The Nature of Dictators in Bahrain | Opinion

In one of Aesop's fables, The Scorpion and the Frog, a scorpion asks a frog for help to cross a river. The frog is wary because of the scorpion's record of violence, but the scorpion assures the frog that it is correcting its behavior and the frog will be safe and unharmed. Predictably, the scorpion attacks the frog during the crossing and as they are both drowning says, "I could not help it; this is in my nature." Just as it was in the nature of the scorpion to attack, so too is it the nature of dictators and autocratic governments to oppress their own people violently and systematically and then create a false illusion to the world of commitments to peace and freedom.

Bahrain's monarchy is a textbook example of this. A long history of violence and oppression against the supporters of free speech and democracy, and a long list of paper reforms, have not stopped attacks and abuses. The Bahraini monarchy has become experts at executing moves from its playbook of whitewashing its record of violence and oppression by adding to the illusion of reforming itself while avoiding any actual reforms. The examples of its whitewashing is almost as long as the examples of its repression of human rights and freedoms.

In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that there is "continuing heavy repression" in Bahrain and international observers consistently rank the country as one of the most repressive states on the planet. Amnesty International highlighted how the monarchy has "outlawed" the existence of civil society organizations and political parties, and removed—either through killing, torture, imprisonment, or exile—any citizens who criticize its unchecked power. My own Bahraini citizenship has been revoked for my advocacy work in the United States.

The Bahraini government would have no need to harp on its list of political reforms were it not continually in the spotlight for attacking its people and their rights. The Economist ranked Bahrain 144 out of 167 countries in their 2021 Global Democracy Index. Freedom House scored Bahrain at 1/40 for political rights and 10/60 for civil liberties, while giving it an overall freedom score of just 11/100, and Reporters Without Borders ranked Bahrain 168 out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The countries that score the best in all of these rankings do not appear in the news for murdering or imprisoning its citizens who protest repression.

Bahrain would have the international community believe that it is working with serious intent to correct the causes of its human rights abuses. But after 11 years of it working to correct its evils but never truly fixing anything, we know that it does not lack intelligence or resources to correct the causes of its abuses—it lacks the will.

According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), who has mapped the country's prison population, as of August 2021, out of a total prison population of approximately 3,800, nearly 1,400 are political prisoners. "Over 500 of these individuals are serving prison sentences of over 20 years and many have been behind bars since 2011," according to BIRD. Twelve of them are on death row and 11 of these prisoners of conscience have alleged torture.

A Bahraini boy holds the national flag
A Bahraini boy holds the national flag during an anti-government protest in the village of A'ali, south of Manama, on Nov. 1, 2013. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP via Getty Images

The most pressing individual case in Bahrain at present concerns 60-year-old political prisoner Abduljalil Alsankis, a respected academic and human rights defender, serving a life sentence for his peaceful role in Bahrain's 2011 pro-democracy uprising. The torture and abuse of Alsankis following his arrest are featured in the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Alsankis began a hunger strike on July 8, 2021, in protest of years of medical negligence, degrading treatment by prison staff and the confiscation of apolitical research for a book. His hunger strike has now passed 200 days (over eight months), but authorities refuse to meet his simple request and give his research to his family.

Allegations of government beating and subjecting political prisoners to even worse physical abuses are not limited to adult prisoners. Children, some as young as 15 years old, have been arrested and seriously physically abused by the government for protest related activities. The Bahraini government's statements of its respect for human rights do not line up with its 11 years of continued violence and repression. Its "systematic pattern" of violence against protesters and the promising words which always follow are part of a lack of accountability and culture of impunity in the government.

Many expect that Bahrain will be given a pass on accountability for its medieval human rights record. The Bahraini government has made clear that its normalization with Israel is enthusiastically approved by the U.S. It is expected Bahrain will use this new relationship with an important U.S. ally to sweep its violence against pro-democracy Bahrainis under the rug. The reality of horse trading in global politics is that a friend of a valued U.S. ally will be given freedom from following international treaties that protect human freedoms.

Democracy and human rights are poison to a dictator's power. When you are a dictator, it is in your nature to oppress your people because it is through oppression that you stay in power. Any talk of democratic reforms or criticism of your rule is snuffed out, violently if necessary. And when the international community spotlights your abuses against your own people, the ability to create an illusion of respect for the rights of mankind is paramount to your survival. The legislative reforms of Bahrain are just such an illusion of commitments to peace and freedom.

Hussain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). He leads ADHRB's advocacy efforts in the U.S. and in 15 different European capitals to build support for the democracy and human rights movement in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.