Bahrain: “Undeclared Martial Law”

A training exercise involving Bahraini and US police. A man being "arrested" is held to the floor while others point guns down a corridor. There is a photographer in the background.
A training exercise involving Bahraini and US police. Source: flickr
Husain Abdulla

Originally published on OpenDemocracy.

Six years ago, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof described his experience of being detained during the aftermath of Bahrain’s Arab Spring protests as a glimpse “through a haze of tear gas, [at] hints of a police state.”

Kristof explained how even medical personnel like Dr. Ali al-Ekri – momentarily at liberty but facing lengthy imprisonment – were tortured and prosecuted for treating injured demonstrators. Noting that if it were Syria or Iran perpetrating such abuses “the White House would thunder with indignation,” Kristof implored the US condemn just as strongly the repression of allies like Bahrain.

Unfortunately, he could’ve written those same words yesterday.

But that’s not to say nothing’s changed. Since 2011, the “hints of a police state” have metastasized. While Dr. al-Ekri endured five years in prison, his profession – healthcare – has come under the direct control of the military. Police now run the ambulance service.

The incessant expansion of the security apparatus – or outright militarization – has infected more and more sectors of Bahraini society. In fact, it’s now been written into the country’s constitution itself.

On 3 April 2017, Bahrain’s king confirmed a constitutional amendment that had been long in the making, already approved by both houses of the kingdom’s rubberstamp parliament: military courts can now try civilians “accused of threatening the security of the state.”

Previously, the 2002 constitution barred military courts from hearing cases against civilians unless the king had declared martial law or a State of National Safety. This is what took place in 2011, when the government established military tribunals to expedite the conviction of protestors, human rights defenders, doctors, and politicians.

By the end – after a masterclass in authoritarian judicial theater replete with forced testimony and boxes of unsealed, unregistered evidence – hundreds were imprisoned on charges stemming from free expression, association, and assembly.

The kangaroo courts were so blatant in their violations of due process that the US-hailed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) urged the government to order immediate reviews by civilian judges and ultimately commute all convictions “where fundamental principles of fair trial were not respected” and “for offences involving political expression.”

A year later, at its second-cycle UN Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights, Bahrain accepted numerous recommendations from other states reiterating these proposals, including one from Ireland calling for the express prohibition of “civilians being tried in military courts in the future.”

Now, rather than fulfill any one of these reform obligations, the government has chosen to take the country down a path of unprecedented regression away from democracy – making militarized autocracy part of the fabric of the state. Activists have simply described the development as “undeclared martial law.”

Yet the amendment doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise to those familiar with recent trends in the Bahraini criminal justice and security sectors.

As noted above, the government has increasingly integrated the security apparatus into key aspects of society and even basic public services, like healthcare. In January 2017 – the same month King Hamad reportedly proposed the military court amendment – the authorities also restored domestic arrest powers for the National Security Agency (NSA), Bahrain’s secret police.

Like the amendment, this decision both expanded the role of the security forces in everyday affairs and contravened a previous reform commitment. In fact, the government’s earlier move to strip the NSA of arrest powers after its involvement in systematic torture, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial killing in 2011 was one of just two BICI recommendations that had been fully implemented.

Within weeks of the NSA’s re-empowerment, we were given a violent illustration of the deepening military state in Bahrain, as well as the intersection of these various outgrowths of the existing structure of surveillance and intimidation.

Sometime on the night of 26 January 2017, security personnel – dressed in the black masks and plainclothes that were features of NSA squads in 2011 – entered the village of Diraz and took up positions near the home of Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s most prominent Shia cleric.

In June 2016, after the government announced it had stripped Sheikh Qassim of his citizenship and begun prosecuting him on charges stemming from traditional religious practices, hundreds of demonstrators launched a peaceful sit-in around his home. Bahraini security forces have since cordoned off the village and restricted access for non-residents, even imposing internet shutdowns and other near-siege tactics.

But this night, the authorities approached the tents as demonstrators were sleeping and opened fire with live ammunition. Mustafa Hamdan, 18 years old, was shot in the back of the head. A nearby paramedic attempted to provide emergency care, but the wound was too severe. Afraid to call the ambulance service, now run by the police, Hamdan was rushed to a private hospital.

However, once there, the staff said they were under orders to withhold treatment for suspected demonstrators until authorities were present. Desperate, with Hamdan losing blood, his brother took him to Bahrain’s largest public hospital, now administered by the military. By the time he arrived – and while his brother was interrogated by security personnel – Hamdan had slipped into a coma. He died last month.

The paramedic who treated Hamdan at the scene was arrested and reportedly remains detained.

This is the face of Bahrain’s new military state: a teenager shot dead by secret police, denied medical care by a securitized hospital system, and his paramedic likely awaiting trial before a secret tribunal. Notably, this is also the same military that the US and UK have rewarded with new arms sales and increased cooperation.

In the absence of strong and concerted international censure, the militarization process will only continue. One can only imagine what sector will be next – education? Commerce? Athletics?

If this comes to pass, the next time King Hamad dons a military uniform he’ll no longer have to pretend he’s running a ‘constitutional monarchy’ – he’ll have turned Bahrain into yet another military dictatorship.

Author information

Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). 


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About the authors

Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). 

Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). 

Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). 

Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). 

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