Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is very much the favoured interlocutor of the West and is promoted as “reform minded.” Indeed he was the person who attempted to negotiate with protesters last spring, which may have reflected a genuine interest in seeking rapproachment at the time. However, he was demonstrably marginalised when the decision was taken to send in Saudi troops and forcibly clear Pearl Square. In spite of his international media appearances at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and yesterday’s meeting with Hillary Clinton, there is no indication he is able to exert significant influence.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report was presented to King Hamad on 23 November 2011 with great fanfare. It documented systematic torture and unfair trials before military courts. Almost six months on there has been no accountability of senior figures responsible for torture, many of those convicted by the military courts remain in prison (although the medics are now free on bail they continue to be dragged through the civilian courts on transparently fabricated charges) and protesters continue to be beaten and killed. Human rights defenders continue to face intimidation, harassment detention and arrest. Last week’s arrest of Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was the icing on the cake, sending a message of contempt for the concerns of the international community. It seems like the BICI report has been as useful in restoring human rights in Bahrain as the Annan plan has been in delivering a ceasefire in Syria.
There has been huge international attention to the human rights situation in Bahrain from Governments, the UN, the media and even the worlds of sport and culture. The problem is that a lot of efforts are wasted because they are directed to the Crown Prince who can talk a good talk about reform and human rights but does not have the power to do anything about it. For example there seems to have been assurances given in the run up to the Bahrain Grand Prix that Abdulhadi Alkhawaja would be released to Denmark for medical treatment shortly after the event. Ultimately the Prime Minister blocked it, without any regard for the reputation or standing of the Crown Prince.
Prince Khalifa bin Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has been the unelected Prime Minister of Bahrain for over 40 years since independence in 1971. He has the real power, controlling the finances and the security services. He needs to be the focus of international pressure.