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November 15, 2016

Bahrain Travel Bans Reveal Insecurity

This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post:

First, Bahraini authorities hit human rights defender Nabeel Rajab with charges for writing an oped in the New York Times, and now they have charged secular opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif after an interview he gave to the Associated Press a few days ago.

Stifling negative press is a classic hallmark of a repressive regime, and Bahrain is increasingly touchy about anyone revealing its ugly truth. Up until mass protests for democracy broke out in 2011, and even for a while after, Bahrain was relatively accessible for media and human rights organizations. Now it’s virtually impossible for us to get in.

Some journalists were allowed in to cover last week’s visit of Britain’s Prince Charles to the island monarchy. Sharif told visiting AP reporter Jon Gambrell that he feared the royal visit might be used to “whitewash” Bahrain’s human rights record—apparently this is what has landed Sharif in so much trouble, and he is now facing charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.”

The regime is so sensitive to criticism that it even prevents lesser-known dissidents from leaving the country, fearful they will tell the outside world what’s happening inside the dictatorship. Last week 26 year-old Fatima Al Halwachi was told at the airport she was banned from traveling and had been since August. This was news to her. “I wasn’t even going anywhere for human rights reasons,” she told me.

Fatima grew up largely in exile in Sweden (she is a Swedish citizen) and her strong international ties are presumably something the Bahraini government fears.

She remembers arriving from abroad at the February 2011 protests a few days after they started. “It was night when I got there, and so cold. But I was so proud to be standing with people, amazed at the the numbers prepared to stand up for freedom against tyranny—old people, children, women, men. I remember thinking how brave they were because some protesters had already been killed and we knew what might happen, that they might get attacked.”

The crowds were attacked and the demonstrations violently suppressed in mid-March. Reprisals swiftly followed. Thousands of people were arrested, some tortured to death in custody. Leading human rights activists and opposition figures were framed and sentenced in military courts.

Fatima’s father is the political opposition figure Khalil Al Halwachi. He was one of those rounded up, and arrested in May 2011. He was released a few months later, only to be rearrested in September 2014. He has now been in jail for more than two years and is awaiting another court hearing on November 27 for his a sham trial run by notorious judge Ebrahim Zayed.

Fatima was one of the students expelled from the country’s polytechnic in 2011, suspected of showing disloyalty to the ruling family on Facebook (later reinstated following an international outcry, she graduated in business management).

She now works for the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights, and explains her work in recent years has been documenting human rights violations, “visiting the families of political detainees, and torture survivors, and supporting and advocating for families’ rights.”

Fatima finds herself suspended in an all too familiar Kafkaesque administrative repression. “Officials at the airport told me I couldn’t travel by order of the public prosecution, but my lawyer has checked with that office and there is no ban shown at the public prosecution records,” she said.

She estimates over 100 people suspected of dissent against the ruling family have been banned from travel, including several dozen in recent months.

Following Prince Charles’s visit last week Fatima and several others heard there are new cases being brought against them, although she has yet to be informed of details of what’s going to happen.

Bahrain’s regime can’t hush up, wish away or whitewash its record. It should realize that it’s “Nothing to See Here” policy only guarantees more scrutiny. It should lift the travel bans, free the dissidents and engage in an open conversation about what’s happened and what the country needs to do next to build a sustainable stability, not one based on intimidation and fear.