Dr. Fatima Haji (right) hugs Dr. Zahra Ahmad al-Sammak, after hearing the verdicts announced by a Bahraini appeals court in Manama, Bahrain on June 14, 2012. The court upheld convictions of ten medical personnel based on their participation in pro-democracy protests.

© 2012 Reuters

In February 2011, the small Persian Gulf country of Bahrain erupted into protests with hundreds of thousands filling the streets, peacefully calling for change. But a month later, Bahrain’s government called in reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Bahraini riot police fired teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at demonstrators. Troops raided hospitals and forbade doctors from treating injured protesters. Police killed at least 18 and injured hundreds. A new Human Rights Watch report, “Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity,” shows how the country’s courts have locked up protesters – some for life – while the soldiers who ordered demonstrators killed suffer few, if any, consequences. Amy Braunschweiger speaks with Gulf researcher Nicholas McGeehan about the protests’ legacy, and how one researches a country that refuses to grant Human Rights Watch an entry visa.

Arab uprisings took place across the Middle East and North Africa, but not the Gulf region. Why was Bahrain the exception?

It’s not surprising that there was a popular uprising in Bahrain in 2011. Normally, oil-rich Gulf monarchies keep their people happy with generous handouts and jobs for life. Bahrain, though, has always been more difficult because it has little oil and is not fabulously wealthy. Also, unlike other Gulf countries, Bahrain has a history of political activism, along with trade unions, teachers associations, and medical associations – forums where people debated issues.

While the majority of Bahrainis are Shias, the ruling family is Sunni and has fostered sectarian divisions. Bahrain’s government has long had a well-deserved reputation for torture. Both Shias and Sunnis took part in the uprising, but Shias, who have justifiably complained about discrimination, were the vast majority of the protesters and victims.

The new report analyzes the trials of both demonstrators and certain military personnel after the protests. What were the findings?

Most of this report is based on the exact words of Bahraini judges. Their own words highlight how farcical and unfair the justice system is.

Bahrain’s courts gave thirteen of the protest leaders long prison sentences – some are in for life. To justify its conclusions, the court said that “the force need not be military because terrorism is realized in all means of moral pressure.” In plain language, this means that anyone who tries to persuade someone to take a different “moral” line risks being classified as a terrorist by the Bahraini authorities.

On the other hand, very few security forces have been held to account for the violence, and all who have are low-ranking. Ali Saqerwas one of those who died after being tortured in detention. Medical reports showed that Saqer had blunt-force contusions on nearly every part of his body, and an eye-witness said he watched Saqer being beaten until “his life was spent.” Yet when the officers went to trial, the lower court found them guilty of assault, as opposed to murder, then an appeals court reduced the 10-year sentence to two years, saying that the officers deserved clemency because they had been “preserving the life of detainees, among them the victim.” That statement defies logic.

After quashing the protests, Bahrain, under pressure from international allies, commissioned a report on its actions from five respected international human rights jurists. The report’s key recommendations called for releasing peaceful protesters from prison, and bringing to justice officials responsible for protester deaths. Why go through all the bother of commissioning a report if you’re going to ignore it?

Bahrain cares about its international image. Blood on the streets after a peaceful protest is not something its staunchest allies could get behind, and at the time it was roundly criticized by the US and the UK. But Bahrain got around the issue by saying it would set up commissions to investigate.

In November 2011, the commission released a 500-page document that outlined, in often gruesome detail, what happened during the protests. It also outlined what the country needed to do to move towards dialogue and a political solution. The king of Bahrain accepted the recommendations and even said he would take them “to heart” and that “they must be dealt with urgently.” But changes made have been largely cosmetic.

The report provided Bahrain with breathing space to fix its problems. But that only worked for so long.

Why did Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates send troops to Bahrain?

Saudi is the power in the Sunni Gulf region and, along with the other Gulf ruling families, has a strong aversion to popular pro-democracy movements, to put it mildly. Additionally, there is a sizeable Shia population in Saudi’s eastern provinces, meaning the ripple effects of Bahrain’s uprising could be felt in Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch researchers haven’t been able to get an entry visa to Bahrain since early 2013. How were you able to research this report?

This report is all based on judgments and documents from Bahraini courts. Defense lawyers are especially concerned about the way their clients are treated. Also, while we may not be able to travel to Bahrain, we are still in touch with key figures from the country’s civil society.

With people being locked up for activism in Bahrain, is it safe for people to be passing these documents on to Human Rights Watch?

We are constantly concerned about the people who speak to us. Numerous activists have fled the country and sought asylum because of threats to their safety and well-being, and friends of Human Rights Watch – including a member of one of our advisory boards – are in prison because of their activism. It is a constant concern that, by speaking to us, they place themselves at some risk. But you also find that people are incredibly courageous and are prepared to take those risks if they believe they can improve what is a very bad situation.

What do we want to see happen in Bahrain?

The only way for Bahrain to have a government and other institutions that fully protect human rights is by fundamental reform. This can only happen if peaceful opponents can have their voices heard. Unfortunately, many of them are in jail, meaning that more militant actors fill the void. This plays right into the ruling family’s hands – they’ll say only an authoritarian government can temper the militants. What we need is these 13 activists out of prison – to have the US and UK call publicly for their release. The US and UK have done this in other countries, but have been silent where the Gulf is concerned. We need them to speak up.