“The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places. People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to,” said Bernie Ecclestone in an interview with the BBC on 27th March 2012.
Ahmed Ismael Al-Samadi, (22 years old) from Salmabad, was shot in the stomach by a man in civilian clothes accompanying the security forces during a protest on 30th March 2012. He later died from his wounds.
I was in Bahrain this week to try and see my friend and former colleague Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, an internationally renowned human rights defender, who was arrested in April 2011, brutally tortured and then sentenced to life in prison after a grossly unfair trial. I attended his appeal court hearing on Monday but Abdulhadi, who is currently on the 57th day of a hunger strike, was not brought to the court. He was moved from Bahrain’s Jaw prison on 3rd April to be held in a clinic at the Ministry of Interior. He is currently at serious risk of organ failure having lost 25% of his body weight.
The Bahrain Government has invested millions in Western PR companies in order to try and present a better image of the situation inside the country. They have also detained and tortured human rights defenders, journalists, doctors and others who have spoken out inside Bahrain. They have even blocked international journalists entering the country. But the truth has stubbornly refused to be silenced.
The report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) accepted by the King in November 2011 documented killings of protesters and the systematic use of torture. According to the recent report of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) there have been “31 deaths since the BICI report: 20 due to teargas suffocation…3 reported deaths by torture.”
The judges considering the appeal of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and 13 others refused to acknowledge the BICI report as evidence on Monday. I was able to speak briefly to Abdulhadi on the phone and it is not hard to understand why he has no confidence in the judicial process.
The Bahraini Government seeks to present an image of normality and action to address previous failings but the reality on the ground remains unchanged, the same Ministers remain in power and the brutal repression continues. BCHR estimate there are currently around 600 detainees with 397 individuals imprisoned after unfair trials on sentences ranging from 6 months to life.
In their report of 28 February 2012 Human Rights Watch state:
The trial of the 20 medical personnel was riddled with many fair trial problems as well. The presiding judge reportedly would not allow defense counsel to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, insisting that counsel address the questions to him; the judge then reformulated the questions before allowing the witness to respond, and in some cases simply refused to ask the questions of the witness. The court also prohibited the defendants from testifying.
The doctors had been detained, tortured and forced to sign confessions because the authorities were outraged they had shown evidence of deaths as a result of torture the killings of protesters to journalists. Some of them are the same trauma and intensive care specialists who have provided cover for previous Bahrain Grand Prix.
On 28th March the Daily Telegraph reported a FIA spokesperson: “We welcome the spirit of reconciliation expressed by all parties and look forward to an exciting F1 race at the Bahrain International Circuit.” However, the reality is that the Formula 1 authorities do not seem to have spoken with all relevant parties in Bahrain and have instead relied on the assurances of the Bahraini Government. It is crucial that they also speak with independent civil society, community leaders and opposition political figures in Bahrain.
Having just returned from Bahrain where I witnessed the indiscriminate use of tear gas and met with the families and lawyers of those who continue to be detained and persecuted I can assure the Formula 1 authorities that the situation in the country has not returned to normal. Bahrain is definitely not a safe country for Bahrainis.
The security forces violently disperse protests on a nightly basis. There has been no resolution of the political crisis that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets as recently as the 8th of March 2012. If they proceed to blindly accept the assurances of the Bahraini authorities without speaking to representatives of the majority of the population who seek change they risk to see a lot of tear gas and maybe worse on the weekend of 20-22nd April.
And overshadowing all these considerations the life of my brave and determined friend Abdulhadi hangs in the balance. His long service as a human rights defender working peacefully for the rights of others has made him a hero to many in Bahrain and across the region. If he dies before the Bahrain Grand Prix on the 22nd April it is impossible to imagine how it could go ahead.
I visited Bahrain from the 1st-3rd April to attend a court hearing related to the imprisonment of my friend and former colleague Abdulhadi Alkhawaja who is currently on day 58 of his hunger strike and was rushed to hospital overnight.