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The Crackdown Canada Condones

Arms exports and diplomatic support for Bahrain’s repression

by Nadia Kanji

A crowd gathers to mourn a 22 year old protester killed by a bullet wound. Source: Al Jazeera English
A crowd gathers to mourn a 22 year old protester killed by a bullet wound. Source: Al Jazeera English

When an anti-government protest emerged in Libya in February 2011, Canada’s response was swift. Within weeks of the first demonstration, warships were dispatched to the Libyan coast. Soon after, Canadian warplanes were bombing targets and Stephen Harper was calling for regime change.

Almost simultaneously, mass demonstrations arose in Bahrain. These were immediately met with violence from the Bahraini regime. Protesters were attacked, detained, and brutally tortured. While Canada was helping to remove Libya’s government for attacking demonstrators, Bahrain’s uprising fell from favour in the Canadian media, and Canadian diplomats stayed quiet about Bahrain’s repressive measures.

Since the Bahraini regime’s initial crackdown against demonstrators in 2011, relations between Canada and Bahrain have become closer. “Canada stands by Bahrain and its neighbours in their quest for a stable, secure and prosperous future,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told reporters after his visit to Bahrain in April of 2013.

Two weeks after Baird’s visit last year, Bahrain made an extravagant display of prosperity, summoning the world’s glitterati for the opening of the Formula 1 race. Most media covered the racecars and their drivers. But beyond the Bahrain International Circuit gates, dissidents thronged the streets with signs that said “Don’t Race on our Blood.” They were met with tear gas, police raids during the night, and arrests.

The Arab Spring resonated quickly as protests broke out across Bahrain’s small land mass. Bahrain, which is situated on an island just east of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, is mostly populated by a majority of Shiite Muslims, but they are ruled by a Sunni Muslim minority. Bahrain’s constitutional parliamentary monarchy features an appointed upper house that holds the same amount of power as the elected parliament, but power ultimately remains in the hands of the monarchy and the Sunni minority. The country’s current regime has attempted to paint uprisings as a sectarian issue, though protesters argue that they are part of a united front fighting for political reform. Many Sunnis have taken part in protests.

An uprising linked to the Arab Spring spread across the country on February 14th, 2011 as demonstrators took over the Pearl Roundabout, an iconic monument in the heart of the country’s capital, Manama. Bahraini leaders brought in troops from  the Gulf Cooperation Council (1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates), who joined in the repression of anti-regime protesters.

Government forces demolished the Pearl roundabout, blowing up its central structure and levelling the area with bulldozers. Hospitals were surrounded by armed troops in an attempt to prevent protesters from receiving medical treatment. Women in labour were turned away as snipers and helicopter gunships sealed off the perimeter. Doctors who attempted to help those injured were arrested. Protesters were shot, and even those who remained inside their homes suffered from the tear gas that seeped in under their doors and through their windows. A surgeon at this hospital told The Telegraph, “Four people lost both eyes and many others lost one eye. We are talking point blank injuries. And the bullets aren't normal bullets but high damage rounds, that enter the body and cause horrible wounds.”

Bahraini children are also being detained and tortured. According to Amnesty International, children suspected of participating in anti-government protests “were blindfolded, beaten and tortured in detention over the past two years.” According to the human rights organization, “Others were threatened with rape in order to extract forced confessions.”

Two years after the protests began in 2011, nearly 100 people had been killed, and the regime enforced ongoing measures of intimidation and censorship.

As a strategic and commercial ally of Bahrain’s minority government, Canada turned a blind eye to these attacks and human rights violations. The reasons for Canada’s alignment with Bahrain’s regime, and their tolerance for its violent crackdown, go back over a century.

In 1861, the British empire took control of Bahrain. Employing divide and rule tactics, British officials pit Sunnis against Shias to strengthen their control. British advisers to the Bahraini King were also actively involved in crushing dissents and torturing detainees, particularly when Arab nationalism started to fuel anti-colonial movements across the Gulf. Charles Belgrave, a British advisor to Bahraini rulers, wrote in his diary in 1932: “I [was] interrogating the prisoners, at first they wouldn’t speak but I beat a few of them till they did speak. It was all very barbarous and illegal but on some occasions one has to behave illegally.”

The British stocked the Bahraini police force with recruits from other “loyal tribal militias” in Asia and the Middle East, particularly Pakistan and Iraq, in order to curb nationalist movements. Today, the upper echelons of the security force are Sunni officers recruited from Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan. In 2002, a Citizenship Law was passed granting citizenship to non-Bahraini Sunnis, exacerbating sectarian tensions, as well as sectarian gerrymandering.

After many uprisings against British colonial rule, Bahrain gained its independence in 1971, but Western influence has not subsided. The US military arrived that same year, and the country is now home to the 5th Fleet of the US Navy, making Bahrain a centrepiece of the Americans’ ability to project military power in the Persian Gulf. Unrest in Bahrain, former Fifth Fleet commander Douglas Katz said in October 2012, could affect “the flow of oil and other commodities through the critical choke point of the Strait of Hormuz.” From Katz’s perspective, the Fifth Fleet is critical to maintaining “peace in the region,” particularly against “Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.”

Neighboring Gulf countries fear that the overthrow of the Sunni minority regime in Bahrain could stoke rebellion in Shiite populations across the Gulf. This fear is enhanced by the potential growth of Iranian influence in the region, fueled in part by a growing Shiite influence, particularly in Iraq. Iran remains the chief geopolitical opponent of the Gulf monarchies, and the main obstacle to total US dominance in the Persian Gulf.

Jooneed Khan, a former foreign correspondent for La Presse, thinks that regional sectarian divisions are overemphasized. “One of the things that the monarchies fear the most from Iran is not so much Shia fundamentalism, what they fear is Iran as an example of a republicanism.” Iranians overthrew their monarchy and established an Islamic republic, Khan explains, which presents a threat to the remaining monarchies across the Gulf. “Because the majority population in these countries now also want to get rid of the monarchies,” says Khan, the Bahraini uprisings are a threat to their continued rule.

In 2012, Canada froze the assets of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, in response to repression of Arab Spring uprisings. Bahrain, however, has escaped this treatment. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been plain about his reasoning. During his last visit to Bahrain last April 2013, Baird proclaimed that “Bahrain, like other Gulf states, faces a significant threat from Iran’s nuclear intransigence, military posturing and support for terrorism.”

It appears that because of its geopolitical interests, Canada is lending something close to unconditional support to Bahrain’s monarchy. The human cost and the consequences for Bahrain’s hopes for political reform, however, remain unknown to most Canadians.

For Canadian citizen and Ottawa resident Naser Al Raas the costs and consequences are all too real. In March 2011, Al Raas was visiting family in Bahrain to check on their safety. During his stay, he observed a peaceful protest. The day he was about to leave Bahrain, he was arrested and detained. Then he was tortured.

“I was handcuffed and blindfolded,” Al Raas told the Media Co-op. “I was beaten; in the first few hours I went through three mock executions.”

“They put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me,” Al Raas said.

A year later, Al Raas was acquitted of his charges of “inciting hatred towards the regime, participating in illegal gatherings and giving false information to the media.” In reaction to the news, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonczy thanked the Bahraini authorities. “We would like to express our appreciation to the Bahraini authorities for, in the case of Mr. Al-Raas, applying the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to ensure, among other things, free political expression and protection from arbitrary detention,” the Minister said in a statement.

Al Raas endured serious health concerns, and almost three years after his release, he is still voicing his thoughts about the brutal regime that tormented him. On May 7th, 2013 Al Raas tweeted: “I can’t take more of [Baird’s] double standards. He supports some tyrants in [the] Middle East and condemns others.”

Despite Al Raas’ attempts to solicit Minister Baird’s support and to take a strong position against human rights violations in Bahrain, Baird has not responded, and has remained quiet about Al-Raas’ detention and torture. Instead, Baird emphasized how “Canada and Bahrain can share a growing commercial relationship that will benefit both countries by jointly focusing on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.” He dismissed human rights violations, saying “I think if you look in that region, there would be more freedoms in Bahrain than there’d be in many of its neighbours.

Canada continues to trade with Bahrain, and in 2012 Canada’s exports totaled $69,450,552. Canada’s military equipment exports to Bahrain have increased from zero in 2011 to $250,000 in 2012. According to NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, “We know armoured vehicles made in Canada were used in Bahrain during the crackdown on protesters there,” he said. Dewar questioned Canada’s refusal to sign the UN arms trade treaty. “Why does the government want to make it easier for Canadian weapons to end up in the wrong hands?” While the flow of Canadian arms to Bahrain has increased, South Korea has suspended tear gas exports to Bahrain and the UK has also decided to review arms exports licenses to Bahrain.

This week, Canada escalated its support for anti-democratic forces in the Middle East to new heights. A multi-billion dollar deal will export Canadian-made light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, whose army was brought in to put down Bahrain’s uprising.

Al Raas calls Canada’s stance hypocritical. “You cannot put a knife in the hand of a serial killer and say I’m watching him,” he told the Media Co-op.

As most Canadians remain uninformed of their government’s role in supporting Bahrain, Jooneed Khan says the first step is to acknowledge the situation. “I think the least Canada can do would be to tell the truth about the human rights violations in Bahrain as it does regularly on Syria, on Iran, on any other country which is not in the Western camp,” says Khan.

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