200 days of siege in Bahrain amid global indifference

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SHAFAQNA- This Friday marks 200 days since the ruling regime in Bahrain has imposed a siege on the whole village of Diraz banning tens of thousands of civilians from access to basic rights.

The siege was a step forward by Al Khalifa ruling dynasty in the tiny Persian Gulf state, where the majority of people are Shia Muslims ruled by the minority Sunni rulers, after the Shia figure Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim was stripped of his Bahraini nationality. The verdict was received by public anger and tens of thousands of people supporting the religious figure poured to the streets of Dizar district, a village where Sheikh’s house is located, to prevent any possible attack by the armed forces.

The history of such rising pressure on Shia community dates back to early 2011 when the Islamic Awakening also known as Arab Spring erupted in the region. On 14 February 2011, massive protests of people in Bahrain started and unlike what was going on in birthplace of the unrest, Tunisia, as well as others such as Egypt, the protests in Bahrain were totally peaceful and their leaders had strongly warned against any violence. Like Tahrir Square in Cairo, Lulu (Arabic for pearl) Square was symbol and epicenter of demonstrations. The sign at the middle of the square consisted of six pillars going to skies and reaching together at the top, holding a pearl which the square was named after. The pillars symbolically represented six members of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council unity of whom was considered a pearl at the top of the structure. The site was chosen wisely and metaphorically as the venue of protests to show unity of demonstrators, too.

It was no surprise that fearing a possible toppling of the rulers, the regime forces showed a heavy hand in response to the protests. Many male protesters, including men and boys, were detained in masses to an extent that very soon, the majority of demonstrators were women. Meanwhile, on March 18, 2011, the government rushed into demolishing the Lulu square. The regime, further, sought help of neighboring Saudi Arabia to deploy its forces for crackdown of opposition.

Uprisings without ousting demands

But why were the people holding peaceful protests after all?

It is an important question which can be a key to the current situation in Bahrain. At least nearly 80 percent of the population in Bahrain is made by Shia people which are surprisingly deprived of many basic human and social rights and of course of any high level and managing positions in military, government and state-run organizations. Along with this longstanding discrimination, the conduct of promises the king had made has been a source of problem, too.

When Sheikh Hamad took the throne in 1999 he first decided to bring protests of that decade to an end. In 2001 he promised democratic reforms based on a National Action Charter which considered amendments to 1973 constitution; the opposition refused the amendments as serving the power of the king. King Hamad accepted to remove amendments to the constitution, but in 2002 he unilaterally promulgated a new constitution which granted him privileges to personally appoint PM or the judiciary members or approve ministers. He also formed a second legislative council whose members were appointed by the king and had the right to confirm or reject legislations of the current body.

Who is targeted by the siege?

In response to the authoritative behavior of the king, leader of the Muslims in Bahrain Sheikh Isa Qassim embraced three phases of moves to pave the way for a democratic reform. He contributed to establishment of Islamic Ulema Council, Al-Wefaq Party and Islamic Tawiya (Enlightenment) Society, each focusing on religious issues and policy making, political issues and cultural affairs, respectively.

One can make a parallel between these three organizations and those Americans have supported in many countries to promote democracy and democratic values. Not only did not the bodies seek any violence or discord being promoted in society, but also they were a huge contributor of unity among the Shia and the Sunni. The entities meant an effort to properly criticize problems and promote reforms in the government.

As the intellectual leader of the movement, Sheikh Isa has always refuted violence or even any demands to topple the regime; his words and demands of him and his followers is to make reforms in current structure to make it democratic.

It is no secret anymore that supported by the United Kingdom and the United States, Persian Gulf countries are being ruled by authoritarian regimes which have no respect or concern about democracy and human rights; and regretfully, the West never stops supports and trades with them. This actually has paved the way for the Al Khalifa regime to show suppressive reaction to Sheikh Isa Qassim and the abovementioned organizations. In 2014, religious council was closed and late same year opposition party leader Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested to be the first step in closing Al-Wefaq Party. Very soon, the cultural center was closed, too. Although the protests in Bahrain were not like other countries witnessing unrests and never turned to violence on the side of people, the regime in the tiny island was, if not more, as brutal as forces in those countries; moreover, it was the only state which allowed a foreign army put step on its soil and suppress its own citizens.

As the oppression on masses failed to stop the protests, Al Khalifa decided to focus all the pressure on Sheikh Isa Qassim. While the Shia Muslims form the majority of population in Bahrain, the regime decided to accuse Sheikh Isa of money laundering on the pretext that he had received money from his followers; the money is in fact a religious duty in Shia Islam which doesn’t exist in Sunni Islam. In other words, the ruling dynasty which is from minor Sunni faith, charged a Shia figure for exercising his faith and religious duties. The outcome was a sentence stripping him of his nationality which was another step in line with other policy of the regime to change demography of the country by granting nationality to Sunni and Wahhabi people from other countries. (In about 10 years, the population was nearly doubled from 600,000 people due to the same policy of granting nationality to foreigners, while stripping nationality of Shia citizens.)

King Hamad who had reportedly vowed other Arab states in Persian Gulf to expel Sheikh Isa Qassim within 48 hours, faced public support of people who gathered around Sheikh’s house and military forces had no way through to reach him. This Friday marks 200 days since then and the regime has so far imposed a siege on the whole neighborhood. Recently the army cordoned off the region with armored vehicles and riot police forces surrounded the area Sheikh’s house is located. Once again, news broke out among the people and more people rushed to the location to prevent any raid on his house. Very soon, the regime officials claimed that the whole forces were after a convict in adjacent building which later turned to be a 16-year-old boy.

Nearly 6 years have passed since the first calls for better rights and democracy in Bahrain and the outcome has been more pressure and discrimination and finally 200 days of siege on people of a village all under the heavy, deadly silence of all international organizations and human rights bodies. World needs to wake up and oppose situation in Bahrain, before more bloods are shed and before Sheikh Isa Qassim is executed the same way Nimr BAqir al-Nimr was martyred by Saudi regime.

People in Diraz have been under siege for 200 days and eye help from the world.

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