Citing the existence of the death penalty in the United States as justification, Bahrain’s government executed political prisoners Ali al-Arab and Ahmed al-Malali by firing squad on the morning of Saturday, July 27. Another man was also executed in a separate, non-political case.
The killings came two days after the Trump administration announced it was reinstating the federal death penalty after an absence of nearly two decades.
The two political prisoners had been convicted of killing a police officer in 2017 in a trial that involved over 50 defendants. I’ve been in Bahraini courtrooms and seen how these mass, sham political trials work, how defendants’ claims of tortured confessions are dismissed, and fabricated evidence permitted. The process doesn’t much resemble anything recognisable as a fair hearing that would meet international legal standards.
In May, five United Nations experts called for the executions to be stopped “amid serious concerns that [the two men] were coerced into making confessions through torture and did not receive a fair trial.” The day before the executions, Agnes Callamard, UN Special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, urged that the men be spared. “I remind Bahrain that the only thing that distinguishes capital punishment from an arbitrary execution is full respect for the most stringent due process and fair trial guarantees,” she said.
Members of Congress tried to intervene too, with Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chairs of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, urging, on the eve of the executions, that they not be killed. Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Senator Bob Menendez, (D-NJ) tweeted a similar appeal.
But the executions went ahead anyway, deepening the island kingdom’s long-simmering political crisis. Hours after the executions, protests broke out across Bahrain, and a demonstrator died from inhaling police tear gas fired in the Manama suburb of Bilad al-Qadeem, according to locals. News of the prisoners’ deaths was also met with jubilation amongst government loyalists, who posted congratulatory messages on Twitter. One local bakery made cakes celebrating the executions.
Bahrain is still reeling from its mass protests for reform in 2011, when the government crushed huge demonstrations with widespread violence, including torture. The crackdown has silenced most protests, but the tension remains, and it’s hard to see that time will heal the country’s wounds. If anything, the kingdom is more divided than it was a decade ago.
Local civil society has been virtually eliminated, with an increasing emphasis and responsibility on those based outside the country to press for reform. Protestor Moosa Mohamed, in a desperate attempt to stop the executions, climbed onto Bahrain’s embassy in London. Police eventually stormed the building when it appeared he was being attacked by embassy staff.
Bahrain isn’t headed towards safety, but for more unrest. It’s just a matter of time until widespread upheaval breaks out again. A failure to address the grievances that prompted the 2011 uprising, plus a policy of wholesale fear and intimidation, is not a recipe for sustainable security.
The ruling family has increased repression in recent years, banning opposition groups from existing and forbidding former members from taking part in last year’s cosmetic parliamentary elections. The country’s only independent newspaper, Al Wasat, was forced to close down by the authorities two years ago.
Prominent opposition figures and human rights leaders—including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab and Naji Fateel—remain in prison. Others have been forced into exile. Government promises of an inclusive “national dialogue”, once enthusiastically swallowed by gullible officials in Washington and London, have long disappeared.
Rising tensions between Iran and the U.S. play into the hands of Bahrain’s repressive regime, as Trump administration officials are happy enough to stay silent on the killings and other human rights abuses in exchange for Manama’s loyalty in the fight against Tehran. Local activists pleaded unsuccessfully with the U.S. embassy in Bahrain to say something publicly to halt the executions, and there appears little prospect of any meaningful censure from the Trump administration (or from a UK government headed by Boris Johnson) to force Bahrain’s regime to change.
Over the years, most foreign government officials with whom I’ve discussed Bahrain understand the fundamentals very well. They even agree, privately, that its ruling family is steering the kingdom to disaster and that its repression will eventually backfire, with damaging consequences not only for Bahrain but for its allies.
I’ve never met anyone from the State Department, or from U.S. intelligence agencies, or from the UK or various other foreign ministries, who actually think the Bahraini ruling family is anything but a time bomb. But because they don’t think it’s about to explode immediately, they advocate the path of least resistance, of preserving the status quo, hoping that by the time the trouble comes it will be one of their successors’ responsibility to resolve it.
Western government failure on Bahrain is as much about myopia as ideology. It makes it easier, in the short term, to stay silent about executions rather than to cause a diplomatic fuss. But ignoring the problems won’t make them go away. More executions on Bahrain are expected—eight prisoners are now on death row having exhausted all legal remedies, and two more are waiting for a final appeal against their death sentences.
We’ve seen what happens when U.S. officials turn a blind eye to abuses in Bahrain, and in the neighbouring countries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It encourages greater state violence. What happened last weekend will eventually be part of the payback for years of repression, and when that happens the U.S. and Bahrain’s other western allies will regret not confronting the problem now.
Brian Dooley is a senior advisor with Human Rights First