Among the nations seized with anti-government uprisings as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East last spring and summer, Bahrain stands alone in successfully quashing mass protests in its capital. The kingdom’s security forces killed more than 30 people, raided hospitals, mosques and universities, attacked medical personnel and opposition leaders, and subjected political prisoners to electric shocks, beatings with rubber hoses, sleep deprivation and threats of rape, among other tactics, according to a long-awaited independent report just released by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).
Speaking directly to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as he presented BICI’s report to the government, UN war crimes expert Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, who led the commission, went on to debunk the ruling family’s repeated claims of a hidden Iranian hand in the protests. "The evidence presented to the committee regarding the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran on internal events in Bahrain did not reveal a clear link,” he said.
None of this was news to Bahraini opposition leader Matar Ebrahim Matar. One of 18 members of the al-Wefaq political party who resigned from parliament last February to protest the Sunni regime’s crackdown on predominantly Shiite protesters, the 35-year-old father of two young children, who worked openly out of his party’s headquarters, was arrested late at night in May by masked members of the government’s security forces – pulled from his car in front of his wife after being lured to a meeting under false pretenses. Matar would spend 98 days in prison without a trial, 45 of them in solitary confinement.
After Matar’s arrest, Warscapes editor Michael Bronner, who had met Matar in Manama while reporting on the protests in February, condemned Matar's arrest in a piece in the Washington Post. Matar and Bronner have been frequently in touch since his release, and engaged in the following “gmail-chat” over two quick sessions earlier this week (Bronner in New York, Matar in Manama):
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MB: Hi there…
Matar: I was having a connection issue.
MB: No problem. First of all, how are you doing since your release?
Matar: I am back at work. I'm communicating with media, international NGOS and diplomats about what’s going on in Bahrain.
MB: I was going to say, you seem as outspoken as ever. Do you feel more or less secure speaking publicly since your release?
Matar: The threats are the same. Before I was arrested, Bahrain TV broadcasted the confession of one of the political prisoners – a member of the opposition – in which he said I gave him an order to run over riot police with his car during one of the protest marches. The detainee’s name was Ali Saqer. Ali Saqer [subsequently] died in custody with clear signs of torture. After his death, it was difficult for the regime to convince anyone that the charges he made against me were real, so the regime changed the charges to “spreading false information to the media.” Now, just last night, the Ministry of the Interior accused me again of spreading false information to the media.
MB: Last night?
Matar: Yes. So I'm facing the same threat.
MB: Let's go back a bit. When we met in February, Pearl Square [the rallying point for protests against the government] was filled with several thousand protesters. It was a powerful scene. People outside Bahrain looked at the pictures and thought, "Okay, I get it. This is the same thing as Tunisia and Egypt..." What has the relationship been between what’s happening in Bahrain and what’s more broadly known as the "Arab Spring?"
Matar: The Arab Spring was just a trigger. The ground was already prepared for such and uprising.
MB: What do you mean?
Matar: It was just a spark. The demand for political reform had actually been growing since the 1920s. The last few years, political freedom and democracy in Bahrain was on the decline, and that registered in many international surveys, including in Freedom House and the Economist. Transparency was also declining, with discrimination increasing in proportion to the amount of power consolidated by the ruling family. The opposition was organizing, and demonstrations were being planned before the Arab Spring began. For example, Bahrain’s Formula One race is a time when the world’s attention is focused here, and there was planning around that.
MB: So you're saying there would have been protests with or without the Arab Spring?
Matar: Yes. Of course, the Arab Spring gave us the motivation to continue. We adopted some of the same tools and slogans.
MB: Much of the outside world was perplexed by the protests. Bahrain was known as being relatively progressive: Strong education system; a gleaming banking center; elections.
Matar: I think general discrimination, corruption, and housing and labor discrimination are the main issues. Discrimination is hurting all Bahrainis, even if it’s concentrated against the Shia. Simply, there is no fair competition or equal opportunity between Shia and Sunnis when it comes to hiring in the public sector; employment in the military and security forces; promotions; training and education; and other types of governmental services.
MB: I think most people don’t realize that Bahrain’s military and security forces are closed to Shia, and that because there aren’t enough Bahraini Sunnis to fill the ranks, that the regime imports troops and police from poor Sunni countries like Yemen and Pakistan. When the protests began, did you ever imagine the possibility of such violence on the part of the security forces?
Matar: It was one of the probabilities. I warned the demonstrators in the Pearl Square that we cannot rely on the maturity of the regime – that it’s possible that they will choose a stupid response – and they did.
MB: Why do you think the regime responded so violently?
Matar: Al-Wefaq, along with five other opposition parties, issued the Manama Document – a joint statement in which we make a clear demand for secular democracy by having an elected government, a legislative council with full authority, a fair and independent judiciary and equality between Bahrainis.
MB: One Bahraini, one vote?
MB: I’d like to quote a bit of the document:
“The reality in Bahrain is no different from any non-democratic state – a copy of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Yemen’s Saleh…In the presence of an unelected government under the rule of a single person for 40 years, some 80 percent of public land has ended up being controlled by senior members of the royal family and other influential figures…The country suffers from an acutely unequal distribution of wealth and widespread poverty, notwithstanding Bahrain’s status as an oil-exporting nation, exporting some 200,000 barrels per day…In short, Bahrain is undergoing a contest between two camps – one demanding democracy, comprising people of all walks of life and diverse ideologies, against another struggling to maintain the status quo despite the clear need for addressing political, economic and social challenges...”
MB: So the idea of "reforms" really means an overall change in government - an end to the monarchy. The regime giving up power.
MB: The outside world sees this conflict as the ruling Sunni minority (and ruling family) against a majority Shi'a population. My sense from interviews I had with members of the ruling family was that they see it very clearly along sectarian lines.
Matar: I can understand the fear of many Sunnis, but I cannot make excuses for those who don't want to give up illegitimate benefits. The regime is using Sunnis as a shield – to make excuses for the excessive force used [in smashing the protests].
MB: Understood --
Matar: I want to elaborate more on this. With any authoritarian leader, none is ready to give up part of his power easily – and usually tries to find excuses to stay in power. Economic sanctions never succeed in getting a ruler to relinquish power. It was true with Saddam, Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak – and equally true with [Syria’s] Assad and [Yemen’s] Ali Abdullah Saleh. All of them have excuses, and none of them have valid one.
MB: Your political party – al Wefaq – is an opposition party, but the party operates openly. When I came to visit the office, it was quite visible, Bahraini flags flying everywhere. The office buzzing with energy. It gave the impression of an open political process. When did you first realize you were personally in real danger prior to your arrest?
Matar: The threshold event was the confession of Ali Saqer, but threats against my family were accumulating before this event.
MB: Your family was threatened before your arrest? What happened?
Matar: My brother, Dr. Hameed Matar, was fired from his job at Bahrain University. My [other] brother, Dr. Khalil Matar, was arrested and held for two days, and then suspended from work. My wife [an ophthalmic surgeon] was facing many difficulties from the regime, along with other colleagues at Salmaniya Hospital.
MB: Because of your political activity?
MB: The violence had begun before your arrest. Protestors had been killed. Some of those arrested had been sentenced to death. What were your thoughts about the risks you were taking?
Matar: Those events made me worry about my safety and the safety of my family. I also had a sense before my arrest that the regime was [already] designing many charges against me. The biggest one was giving orders to kill riot police. If they succeeded in bringing this charge, my sentence would have been death.
MB: What happened the night you were arrested? Why did you go to that meeting?
Matar: When they kidnapped me, I think they were trying to fabricate a relationship between a lady and myself. I got a call from a lady I didn’t know saying that she had an urgent letter she needed to give me, but my wife didn’t believe her story and insisted on joining me. Again, I felt I was lucky. My wife witnessed what happened.
MB: You were tortured...
Matar: I was kept in jail for 3 months, 45 days of them in solitary confinement under continuous threats and psychological pressure. I was beaten severely once for no reason, not to mention the continuous humiliation.
MB: Did you learn anything about the regime – its fears, its intentions – from the questions they were asking?
Matar: I felt the regime wanted me as hostage to put pressure on my party to accept concession in the negotiations with the government, but it didn't work. They asked many questions about my relationships with Western media, NGOS and diplomats. They asked me in detail about all my meetings with Americans
MB: Why do you think they decided to release you?
Matar: Thanks to Bassiouni [the international war crimes expert who led the investigation of abuses]. I think he pushed for my release.
MB: Did the regime warn you not to engage in politics before releasing you?
MB: What did they say?
Matar: A very senior commander said to me, “Are you stupid? You will gain nothing from protesting. The al-Khalifa family has regional and international backing.”
MB: Speaking of international backing, the United States has been very quiet, seemingly hesitant about offering support for the protestors. But before I ask you about that, did the senior commander say anything else?
Matar: “You are ramming a mountain.” On the other hand, another senior commander told me, “I believe mistakes came from both side.” I was surprised by his statement, and I have a lot of respect for this commander. Yet another one recently told me, “We dont have problem with you. We just apply the law.” Maybe the law needs to be improved. And anyway, I told him, I’m not guilty even under the current law.
MB: They released you without having tried you at all, correct?
Matar: Yes. My current charges [still pending] are “spreading false information to media” and “participating in an illegal demonstration.”
MB: You could still go to trial?
Matar: If this is the case, they are going to punish the more than 80,000 people who participated in the Wefaq demonstrations.
MB: Bahrain has a king, and king's rule with absolute power. There's no middle ground for a ruling family like al-Khalifa, in reality, is there? How does a king compromise?
Matar: Yes, there are no alternatives.
MB: Do you imagine the opposition can really force the monarchy to give up power?
Matar: There is no prospect of overthrowing the regime, but the people have a right to raise this as a slogan.
MB: My underlying question, then, is how does this get resolved?
Matar: I think there is a margin for political reform, but the situation in the region is complicated because of the US support for the regime, and because of the Saudi-Iranian conflict [in which the running power struggle between the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the Shia theocracy in Iran is waged in proxy conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East – in this case, with the Saudis and the Bahraini ruling family accusing the Bahraini opposition of being under the influence of Iran.]
MB: That was my next question.
Matar: There is no future for the country without real political reform. The Bahraini people decided to continue demanding our rights regardless whether anybody [like the United States] will stand with us or not. We [actually] want to send positive message to Saudis.
MB: What's the message?
Matar: That Shia in Bahrain have their own interests. The future for Shia in Bahrain is to have strong relations with the Saudis. Our economy is deeply aligned with the Saudis’. Democracy in Bahrain will not threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia.
MB: The Saudis sent tanks and soldiers to crush the opposition demonstrations. A very different message.
Matar: Yes, but the current violations [in which the security forces have been implicated] are different than the way that the Saudis have conducted themselves here. The roots of Bahrain’s problems are internal. After we solve these, then we can speak about the Saudi intervention.
MB: When I was in Bahrain, I had a very long, off-the-record interview with a brother of the king - a man very active in the government and security apparatus. He referred to Bahraini Shia en masse as being agents of Iran bent on toppling the monarchy. This is what he told me:
“They’ve always spray-painted ‘Death to Khalifa’ in their villages,” he said. “We don’t care about that — our people go around and spray over before any Sunni can see. But now they’re spraying ‘Death to Khalifa’ right in the Pearl Roundabout, in front of the news cameras! The crack between us has never been wider.”
MB: Is there any Iranian influence in the democracy movement?
Matar: Of course Iran wants to take advantage of this conflict. They’re looking out for their interests, and the Saudis and Americans are doing the same. The right approach for the US and Saudi Arabia should be to compete with Iran instead of finding excuses for the absence of reforms on the part of Bahrain’s authoritarian rulers.
MB: Compete how?
Matar: They should be close to the opposition and build strong relations with us instead of focusing on the regime. We’ve said clearly that the Iranian model holds no promise for us in Bahrain.
MB: How is the climate now compared to just before you were arrested? Are you more optimistic, or less?
Matar: What makes me optimistic is the potential of the people. People who visited Bahrain during the protests were surprised that Bahrainis are insisting to the extent we have upon having real political reform. They are surprised now that we haven’t given up or surrendered. Thirteen American NGOs – including Human Rights Watch, the Project on Middle East Democracy and others – just issued a statement about the inclusivity of Bahrain’s opposition movement.
[In a letter to Congress opposing a proposed $53 million US Defense Department arms sale to Bahrain’s security forces in September, 13 human rights groups issued a joint statement chiding the Obama Administration and DOD for prioritizing security interests over political reform, writing: “This…stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s declaration of support in May to those protesting for freedom throughout the region, when he said: ‘If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.’ The people of Bahrain have taken those risks for reform. Relative to the country’s size, the protests in Bahrain in February were the largest of the Arab Spring and included a broad cross-section of society. The authorities quickly responded by opening fire on peaceful protesters, killing seven and wounding hundreds. In mid-March, after several weeks of continuing protests, the government declared a “state of national safety” which put the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), the recipient of the proposed arms delivery, in charge of suppressing the largely peaceful protests…”]
MB: Secretary of State Clinton mentioned Bahrain in her recent speech on the Arab Spring. Here’s the quote:
"Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. We intend to hold the Bahraini government to these commitments and to encourage the opposition to respond constructively to secure lasting reform."
MB: Do these words, coming now, make a difference?
Matar: I hope so. We paid an expensive price for this freedom, and nobody gave it to us. I'm taking a risk if I speak to you. And the doctors, bloggers, human rights activists, political figures and the youth are taking risks when they speak out and demonstrate. What Clinton said made us optimistic, but also made us ask what her priorities are. She was speaking about fighting al-Qaeda, energy security and defending US allies. Then she spoke about how the situation in Bahrain is complex, which I agree with, but what tangible change will come out of this? I don’t know. In fact, I don't think a lot about what should be said and what shouldn't. I believe we have one weapon in this battle – maintaining our credibility and speaking the truth as we see it. Even with the absence of clear message from the Department of State, I hope that they will fulfill their obligations toward Bahrain.
MB: Your party, al-Wefaq, has issued a statement in response to the BICI report...
Matar: We are calling for the dismissal of the current government after the confirmation of systematic and serious violations in the political, economic, social, legal and human rights areas. We require a national salvation government with a clean record – certainly not involving killing and torturing people – while capable of transforming the nation and bringing about a new era.
MB: What is the atmosphere in Bahrain since the report was released (a few hours ago)?
Matar: There are demonstrations in the villages, and riot police are opposing them. This is the norm in Bahrain now.
MB: Thank you very much for doing this.
Matar: Thank you, Michael.
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Bahrain’s King, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, made a speech Nov. 23rd in Bahrain’s Royal Occassions Hall marking the delivery of the BICI report, which the King had commissioned voluntarily in hopes, he said at the time, of resolving the crisis gripping the kingdom:
“Any Government which has a sincere desire for reform and progress understands the benefit of objective and constructive criticism,” he told members of the commission. “We are determined, God willing, to ensure that the painful events our beloved nation has just experienced are not repeated, but that we learn from them, and use our new insights as a catalyst for positive change. We do not want, ever again, to see our country paralyzed by intimidation and sabotage. We do not want, ever again, to learn that our expatriate work-force, which makes such valuable contributions to the development of our nation, has been repeatedly terrorised by racist gangs. We do not want, ever again, to see civilians tried anywhere else but in the ordinary courts. We do not want, ever again, to experience the murder of policemen and the persecution of their families for the work they do in protecting us all; nor do we want, ever again, to discover that any of our law enforcement personnel have mistreated anyone. Therefore, we must reform our laws so that they are consistent with international standards to which Bahrain is committed by treaties.”
Matar Ebrahim Matar can be followed on Twitter @matar_matar