Bahrain lifts martial law on a skeptical public

Activists say the military presence is still in full force; authorities had blocked press and imposed curfew for "national safety."

Bahrain protests Reuters 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Bahrain protests Reuters 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Bahrain is preparing to lift 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.
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.
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"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.
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.
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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 political detainees.
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," Fakhru said.
The essential demands by the opposition, including an investigation into the shooting of unarmed civilians during the demonstrations, are still unmet.
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 tomorrow, 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 the King."  
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.
Economists have warned that the country’s status as a regional financial center could be jeopardized by the continued crackdown, and the country’s Western allies have been unhappy with the reported rights abuses. The Formula One car race scheduled to take place in the kingdom in March was postponed, with a decision on rescheduling expected this Friday.
Rajab asserted that economic considerations were the sole cause for the cosmetic suspension of martial law.
"It's purely external pressure, meant to retrieve foreign investments and to allow Formula One," he said.