveled as a part of a delegation to Bahrain to investigate the state of free expression and attend the presentation of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was commissioned to investigate what occurred in February and March. During my time in Bahrain, I met Zainab Al-Khawaja (@angryarabiya).
In my time with her, I grew to respect and admire her world view and strength. We had many conversations about Bahrain, her experiences as an activist, and I learned a great deal about her perspective. While perhaps at times uncertain about the future of Bahrain, Al-Khawaja was always clear on one thing: she believes in peaceful protests, and she was not alone in this.
As with her past interactions with security forces, Al-Khawaja used peaceful tactics today to express her views, just like she always has. To be arrested for demonstrating peacefully does not signal turning over a new leaf, as the Bahraini government says that it aims to do.
Many are quick to cite the examples of oil spills, molotov cocktails or road blocks as reasons to discredit protesters or members of the opposition. While I was in Bahrain, I attended a demonstration prior to security forces arriving, and it was peaceful. However, at a separate demonstration in Sitra, I did see molotov cocktails being thrown at security forces, much like New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof did this past week. While such tactics are worrisome, and human rights organisations in Bahrain have been quick to condemn their usage, I believe that unfortunately, they are merely a reaction to the situation at hand. Focusing on such tactics seems to only serve as a distraction from a much greater problem.
Many Bahraini officials, including King Hamad, have been vocal about about moving forward, reconciliation, and accepting the results of the report, which confirmed human rights abuses during February and March. Following the reading of the report, King Hamad said, “The government welcomes the findings of the Independent Commission, and acknowledges its criticisms,” an official Bahraini statement said. “We took the initiative in asking for this thorough and detailed inquiry to seek the truth and we accept it.”
Bahrain’s government has publicised steps to create change, including the hiring of two new overseas police officers (including former Miami police chief John Timoney, well-known for his ability to crush protests) and forming a committee to explore the implementation of the commission’s findings. Even so, such goals are more long-term, and do not address the current situation. If the government expects to move forward, and gain trust from those who do not believe that the commission was nothing more than a exercise to repair the international reputation of Bahrain, then it is important to allow protesters to demonstrate, and to change the crackdown on protesters on the ground.