Nabeel Rajab, a prominent opposition activist who founded the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was sentenced to three years in jail last week for his participation in protests.
The protests, led mostly by members of the Shiite Muslim majority who are calling for democracy, began last year and continued even as the government imposed martial law and responded with what many call excessive use of force.
Explaining that he was disappointed but not surprised to read the news, Toby C. Jones, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, told Trend Lines the verdict represents the end of any pretense of reforms in this small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf.
"Nabeel Rajab embodies a threat to the regime because he is this powerful voice, this populous figure, who is not sectarian and who uses the language of human rights," he said. Jones explained that over the past 18 months, Rajab has been particularly resilient despite being beaten and shot at. "It was only a matter of time, given his visibility and his defiance."
Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow for Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, emphasized that this is not an isolated case, with hundreds of lower-profile figures in prison because of their involvement in protests.
"But for months it had appeared Rajab was relatively protected because of his high international profile with human rights organizations," she said, adding that his imprisonment sends "a signal that the government is taking a harder line on protests."
Looking at the opposition more broadly, Kinninmont described internal disagreement over the extent of change they seek, with the largest political group, Al Wefaq, "pragmatically calling for a constitutional monarch" and the "more revolutionary Feb. 14 youth movement" seeking a republic.
Asked what change there has been since the initial demonstrations in February and March of last year, Jones said few of the opposition's demands have been met.
He mentioned the Bassiouni Commission, which was tasked with investigating the unrest, as a window of opportunity for reforms, but said little action was taken after the commission issued its report late last year.
"A number of important human rights reforms have been announced, but implementation remains a problem and the impact isn't being felt on the street," Kinninmont said. "There has been progress in some areas . . . but there has been very little done to address the accountability issue."
One problem, she said, is that many senior officials "still seem to deny the report's findings."
Jones said "reform" is a word the Bahraini government, led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, uses to accommodate and appease its Western supporters who "continue to claim Bahrain is on the path to reform."
While the U.S., according to the New York Times, has urged Bahrain to hold a dialogue with the opposition and to hold officials accountable, Washington has otherwise placed very little pressure on the country, mostly because of its own strategic interests in the region. Bahrain, Jones emphasized, is an important partner in two primary American strategic objectives in the region: protecting energy flows and containing Iran.
"The U.S. position is that we would like a gentler, kinder autocrat and a reformed political system, but not so badly that we are willing to threaten our strategic relationships or upset the status quo," he said.
The Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, ensures the free flow of oil in the region at a time when Iran is threatening to block key shipping lanes, making the U.S. even less likely to intervene.
"It's become easier for the government to take this tough line because there has been a gradual uptick in low-level violence by protesters against police, which means the government's supporters take a dim view of any protests," said Kinninmont, "and because Western pressure on the Bahraini government remains limited."
Jones said Bahrain seems "very much stuck," and that American foreign policy is not likely to push it in the right direction, particularly in an election year, although he emphasized that a strike by Israel on Iran could change the whole picture.
"The situation in Bahrain is complex but still solvable," Kinninmont concluded. "Many young Bahrainis from all political backgrounds are frustrated with the current impasse and feel their country is losing out, with sectarianism on the rise and foreign investment suffering."
If the country's leaders do not start a process of political dialogue, she said, they will gradually lose support and credibility.
Jones is less optimistic. "The regime wants to win," he said. "It does not want to negotiate a compromise. It wants to crush all of this and carry on the fight."
Photo: Nabeel Rajab, February 2011 (photo by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).
- The Realist Prism: China the Likely Winner if U.S. Intervenes in Syria
- Russia Tries to Manage Arab Awakening From the Outside
- The Realist Prism: Narrowed Focus in U.S.-Russia Relations Proves Productive
- World Citizen: Israel’s Syria Strike Reflects Favorable Cost-Benefit Calculus
- As U.S. Leaves Afghanistan, India Reconsiders Iran Policy