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Hours after an international appeal to halt the executions of two Bahraini men convicted on terror charges, Ali Mohamed Hakeem al-Arab (25) and Ahmed Isa al-Malali (24) were killed by firing squad on 27 July 2019.
The cases attracted worldwide attention and condemnation for the alleged torture of the two men and a disregard for due process while being carried out amid a wider crackdown on dissidents, in particular Shia dissidents, in the Gulf state. Efforts by the predominantly Sunni government to suppress opposition have accelerated since the 2011 uprisings, and critics say powerful Western allies are fostering conditions that allow the alleged arbitrary executions to take place.
Al-Arab and al-Malali were arrested on 9 February 2017 for allegedly taking part in a jail break and killing a police officer. Human rights groups say the two men were beaten and tortured with electric shocks, al-Arab’s toenails were pulled out and both men were forced to sign confessions that were used as evidence in court. They were convicted in absentia in a mass trial alongside 58 others on charges that included ‘forming and joining a terrorist group’, ‘training on the use of weapons and explosives’ and ‘murder and attempted murder of police officers’.
Their convictions were upheld by an appellate court, as were their death sentences, which the king declined to commute, a power he has under Bahraini law. The executions were the first to take place in the country since 15 January 2017, when the execution of three men were reportedly the first to have taken place since 2010.
Under international law, the right to a fair trial constitutes the right not to be compelled to testify against oneself or to confess guilt, which Bahrain has committed to as a signatory of the governing conventions.
Bahrain defended its actions in a statement issued through its embassy in London, stressing that the kingdom rarely implements the death penalty, which it reserves for the most ‘serious cases’, and that it did so ‘in accordance with international law and human rights standards’. However, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights said the outcome reinforces fears that capital punishment will become standard practice amid routine torture and a flawed justice system.
Bahrain, despite a number of attempts to present itself as a progressive state, such as hosting global conferences to promote cooperation and security, has come under attack for its actions against protesters and government opponents. The country’s rulers are largely Sunni whereas the majority of the population is Shia. In 2011, popular protests erupted as citizens sought ‘‘more meaningful political participation’, according to Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant for Human Rights Watch.
In March that year, the protests were suppressed, a state of emergency was declared and the king brought in the Peninsula Shield Force, the military wing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Recent allegations have also surfaced that Bahrain used al-Qaeda militants to target Shias during the unrest. Reprisals against critics gained pace, and many protestors were labelled terrorists.
Three months later, the government established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). It comprised a panel of international human rights experts to assess the government’s actions during the protests and concluded with 26 recommendations. While the government maintains it has fully implemented these recommendations, civil society groups say only two have actually been carried out.
The sectarian rift deepened in 2016 after Saudi Arabia, a key ally of Bahrain, executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, pushing Bahrain to cut ties with Iran. Iran has long been perceived as a mutual threat among Gulf nations and is often accused of interfering in their internal affairs.
The crackdown against so-called dissidents, which include human rights defenders, journalists, civil society members and politicians, has accelerated in 2019, according to numbers collected by human rights groups. Prominent members of the opposition have had their citizenship revoked, and the government has said that even publishing critical tweets or following government critics on social media will constitute an act to ‘harm civil peace and the social fabric’. Since 2012, over 900 people have had their nationality revoked, although the king reinstated the nationality of 551 of these in April 2019.
London-based Jawad Fairooz, chairman of human rights organization SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, pointed out that the BICI recommendations include the retrial of detainees. Some of those tried in military courts – a move condemned by human rights groups – were in fact retried in the civil courts and their death sentences were converted to life sentences, and some life sentences were pardoned. This, he said, shows the flaws in the system.
“The parliament is entirely in the hands of the ruling family,” Fairooz told Fanack. “The government and [the ruling family] are manipulating legislation in a way that strengthens the power of the ruling family.” He added that this moves the government further away from any form of civil and political rights, human rights values and principles, which are enshrined in both the Bahrain constitution and international conventions.
Anti-terrorism law is used to target political activists and legitimize the revocation of their nationality, said Fairooz, adding that independent human rights bodies and special rapporteurs are prevented from conducting fact-finding investigations in the country.
The international community has been urged to put pressure on Bahrain to respect freedom of expression. However, many believe that the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) have not done enough to criticize the Bahraini government, which remains a key ally, and continue to approve arms sales to the country. At the same time, the Bahraini embassy in Washington noted the America’s use of capital punishment, and analysts saw the resumption of federal executions by the US as a de facto green light for Bahrain.
“Never, ever will the Bahraini government dare to go and implement such horrific types of human rights violations without being sure that it will not be strongly condemned by these two administrations or governments,” said Fairooz.
The UK previously provided £2.1 million ($2.5 million) to Bahrain to the security sector. Fairooz said that this clearly did not work and highlights the 26 recommendations in the BICI report. “If the government implements these 26 recommendations and assures their direct dissemination, I think we could have different conditions from what we are facing now.”
The recent executions can, therefore, be seen as a culmination of ongoing human rights abuses to prevent criticism of the regime amid a lack of international political will to see reforms implemented.