On Sunday, a Bahraini court sentenced 50 protesters to prison for allegedly spying for Iran and planning “vandalism and rioting” to further support the Iranian government. The 50 convicts, who were sentenced to anywhere from 5 to 15 years of imprisonment, were involved with 14 February Coalition, an opposition group that plans protests online. Since the start of protests in February 2011, political activists and human rights defenders have continuously protested for democracy and human rights in Bahrain. Subsequently, the Bahraini monarchy has become persistent in removing such voices from social media and the streets and forcing the activists into prison.
The Bahraini court based its evidence on extracted confessions gathered while the activists were detained. According to Amnesty International, Bahraini authorities allegedly used torture methods such as electric shock to gain information. Notable detainee Naji Fateel is a human rights activist who was arrested in May, and during his trial in July, photographs were released of him, showing his marks of torture while he was incarcerated.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights’ acting president, Maryam Al-Khawaja, said, “There was no due process in the entirety of this case which is why the defendants and their lawyers decided to boycott. From the time that the defendants were abducted, tortured and then sentenced, nothing was done according to international standards of a fair trial. If these 50 people were really guilty of a crime, why was the only evidence presented confessions extracted under torture? This was a sham trial with a political verdict, they should be released immediately.”
Charges related to Iranian spying and inciting terrorism have become common ways for Bahraini courts to detain protesters since the Arab Spring began. In February 2011, thousands of protesters, both Sunni and Shia, protested for a more representational government, the release of all political prisoners, and an end to torture and human rights abuses. The Bahraini government responded by unleashing its security forces, who subsequently attacked the protesters with tear gas, birdshot, and rubber bullets. Such brutal abuse led to the protests swelling to encompass hundreds of thousands of people who often called for the complete removal of the monarchy.
Following these protests, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent in forces from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The only Arab Spring country that completely suppressed an uprising by foreign intervention, Bahrain relied on the GCC to allow the monarchy to remain in power.
Bahrain and GCC government officials continuously excused their abuse of protesters by claiming that they were quelling any Iranian influence. In 1957, Iran declared Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran. However in 1970, Bahrain gained independence from Britain and following a report from the U.N., Iran agreed to acknowledge Bahrain's independence. Since that time, the monarchy has gravitated away from Iran and has further supported the GCC. Bahrain is the only Gulf nation with a Shia majority, even while it is governed by a Sunni monarchy. Because Iran has a majority- Shia population, other Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, often accuse Iran of trying to dismantle and overthrow the Bahraini regime in favor of a Shia government. This allegation, if true, would allow Iran to spread its influence more directly in the Gulf and the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran would further rise.
However, there has been no discernible evidence that these claims against Iran are valid. U.S. embassy cables revealed that there’s “no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s, when followers of Ayatollah Shirazi were rounded up and convicted of sedition.” The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report found that the evidence produced by the Bahraini government “does not establish a discernible link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February and March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” And the U.S. Department State reported, “Iran has a long history of destabilizing activities in the region, and we recognize that. We have, however, seen no evidence to suggest this is happening in Bahrain.”
Regardless of the lack of evidence, Bahrain continues to blame Iran for its own human-rights abuses. While the United States has directly stated that there is no valid evidence Iran is meddling in Bahrain, the U.S. has still failed to hold Bahrain accountable for its security officials who torture and abuse peaceful protesters. The U.S. has its own naval base, the Fifth Fleet, located in Manama, Bahrain, thus holding a card that could be used as leverage. Yet the U.S. remains silent, as a stable, loyal Bahraini monarchy is key to the national security interests of the United States.
The Bahraini monarchy has been unsettled by the Arab Spring. Presidents, dictators, and governments have been overthrown and officials are now being held responsible for their years of abuses and crimes towards their own people. If the regime allows for a more representational government, then Bahrain's Sunni government will likely become a Shia led government. Eventually, the powerless Al Khalifa ruling family would have to answer to the security forces who would no longer be loyal to them.
It's crucial to note that the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain were not led and started just by Shias. Sunnis also protested alongside Shias, with an unified vision of ending a brutal period in Bahrain. The first activist detained during the protests was a Sunni former military officer. Mohammed al-Buflasa addressed protesters at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain's own Tahrir Square, and voiced his support for the demonstrations. He then disappeared for three weeks, after which the government acknowledged that it had him in custody.
Rather than lose power and face punishment, King Hamad and his government continue to throw political activists and human-rights defenders in prison for allegedly supporting Iran. The people of Bahrain need international pressure for these fabrications to stop and for the monarchy to be held accountable. Otherwise, the courts will continue sending those who protest for their own human rights to prison.