Bahrainis are taking to the streets this week for protests that coincide with the three-year anniversary of a popular revolution sparked by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. Unfortunately, it is less a celebration than an ongoing struggle to resist the oppressive regime of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, whose family has ruled the small Persian Gulf Island of one million people for more than 200 years.
Protests began on February 14, 2011, with Bahrainis calling for economic and political reforms, but they were repeatedly attacked by police. Over the next six weeks, the monarchy continued its violent crackdown on dissidents, declaring martial law in March 2011. The Bahraini government also brought in troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help suppress the pro-democracy uprisings. During this period, 35 people were killed, hundreds more were injured, and thousands were jailed, some of whom reported being tortured while in detention.
The violence and political repression was so stark, King Hamad was forced to address the outcry. But instead of doing anything meaningful, the al-Khalifa regime commissioned an ineffective investigation and hired John Timoney, who is notorious in the U.S. for brutalizing protesters and whitewashing the abuse. In 1998, after nearly 30 years with the NYPD and his role in the Tompkins Square Park riots, Timoney became Philadelphia Police Commissioner, honing his repressive tactics on protesters at the Republican National Convention in 2000. Timoney then became Miami Police Chief in 2003, overseeing security for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit, and carrying out one of the most brutal responses to political protest in recent memory.
Timoney, who is now a senior director at the security firm Andrews International, was hired by the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior in late 2011 to help deal with the popular, mainly Shiite, uprisings which had become a considerable annoyance to the King and the ruling Sunni minority. Now that Timoney's two-year contract is up, many are asking what was accomplished and where do we go from here.
What has Timoney accomplished?
Not much, "beyond a healthy bank balance," said human rights researcher John Horne, noting Timoney's speculated annual salary of $300,000, plus benefits. Horne, with the group Bahrain Watch, told PolicyMic that, "After two years, torturers still torture, police still use excessive force, citizens still suffer collective punishment from tear gas, and the security forces still act with impunity." The Bahrain Watch website also indicates that extrajudicial killings have continued, most recently against Fadhel Abbas, 19, who was shot in the head by police during a protest on January 8th. Less than a year after Timoney began his consulting contract, in November 2012, CNN reported that more than 100 civilians had been killed by police, about twice as many as when he arrived in Bahrain.
Maryam al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), told MintPress News last month that they are still documenting "systematic torture, enforced disappearances, house raids by masked men in civilian clothes," and attacks on all forms of protest. Al-Khawaja is currently in exile from Bahrain with much of her family in forced detention. Maryam's uncle and sister are currently serving sentences for spurious crimes, and her father, Abdelhadi al-Khawaja, the co-founder of BCHR and one of the most prominent human rights activists in Bahrain has been imprisoned since 2011.
Last week, King Hamad ratified a new anti-protest law that allows the monarchy to impose a 7-year prison term and fine of up to $26,500 for anyone who publicly insults him, with the option to apply "aggravating circumstances" if the insult occurs "in the presence of the King." By stifling the most basic forms of political expression, the al-Khalifa regime appears poised to escalate the crackdown on dissidents, with unbridled support from Timoney and the Bahrain police force.
According to a report released last month by the Liberties and Human Rights Department of al-Wefaq, the political opposition to the al-Khalifa regime, there were 745 protests, 183 arrests, 207 home raids, and 17 cases of torture just in the month of December alone. Sayed Hadi al-Musawi, who heads the human rights group, said that more than half of the protests were "repressed by Bahrain security forces, causing injuries to protesters and suffocation among inhabitants inside homes as a collective punishment."
One of the most pressing problems in the country is the use of tear gas, a favorite weapon of Timoney's, which he employed extensively in Miami against FTAA protesters. Since 2011, at least 39 deaths have been linked to the use of tear gas, according to Physicians for Human Rights. A number of Bahrainis have died from excessive gas inhalation, in some cases after police have shot canisters directly into people's homes. But, police have also used tear gas canisters as a lethal weapons. Bahrain Watch reports that 14-year-old Ali Jawad al-Shaikh and 15-year-old Sayed Hashim Saeed were both killed after gas canisters were shot directly at their upper bodies at close range.
In fact, injury and death caused by tear gas has been such a problem that Bahrain Watch and others launched a campaign last fall to stop 1.6 million rounds of tear gas from coming into the country by putting pressure on manufacturers and export licensing authorities. Bahrain Watch reported last month that the "Stop the Shipment" campaign succeeded in averting tear gas exports from a supplier in South Korea, but that the al-Khalifa regime is still determined to increase its stocks.
What do Wikileaks, the U.S. State Department, and John Timoney have in common?
At a press briefing in November 2012, nearly a full year after Timoney was hired, the U.S. State Department tried to distance itself from the former police chief and the role he was playing in Bahrain. Then-State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was evasive when questioned about Timoney and tried to downplay the U.S. government's political and strategic interests in the country that hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet, the primary U.S. naval base in the Middle East.
So our understanding is that last year, the Bahraini Government invited former police official John Timoney to assist them in the Ministry of Interior with their police reform efforts. This is a Bahraini Government initiative. [Timoney] is not working for or on behalf of the U.S. Government.
When asked about Timoney's effectiveness in Bahrain, Nulan said she couldn't speak to what he's involved with inside the Ministry of Interior, and "can't speak to what he has or hasn't been doing, because he doesn't work for us." It seems, however, based on an internal State Department email from July 2011 posted to the Wikileaks website late last year, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain was well aware of, and intimately involved in, the hiring process that landed Timoney his job. Not only were all of the résumés being channeled through the embassy, but diplomatic staff was also privy to discussions between Bahrain's Ministry of Interior and potential candidates. Speaking candidly, Regional Security Officer (RSO) Mark Sullo wrote in his email to fellow diplomatic staff that the position "has the interest and support of senior [U.S. government] policy makers given the strategic importance of our relationship with [the Bahraini government] and recent events here." Laying out the geopolitical significance of Timoney's role in Bahrain, Sullo says:
It is seen as a prime engagement opportunity with a non-NATO major ally, hence my current involvement as RSO.
Opportunities for the U.S. to take decisive action
Regardless of the extent of U.S. involvement in hiring Timoney, its interests are undeniable. While the U.S. government has tepidly condemned the al-Khalifa regime's violence against Bahrainis and suspended shipments of tear gas to the Gulf Island state, it continues to sell arms to the monarchy and refuses to impose sanctions against al-Khalifa officials for human rights violations. According to PressTV, the U.S. has sold more than $1.4 billion in weapons to the Bahrain government since 2000, and has recently launched a nearly $600 million construction project to improve its U.S. naval base.
Just over a year ago, Zainab al-Khawaja, who is currently in jail for tearing up a photograph of King Hamad, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, calling on the Obama Administration to take decisive action in Bahrain:
If the United States is serious about protecting human rights in the Arab world, it should halt all arms sales to Bahrain, bring Bahrain's abuses to the attention of the United Nations Security Council, support a special session on Bahrain at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and begin a conversation about potential diplomatic and economic sanctions. The Obama administration should also demand that high-level Bahraini officials be held accountable for human rights abuses, and that nongovernmental organizations, United Nations human rights investigators and journalists be allowed to enter the country and investigate abuses.
Zainab's sister, Maryam, told MintPress News that foreign governments like the U.S. are ignoring events in Bahrain because it's "an inconvenient revolution, due to geopolitical and economic interest the West has with the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies." Zainab called for "trust-building steps" to be taken, like releasing all political prisoners, including imprisoned opposition leaders, and "ending the daily crackdown."
On this third anniversary of the uprising, Bahrainis are protesting to send a message to King Hamad, of course, but also to challenge countries like the U.S. and the U.K. who have so far refused to end their support for the oppressive al-Khalifa regime. Sending John Timoney to quell the country's popular resistance has unsurprisingly exacerbated the situation and certainly hasn't engendered solidarity with the Bahraini people or diminished the regime's human rights abuses.
Neither John Timoney nor his employer Andrews International responded to requests for comment.