December 3, 2011

Bahrain Returns To An Afterthought


Thanks to their protesting counterparts across the Arab world, Bahrain’s opposition movement recently suffered simultaneous strikes on its public awareness campaign. Hoping to exploit the international community and appeal to his Sunni base, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) has sprayed the island with a veneer of accountability. Removing his royal circle from the chain of command, the King chastened a small group of low-level policemen to “set an example” and improve the perception of Bahrain’s human rights conditions.

He also transferred Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah, a cousin and former head of Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA), to “another senior security role.”

Capitals from Washington to Berlin to Moscow to Beijing “hailed” the King’s inquiry, urging him to follow through on legal and judicial reforms prescribed by the BICI. Praise from the UN sounded eerily similar to the monarchy’s self-praise. Although Al Wefaq and its political allies remained cautiously optimistic during the BICI’s run-up, the report’s initial “shock” quickly deflated into the realization of another whitewashing. A product of relativity rather than objectivity, the BICI’s “harsh” judgement found that “Bahrain’s government undertook all procedures in preventing human rights violations.”

Other conclusions: “torture not a state-backed policy,” and “no involvement of GCC Shield units in human rights violations.” The international community accordingly flew past the BICI’s findings. Washington in particular hopes to clear arms transactions through the BICI’s “accountability.”

Yet Bahrain’s opposition immediately found themselves in a deeper hole. For months the Shia political opposition and street protesters awaited the BICI’s delayed release, and the spotlight appeared to be theirs for a brief moment. At least they would be able to counter and potentially leverage the BICI, which did admit to a limited number of abuses, and hundreds of media personnel had gathered to cover its release. Unfortunately their day in the sun was further obscured by one of the most turbulent weeks in months.

By the time King Hamad formally received BICI commissioner Cherif Bassiouni in his Royal Occasions Hall, most international attention had been rerouted to Egypt as the country transited through another round of bloodshed. Leftover channel capacity was diverted to Syria’s uprising and, to a lesser extent, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s signing of the GCC initiative in Riyadh.

If not for the flagrant appointment of two Western “supercops,” Bahrain’s protest movement would have re-faded completely to black.

Bahrain’s monarchy is visibly optimistic that John Timoney, a former police chief of Miami, will restore order to the streets and clean up Bahrain’s international reputation. According to a government statement, “Timoney was chief of the Miami Police for seven years, where among his many accomplishments were the successful reduction of crime and the implementation of proper practices for the use of force.” He’s also expected to lead a team of US and British advisers that will include John Yates, Britain’s former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner.

A distinguished law official over his 30-year term with Scotland Yard, Yates resigned in July 2011 after his involvement in the Murdoch scandal brought him down. He’s now slated to oversee Timoney’s “reform process” of Bahrain’s security forces.

Analyzing crime rates can be a subjective and complex task. Suffice to say, hiring former American and British police czars reeks of political subversion. Basic logic suggests that King Hamad wouldn’t have hired either man if he didn’t believe they would “know their roles.” Timoney’s tactical recipe to contain protesters has earned him equal praise and condemnation; The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill authored a particularly ruthless critique of Timoney’s response to Miami’s 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. Yates enthusiastically declared, “This is a big challenge which I will undertake with a great reforming police officer like John Timoney.”

He also told The Daily Telegraph, "Bahrain's police have some big challenges ahead, not dissimilar to those the UK itself faced only a couple of decades ago, but I have been impressed that the King is doing the right thing by pressing on with big reforms.”

Timoney presumably feels the same way.

The addition of these two men will provide a degree of comfort for Bahraini, American and Saudi officials, but they should realize that Western police chiefs will further inflame the situation. Bahrain’s opposition already evaded the Saudi’s containment tactics and employing Western officials will open a new source of propaganda. So long as the monarchy refuses to undertake substantial political reform, no set of tactics can absolutely quarantine or silence Bahrain’s opposition movement.

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