Bahrain lifted 11 weeks of martial law on Wednesday in a bid to close a brief but controversial chapter in the country’s history. But human rights activists and politicians say they don’t expect life for the country’s one million citizens to change much on the ground.
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Under what the authorities called a state of "national safety," the government has been banning newspapers, arresting hundreds to face military justice and monitoring correspondence and telephone conversations for the past two months to quell unrest. The draconian rules, along with troops sent by Saudi Arabia, earned the wrath of human rights groups and the island kingdom’s Shiite majority.
"Bahrain is beginning a new stage of recovery from the crisis it experienced and entering an atmosphere of national unity," the pro-government Al-Ayyam
daily ceremonially declared on Tuesday.
The authorities are especially keen to get back the Formula One race. The prestigious March event in the motor-racing calendar was cancelled because of unrest that erupted in February when pro-democracy protesters, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets.
A meeting of the sport's governing body on Friday could reinstate it for later this year, but U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said a heavy crackdown on opposition activists during 11 weeks of martial law should count in the decision.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said there was no cause for celebration.
“There is no indication that the end of martial law is serious," Rajab told The Media Line.
"As long as foreign troops are still in the country and military courts
still try civilians -- including 19- and 20-year-old students -- who
only expressed their democratic opinions, the cancellation of emergency
law means nothing."
Bahrain is a tiny country with little oil. But it sits offshore some of
the world’s biggest reserves in Saudi Arabia and counts Iran as another
neighbor. As a result of its strategic location and pro-Western
government, the US Navy’s Fifth fleet is based on the island.
King Hamad Khalifa imposed martial law on March 15, one day after he
called in a Saudi-led Gulf force to crush weeks of protests. At least 30
Bahrainis were killed and thousands injured in clashes with the army.
While protesters were calling for democratic reforms, the opposition was
mostly Shiites who the Sunni regime accused of being backed by Iran
with the aim of seizing power.
Rajab said thousands of Bahrainis lost their jobs or were suspended from
university as a result of their political activity. He added that even
with martial law lifted, there was no indication of political arrests
coming to an end.
"Two out of every 1000 Bahrainis were politically detained, the highest
rate in the world," Rajab said, who insisted that no dialogue could
begin between government and opposition without the mass release of
One politician still in custody is Ibrahim Sharif Al-Sayid, secretary
general of the National Democratic Action Society (NDAS), a liberal
opposition group. Al-Sayid was arrested in March on charges of
"contacting foreign elements and inciting to topple the regime and use
violence," a euphemism for cooperating with Iran. NDAS dismissed the
allegations as lies, saying the party was committed to Bahrain's
"Arabness, independence and sovereignty."
"No one will allow the wheel to be turned back," Mounira Fakhru, a
member of NDAS told The Media Line
. She said Al-Sayid's verdict is
expected to be announced the same day martial law is lifted.
Although military checkpoints are still in place throughout the country,
the military atmosphere has relaxed recently, Fakhru said. Bahraini
opposition leaders are awaiting a dramatic speech by the king before
deciding on the next move.
"There’s a power struggle within the regime. I hope the moderate trend
will prevail over the extremist one and life will return to normal,"
The essential demands by the opposition, including an investigation into
the shooting of unarmed civilians during the demonstrations, are still
Rajab, the human rights activist, is more pessimistic, commenting that
Bahrain's summoning of foreign armies spoke more than words about the
regime's unwillingness to engage the opposition. Mass protests are set
to resume Thursday, he warned.
Fakhru spoke of the need to deeply reform Bahrain's political system,
not only return to the status quo that existed before the demonstrations
began. She said a new constitution needed to be drafted by a publicly
elected committee, empowering parliament to legislate and taking
authorities away from the king.
"Currently, the Shura Council isn’t elected but appointed. The
constitution of 2002 took away the power from the people and gave it to
Diplomatic pressure and economic considerations both played a role in
the king's decision to end the state of emergency, two weeks ahead of
schedule. US President Barack Obama broke a long silence on Bahrain's
human rights abuses in a speech before the US State Department May 19.
"The Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law …
nevertheless we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass
arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of
Bahrain's citizens. Such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform
go away," Obama said.