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How Bahrain is Oppressing its Shia Majority

Bahrain's parliament once gave me a standing ovation, now I've been banned from the kingdom - both for pursuing human rights

Published in: The Guardian

Six years ago, Bahrain's parliament gave me a standing ovation. This month, the Bahraini government barred me from entering the tiny kingdom which sits off Saudi Arabia's coast and hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. While this fall from grace might seem extreme, it is easy to explain.

In 2005, I was representing the Bahrainis detained at Guantánamo Bay and, with a colleague, went to Bahrain to advocate on their behalf. We emphasised that the US had denied our clients due process, had asserted that our clients had no right to humane treatment, and had inflicted abuses on certain clients, as corroborated by US government sources.

Bahraini officials welcomed us with open arms. A prominent member of parliament invited us to a session at which Guantánamo would be discussed. There, he thundered that the rights to due process and humane treatment were universal, and decried that they were being denied to his fellow Bahrainis. Pointing to us in a spectators' balcony, he said we had done more for his countrymen than anyone and offered his heartfelt gratitude. His colleagues arose in spontaneous applause.

By 2007, our Guantánamo clients had been released. Having met a number of Bahraini activists who assisted with our Guantánamo work, I naturally turned my attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in Bahrain itself. At the time, Bahrain was marketing itself as a "constitutional monarchy". King Hamad, of the ruling Al-Khalifa family, had instituted some important reforms after assuming power in 1999. However, by 2007, it appeared that the government was reverting to its more repressive past, including reviving the use of torture during interrogations of national security suspects.

I worked with Human Rights Watch on an investigation into allegations of torture, and our findings were presented in a report in February 2010. The report concluded - based on witness interviews and documentary evidence, including medical reports - that security officials had, during the previous few years, suspended detainees by their limbs, used electro-shock devices, and engaged in other physical abuses. We called on Bahrain to treat detainees humanely and afford them due process.

Many of the same Bahraini officials and parliamentarians who had immediately decried the denial of these rights to my Guantánamo clients said just as quickly that the Human Rights Watch report should not be believed. Notably, the Guantánamo detainees were Sunni, as were the members of the ruling class who had spoken out on their behalf. The torture victims addressed in the report were members of Bahrain's Shia majority, who have long complained, justifiably, about political and economic discrimination.

Then, last August, things got worse. The government arrested prominent dissidents and others on vague or nonexistent charges. Allegations of torture emerged again, and defendants displayed wounds, including some I observed during court proceedings.

That was only a precursor, unfortunately, to the terrible events that began in February when Bahrainis took to the streets, peacefully demanding meaningful political participation. Security forces killed seven people and wounded hundreds. After briefly allowing demonstrations, on 14 March the security forces again crushed the protests. Martial law was declared, with the help of Saudi tanks. Killings, attacks and arrests continued thereafter.

This month, I travelled to Bahrain to investigate the situation and to meet Nabeel Rajab, a secular Shia activist who had been so instrumental to our Guantánamo work that he was with us in parliament when we received the standing ovation. Now the government is targeting him.

At immigration, the authorities told me that rather than being allowed to enter the country, I would be put on the next plane out. They said that doing the "kind of work" I did required a visa approved in advance. When I pointed out that on my numerous prior trips to Bahrain to do that "kind of work", I had got a visa on arrival, they told me that "things have changed".

Indeed, things have changed. I once advocated due process and humane treatment on behalf of Bahrainis who happened to be Sunni. Now, I am advocating due process and humane treatment on behalf of Bahrainis who happen to be Shia, largely. While the Bahraini government celebrated such principles six years ago as applied to my Guantánamo clients, it cannot countenance them now as applied to a majority of its own people, who are the subject of a massive crackdown.

As for me, my days of standing ovations in Bahrain appear to be over. In fact, my days in Bahrain appear to be over, period.

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan is a lawyer in private practice in New York and a consultant for Human Rights Watch

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