Bahrain reform plan prompts protests, as court upholds activists’ jail terms

Maryam al-KhawajaOn September 18, Bahrain media reported that Crown Prince Salman, perceived as a conciliator, had sent a letter to his father, King Hamad, outlining areas of “common ground” in talks on political reforms, writes Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

Five core elements were listed: redistricting to ensure greater representation; legislative changes to allow parliament to question ministers, including the prime minister; parliamentary approval of the cabinet; improvement in judicial standards and judiciary independence; and security-sector changes, including new codes of conduct for the security forces. In the absence of actual reforms, the crown prince’s efforts to clarify the issues could simply exacerbate the country’s divisions, Henderson suggests:

On September 19, Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the main al-Wefaq opposition faction, told a large group of demonstrators that the proposals did not represent “the will of the people” and the elections would be “illegitimate.” … The opposition is no doubt frustrated at being offered the prospect of political reform but only after elections in which their hope of victory is nil. A large-scale boycott would be embarrassing for the government, yet delaying the vote until reforms are enacted is probably not a realistic option. Under the constitution, polls have to be held before December 15 unless the king extends the terms of current members of parliament by two years. Perhaps the ominous presence of the “Islamic State”/ISIS in Syria and Iraq — which is a danger to Bahrain’s Shiites and ruling family alike — will avert a major crisis at home.

A Bahraini appeals court Sunday confirmed five-year jail terms imposed on nine Shiites, among them a photojournalist and an online activist, for calling for the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy, AFP reports:

Dozens of Bahraini Shiites have been handed lengthy prison terms after being convicted of involvement in protests that have shaken the kingdom since February 2011. The court upheld an April ruling sentencing photographer Hussain Hubail and activist Jassim al-Nuaimi, along with seven other Shiites, to five years in prison, after convicting them of promoting the overthrow of the regime “through illegal means via media and social networks”.

bahrainThe Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has been informed by the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) about the provisional release pending trial of Ms. Maryam Al-Khawaja (above left),GCHR Co-Director and a member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR):  

According to the information received, on September 18, 2014, the public prosecution ordered the release of Ms. Maryam Al-Khawaja pending her trial on 1 October 2014, for allegedly assaulting a police officer at the airport. A travel ban has been imposed on her and a guarantee of her place of residence was required as a condition of her release. She is due to appear on October 1 2014 before the High Criminal Court. If convicted, she can face up to two years of imprisonment.

Today, the Shia political opposition looks to London and Washington for help, but if there is no effective help, and if  they remain effectively disenfranchised, the day will come when some among them begin to look instead to Tehran, warns Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations:

That will be a disaster for Bahrain and for the United States– a kind of “reverse Iraq,” for in Iraq it was the Shia-led government of prime minister Maliki that refused compromise and alienated the Sunni population.

The United States should not today be pressuring the Shia community, led by the al-Wefaq organization, to participate in the elections come what may. The ground rules and the terms of compromise count. Al-Wefaq participated in parliament from 2006 to 2010 under pressure to play the political game, produce change, and reap the benefits. But there were no benefits; the experiment failed. Bahrain is today less free than it was a decade ago.

Instead, the United States should be pressing both sides for a genuine and meaningful compromise, and should be urging the King to act now to save his country from strife that surely lies ahead unless he uses his influence and his power to guide change, argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Bahrain’s ‘movement behind bars’

Maryam al-KhawajaA SPELL in prison has become the rule rather than the exception for the Khawajas, The Economist notes:

On August 29th Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent activist, became the third member of the family to be detained by Bahrain’s government in the past twelve months for campaigning for rights. Ms Khawaja (pictured), a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen and co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), which has offices in Beirut and Copenhagen, was picked up at Manama airport as she arrived to try to visit her father, veteran prisoner-of-conscience Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He has been in prison since 2011 and is ill from his ongoing hunger strike.

Bahrain’s authorities are due to report to the Human Rights Council, a UN body in Geneva, on the progress they have made on recommendations for reform made in wake of 2011, when over 40 protesters were killed. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby, says the tiny Gulf nation has increased its use of arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of dissidents, including juveniles, over the past year…..British and European companies have been criticised for doing PR and surveillance for Bahrain’s rulers.

At 26, Maryam is the sort of woman that dictators have nightmares about, Sara Yasin writes for the Guardian:

She is one of the most prominent voices condemning Bahrain’s ongoing human rights violations, which have only continued in the years following a brutal crackdown on popular protests in February 2011.

Maryam’s public face is straightforward, clear and calm, cutting through the regime’s attempts to whitewash its human rights records. The Maryam I know is adept at debating human rights and the ins and outs of Arabic pop music in the same conversation. It’s the qualities that I’ve seen through our friendship that have made me respect her the most: she’s principled, compassionate, tough and stubborn as hell.

Bahrain’s activists have lashed out at Britain in particular (unlike Denmark which is said to be working to release Ms Khawaja), The Economist adds:

Ms Khawaja accused the British government of cooperating with Bahrain when she was blocked from boarding a British Airways flight from Copenhagen to Bahrain in 2013. Mr Rajab likewise claims to have been treated “like a criminal” by British authorities when he was detained on arrival from Bahrain at Heathrow in May. Britain’s foreign service says on its Facebook page that it is monitoring the situation and trying to foster “best practice”.  

RTWT

On-line dissidents innovate as repressive regimes deploy ‘digital weapons’

While China’s Internet branch is exploding beyond the domestic market, Beijing is tightening the rules for online communication, Deutsche Welle reports:

In early August, the State Internet Information Office issued new regulations for chat services. It stipulated that only media organizations registered in China are allowed to disseminate instant messages. Additionally, private users are required to register their accounts using their real names and will be subject to a verification process. 

According to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, is selling lucrative spyware tools to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse:

CloudShield’s central role in Gamma’s controversial work — fraught with legal risk under U.S. export restrictions — was first uncovered by Morgan Marquis-Boire, author of a new report released Friday by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He shared advance drafts with The Post, which conducted its own month-long investigation.  

The prototype that CloudShield built was never brought to market, and the company parted ways with Gamma in 2010. But Marquis-Boire said CloudShield’s work helped pioneer a new generation of “network injection appliances” sold by Gamma and its Italian rival, Hacking Team. Those devices harness malicious software to specialized equipment attached directly to the central switching points of a foreign government’s national Internet grid.

The result: Merely by playing a YouTube video or visiting a Microsoft Live service page, for instance, an unknown number of computers around the world have been implanted with Trojan horses by government security services that siphon their communications and files. Google, which owns YouTube, and Microsoft are racing to close the vulnerability.

Citizen Lab’s report, based on leaked technical documents, is the first to document that commercial spyware companies are making active use of this technology. Network injection allows products built by Gamma and Hacking Team to insert themselves into an Internet data flow and change it undetectably in transit. ….

Security researchers have documented clandestine sales of Gamma and Hacking Team products to “some of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights,” said Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, a list that includes Turkmenistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Ethiopia.

But dissidents and activists are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful in using the internet to promote democracy and human rights, and circumventing censorship and to groups like Movements.Org, as demonstrated by the following sample cases:

  • A Syrian activist and university student seeking asylum in the United States posted an urgent request for help and representation, as his life would be in grave jeopardy should he return to his native country. A professor at The John Marshall Law School, based in Chicago, took on the case, and is helping the activist attain asylum.
  • A famed former Iranian political prisoner who spent tens of years in jail asked for help saving a radio station he runs which broadcasts into Iran.  A senior American official saw the post and reached out to the dissident.
  • A North Korean defector asked for helping getting information in and out of their dictatorial regime.  Radio, satellite and computer experts connected with the defector to talk about new technologies to help make this possible.
  • A Cuban blogger hoping to circumvent censorship in her home country and Ecuador posted a request for technological help getting around firewalls.  She was contacted by several computer programmers and security experts who offered to walk her through the process of protecting her information.
  • Activists requested a  song be written to honor the late Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was was arrested and tortured after exposing corruption of the Putin regime.  Magnitsky died in prison. A songwriter in NYC saw the request on Movements.org, and wrote a catchy song to commemorate his life (see below).  The song was featured on Al Jazeera and in The Wall Street Journal.
  • A request written on behalf of a famed Syrian dissident who spent a decade in prison under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asked to publish an op-ed in a major American publication about how to bring peace to Syria.  A short time later, the article was published in The Daily Beast.
  • A Saudi expert on combatting state-sponsored incitement in textbooks posted a request to speak with members of the German government due to their strict anti-hate-speech laws.  A former German foundation executive saw the post and is now connecting the Saudi activist with senior members of the German government.
  • A secular Syrian group posted a request for PR aid to explain to Americans that the opposition is not comprised solely of radical elements.  The founder of a strategic communication firm based in Los Angeles responded and offered help.
  • An editor from a major American paper posted a request for human rights stories that often are not told. He was contacted by a liberal activist from Iraq whose family and friends were killed by al-Qaeda.

Advancing Human Rights has launched Movements.org, an online platform where dissidents in closed societies can connect to the legal, media, public relations, and technological expertise of open societies. A dissident seeking asylum in a closed society can connect with an asylum lawyer abroad who can provide pro bono legal assistance. A journalist dedicated to unearthing the secrets of dictators can connect with local dissidents to piece together the story. By leveraging democratic tools to assist activists achieve freedom, activists can challenge authorities with a new, clear voice.

Bahrain rights activist released from prison

nabeel-rajab1Prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab has been freed after serving two years in prison for his involvement in illegal protests, the BBC reports:

Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), was convicted in 2012 of taking part in illegal gatherings and disturbing public order.

An appeals court later reduced his original three-year term by a year. He was one of several leading activists arrested by the authorities after pro-democracy protests erupted in 2011.

The activist is a key icon for the protest movement against the Gulf Arab monarchy’s Sunni rulers. Since 2011, the country’s majority Shiites have been protesting, demanding greater rights and political freedoms, AP reports:

Rajab told The Associated Press that he is happy to be out after more than 600 days in prison, and called for the release of all political prisoners. He said stability can only be achieved “through respect for human rights.”

“After two years in prison, I see Bahrain’s political environment as more difficult and still without a roadmap for real reforms,” he said.

In mid-2012, Rajab was also sentenced to three months for his comments on Twitter about Bahrain’s prime minister. His conviction was overturned on appeal during his prison sentence for taking part in protests.

Also on Saturday, thousands of people marched in a funeral for 15-year old Sayed Mohsen, who died during protests earlier this week in Sitra, south of the capital, Manama. The procession turned violent when mourners clashed with security forces nearby. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Mohsen’s family and the country’s main opposition group Al Wifaq said the teenager died after being shot in the chest at close range with bird shot — a weapon commonly used by Bahraini police.

“While the specific circumstances in which Sayed Mohsen was shot remain unclear, the use of force in policing public assemblies … must conform to the requirements of necessity and proportionality; and firearms may only be used as a last resort,” Amnesty International said in a statement.