State security officers in Bahrain allegedly donned balaclavas and fired on protesters leaving a teenager critically ill in hospital, according to critics of the government.
Mustafa Ahmed Hamdan, 18, was seriously injured when men – alleged to be from Bahrain’s internal security force – opened fire on people attending a sit-in protest in Duraz.
Hamdan was shot from behind during the attack on 26th January 2017 and remains in hospital in a critical condition.
Human rights campaigners from Bahrain have blamed the attack on the nation’s security forces although there has been no independent confirmation of their involvement.
The UK has also been condemned in the wake of the attack, for training Bahrain’s security services and supporting a regime accused of human rights abuses and of brutally crushing political dissent since the Arab Spring of 2011.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said protesters were attacked by plain-clothed security forces at around 3am on the 26 January. BIRD said it was the most violent crackdown of any protest recently in Bahrain.
A film taken at the time allegedly shows security forces shooting live ammunition at protesters. The men who fired at protesters used shotguns and bird-shot pellets typically used by Bahrain’s security forces, according to BIRD.
Ammunition recovered from the area in Diraz was consistent with the type Bahrain’s riot police use, according to one report, which added that Victory Starlight 32gr cartridges found were manufactured in Cyprus.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, said: “This was a cowardly attack by police who hid their faces and discarded their uniforms. It’s Mustafa Hamdan and his family who are the victims. Policing in Bahrain has no resemblance to real law enforcement and is more akin to gang violence.”
Other human rights groups were also highly critical and signed an open letter to Bahrain’s government calling for an investigation. “The Bahraini authorities have disregarded individuals’ internationally-sanctioned rights to assembly by violently shooting protesters gathering in Diraz with live ammunition,” the letter said.
“We condemn this excessive and deadly use of force by the Bahraini security forces. We call on the government of Bahrain to do the following:
– immediately launch an investigation into the attack in Diraz on 25 January and 26 January;
– hold those security forces who attacked and shot protesters, including Mustafa Ahmed Hamdan, accountable for their crimes;
– ensure the rights of those arrested last night and this morning are respected and that they are given fair treatment under the law.”
There has been a permanent sit-in at Diraz since 20 June 2016, when the Bahraini authorities revoked the citizenship of prominent spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim. Protesters have gathered at his house to protect him from possible reprisals.
Since the beginning of the sit-in, the Bahraini government has tightened security around Diraz. Internal security has set up checkpoints in the area, staffed with police who prevent non-Diraz residents from entering.
There were reports of violence in Diraz on 21 December 2016 when Bahraini security forces raided houses and attacked protesters.
Bahrain has received over £5.1m in technical assistance from the UK Government since 2012, which has included police training. However, BIRD said that despite five years of training by the UK Bahrain’s police force is as “violent as ever”.
Alwadaei added: “We’ve maintained that the UK should suspend its assistance until real guarantees are in place, including visits by the UN special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of assembly and expression. Without it, the UK is doing little more than whitewashing an authoritarian regime which has senselessly stripped away another life.”
UK government ‘slush fund’ under fire
Last month, MPs criticised a £1 billion UK government “slush fund” for financing projects which include the training of Bahrain’s security forces.
The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) inquiry into the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) – administered by the Cabinet Office – found that it lacks political leadership and accountability.
The JCNSS said: “In the absence of a dedicated Whitehall policy team and a central, up-to-date articulation of policy, we are concerned that policy innovation and the ongoing development of a truly cross-government approach to building stability overseas will falter under the CSSF. This risks the UK’s international reputation for intellectual leadership in this policy area.”
BIRD submitted evidence to the inquiry saying that the fund, which has financed ten projects in Bahrain, lacks transparency and accountability.
BIRD said that “Bahrain presents a key case study where CSSF-funded programmes are not working” and recommended that the CSSF be subject to “clear, regular and transparent human rights assessments and scrutiny”.
A legal group opposed to the death penalty, Reprieve, also submitted evidence regarding the funding of Bahrain projects. It said that “failures not only suggest extremely poor value for money for UK taxpayers – they also point to the use of CSSF funds to help Bahrain’s authorities draw a veil over their use of torture and other abuses.”
Bahrain’s Embassy in London declined to comment.
Meanwhile, in response to a written question at Westminster on 6 February 2017, Baroness Anelay of St Johns confirmed that the UK continues to train Bahrain’s police.
The question tabled by Lord Scriven asked why the CSSF was used to support a visit by the Chief of Police of Bahrain to Belfast to learn about how the Police Service of Northern Ireland manages public order issues.
The Baroness replied: “The Bahraini Chief of Police, Major General Tariq Al Hassan, visited Northern Ireland in June 2014 to observe and discuss the range of reforms to policing undertaken in Northern Ireland. The visit was funded from the Conflict Pool.
“A small delegation of Bahrain police officers subsequently visited Northern Ireland for a week in August 2015 to observe globally recognised best practice in human rights compliant public order policing. This visit was funded from the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.
“The UK continues to support Bahraini-led reform through a package of technical assistance. We believe it is not good enough to criticise countries from the sidelines. Only by working with Bahrain can we bring about the changes we would like to see in the country. Any assistance delivered by or on behalf of the UK Government complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations.”
In a separate development, the UK confirmed it will not sign a Swiss-led statement at the UN Human Rights Council criticising human rights violations in Bahrain. In response, BIRD has written to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urging the Foreign Office to reverse its decision.
Alwadaei of BIRD said: “The UK is playing a dangerous role. They’ve undermined previous efforts by diluting language in previous sessions. Now for them to say they cannot sign a statement highlighting the human rights violations in Bahrain reveals the damaging role the UK is playing at the UN.
“The UK last year blocked a UN probe to investigate war crimes by all parties in Yemen because they’re backing Saudi Arabia in that conflict, and now they’re taking a similar position in Bahrain.”
The Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, said: “The Government’s refusal to support a much tougher Swiss motion fully condemning Bahrain’s human rights’ record confirms, yet again, that in a post-Brexit world, the UK is putting trade before human rights.”
However, the UK Government defended its support of Bahrain which it views as an important ally. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “The UK works closely with Bahrain in a number of areas, including their reform agenda and we see our support as the most constructive way to achieve long-lasting and sustainable reform in Bahrain.
“While it will take time to see the full results of much of this work, the UK is having a positive and direct impact on areas of concern. Only by working with Bahrain are we able to bring about the changes we would like to see in the country.
“Where we have concerns about human rights in Bahrain we will continue to raise them at an appropriate level, both in private and in public. Most recently, following the executions in Bahrain, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement where he set out the UK’s long-standing opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and in all countries.”
In January Bahrain announced that it had restored the power of its domestic spy service to make arrests, reversing a key reform recommended in the wake of the crackdown that followed the country’s 2011 Arab Spring protests.
The decree affecting its National Security Agency comes as Bahrain is in the midst of a renewed clampdown on dissent. It also follows an armed assault on a prison that killed a police officer and freed 10 inmates.