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John Timoney and the Kingdom of Bahrain: White-washing Human Rights Abuses and Suppressing a Popular Revolution

05/30/2013 02:26 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2013

For decades, the people of Bahrain have been protesting the more than 200-year-old monarchy, which has ruled the small Persian Gulf Island of one million people since 1783. Tensions have long existed between the predominantly Sunni ruling elites, and the majority Shiite population, many of whom say they face systemic discrimination in employment, housing, education and government.

Demonstrations that erupted in Bahrain during the Arab Spring two years ago, however, represented a newly invigorated movement, albeit one that was met with intense and widespread repression from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The government's violent reaction to the popular uprising in Bahrain led to a scathing independent report in 2011, which in turn compelled the Kingdom to hire PR wizard and former police chief John Timoney, who is well-known for his repressive police tactics used against political dissidents in the U.S.

Now, more than two years after the uprising, Timoney's contract is nearly up and the assessment in Bahrain is bleak. Human rights abuses have continued unabated and, by all appearances, the government's effort to use Timoney to white-wash acts of political repression has been an utter failure.

Bahrainis join Arab Spring, but monarchy's violent repression largely ignored by U.S.

With momentum from the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and using similar online organizing methods, Bahraini activists held massive protests on February 14, 2011, calling for economic and political reforms. Across the island state, thousands of people took to the streets, chanting and waving signs. Protesters demanded jobs and a chance at a better life, as well as calling for a new constitution and democratic changes to allow for a more effective representative parliament and government. "We want real reforms, a real parliament elected by the people with real legislative power," said Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "We want a constitution written by the people."

Demonstrations eventually converged that day at the Lulu Monument, or Pearl Roundabout, the equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square in Bahrain's capitol city of Manama. But from early in the morning until well past dusk, government security forces attacked without warning any group that dared to gather in the street. Police chased down men, women and children, firing at them with rubber bullets and tear gas. According to the New York Times, "the tear gas was so heavy, and fired with such abandon, that the police also succumbed, dropping to the ground to vomit."

For a couple of days, protesters camped beneath the pearl monument in the center of a large traffic circle, which came to symbolize the Bahraini revolution, but on the third day security forces violently evacuated the site using tear gas, batons and birdshot. The monument was later torn down by the government to deny protesters a rallying point.

Over the next six weeks, the monarchy continued its violent crackdown on dissidents. The al-Khalifa regime declared martial law in March 2011, marked by the passage of the National Safety Act. The Bahraini government also brought in troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help suppress the pro-democracy protests. During this period, 35 people were killed, hundreds more were injured, and thousands were jailed, including doctors and nurses accused of treating injured dissidents. "Bahrain is now a state where the police are acting with complete impunity," Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch told the BBC in April 2011. "There is no accountability, not even an effort to cover up what is going on."

The violence and repression by security forces was so stark, King Hamad was forced to commission an independent investigation in June 2011, led by Egyptian law professor Mahmoud Sharif Bassiouni. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published a highly critical report in November 2011, which found that the Sunni-dominated al-Khalifa regime had used its police, security, and judicial processes to suppress the mostly-Shiite uprising. The report found that police engaged in excessive force, with a "disproportionate use of tear gas" and "widespread" torture. Of the 35 people killed during February and March 2011, five were from torture while in custody.

The BICI made several recommendations to the government, which included the formation of an independent investigative body, the prosecution of those responsible for torture, and retraining the security forces.

A month after the commission issued its report, in December 2011, John Timoney was offered a two-year contract as special advisor on policing to the Bahrain Interior Ministry. Notably, Timoney was recruited by the al-Khalifa regime along with John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of Britain's Metropolitan Police who resigned earlier that year over criticism of his investigation into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

A month later, in January 2012, Timoney had already launched his public relations campaign by granting an interview with Robert Siegel from National Public Radio to discuss his new position. And, while Timoney has tried to soften perception of the al-Khalifa regime on the international stage, the mainstream media in the west has largely ignored ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain.

Why John Timoney?

One needn't look very far to see why John Timoney was hired by King Hamad. Currently a senior director with the Los Angeles-based international security firm Andrews International, the former police chief from Miami and Philadelphia has long been considered a "fixer."

During a nearly 30-year career with the New York Police Department (NYPD), Timoney helped implement Mayor Rudy Giuliani's controversial "Broken Windows" policing policy and oversaw the so-called Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988, which were marked by indiscriminate police brutality. By the time he left the NYPD in 1996, Timoney had risen to Deputy Commissioner.

Timoney was then brought on as Philadelphia Police Commissioner in 1998 to help deal with criticism that the city's police force was ineffective and corrupt. His handling of the Republican National Convention (RNC) protests in 2000, however, overshadowed any policing improvements he may have made in the City of Brotherly Love. Prior to the RNC protests, Timoney strategized with Seattle police officials who violently responded to protests against the World Trade Organization in late 1999, and with D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey who supervised the police crackdown on IMF/World Bank protesters in early 2000.

By learning from past mistakes, Timoney began to develop a new policing model for political demonstrations, which he deftly put into practice in Philadelphia. Timoney was responsible for: conducting heavy surveillance of peaceful protesters, preemptively raiding activist spaces, using Pennsylvania State Police to infiltrate political groups in order to skirt a 1987 city decree prohibiting such actions, allegedly brutalizing scores of protesters on the streets and in jail, and wrongfully arresting more than four hundred people.

Untold civil rights violations and the mass dismissal of almost all of the criminal cases aside, Timoney largely avoided consequences -- legal or otherwise -- for his actions. After the protests, Timoney told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his "paramount goal" for the police department was "not to be seen on the six o'clock news beating the living daylights out of protesters," and for the most part he succeeded in that goal. In Orwellian fashion, Timoney was commended by Mayor Street and other city officials for his restraint in handling the RNC protests. This recognition helped propel Timoney and his crowd control methods onto the national stage.

In late 2002, Timoney was tapped to become Miami Police Chief, where he oversaw one of the most violent police reactions in modern history against the November 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests. Timoney not only used police tactics he developed in Philadelphia, like infiltration, preemptive raids and mass arrests, he also used vast amounts of weaponry against peaceful protesters, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets, beanbag rounds, tasers and electric shields, not to mention fists and clubs. A Florida judge presiding over the FTAA criminal cases, who had witnessed the attacks on protesters, said in open court that he saw at least 20 felonies committed by police officers during the demonstrations.

Despite the well-documented violence and political repression in Miami, then-Mayor Manny Diaz coined Timoney's response to the FTAA protests as a "model for homeland defense." And so, the "Miami Model" of policing political demonstrations was born. Indeed, it was Timoney's unique ability to suppress unwanted protest, while justifying an excessive use of force and maintaining the perception of restraint, that likely convinced the al-Khalifa regime to hire him eight years later.

Political repression and human rights abuses on the rise

Today, a year and a half after Timoney started working with the Bahrain Ministry of Interior (MOI), it appears little progress has been made on either the political or policing front. Timoney and the MOI claim to have implemented a number of measures aimed at reducing rights abuses, but so far they seem to have failed miserably. Prominent Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja (Maryam's sister) commented in the New York Times last December on the state of democracy in her country:

Going out on the streets, carrying nothing but a flag and calling for democracy could cost you your life here. Chanting "down with the dictator" could lead to your being subjected to electric shocks. Giving a speech about human rights and democracy can lead to life imprisonment. Infants have died after suffocating from toxic gases used by riot police. And teenage protesters have been shot and killed.

Zainab al-Khawaja has been arrested multiple times since the February 2011 uprising and is currently in prison for allegedly "insulting a police officer" and taking part in what the al-Khalifa regime deemed an "illegal gathering." Nabeel Rajab, who ran the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was arrested on similar charges after being interviewed by RT on The Julian Assange Show and later sentenced in August 2012 to three years in prison.

Shortly after he arrived in Bahrain, Timoney boasted about a number of so-called reforms being implemented, including revamping the internal investigative process for police, hiring 500 new officers, and installing closed-circuit video cameras in police stations as part of a new code of conduct. In March 2012, the MOI gave journalists a guided tour of a police station in Manama to show off the new recording equipment, but human rights groups argued that protesters are often held and tortured at other locations before being brought to police stations.

Around the same time, King Hamad told the German magazine Der Spiegel that there were no political prisoners in Bahrain. "People are not arrested because they express their views," he said, "we only have criminals." Such claims, however, have been flatly rejected by rights groups and dissidents. Earlier this month, for example, six activists were each sentenced to one-year prison terms for tweets that allegedly insulted King Hamad. And just last week, Human Rights First reported that three prominent dissidents had each been sentenced to six months in prison for "illegal gatherings." One of the prisoners, Naji Fateel, was abducted from his home and tortured by electrocution within days of his arrest, according to the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

One of the most clear-cut examples of the regime's intolerance to dissent is the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the former president and co-founder of BCHR, who was beaten unconscious in front of his family before being arrested in April 2011. Al-Khawaja was tried by a military court that same year and sentenced to life in prison for participating in demonstrations against the al-Khalifa regime. According to his daughter Maryam, who is acting president of BCHR, al-Khawaja has been repeatedly tortured while in custody. Last year, al-Khawaja went on hunger strike for 110 days to protest the ongoing detention of dissidents, but the experience brought him close to death.

Whenever confronted with accusations of torture, the al-Khalifa regime is quick to dismiss the allegations. "This is not our culture, not our attitude or our behavior," said Bahrain's Minister of State for Information Affairs earlier this year in response to reports of torture. "We are very civilized, educated people." And yet, the allegations continue.

According to reports made to the Wall Street Journal in March, Bahrain security forces used torture, including beatings, electrocution and suspension on ropes in order to coerce confessions from people arrested in the capitol city of Manama last year. One prisoner's sister said her brother was held in solitary confinement for seven months, beaten, and burned, before he was forced to confess. Another prisoner, journalist Ahmed Radhi, was punched in the head, chest and face, and beaten with sticks for 48 hours, before he confessed to throwing Molotov cocktails. They all deny the charges leveled against them.

Meanwhile, the Bahrain monarchy is doing all it can to prevent any meaningful investigation into allegations of torture. Last month, the al-Khalifa regime blocked a visit by Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, more than a year after the government refused a similar visit by Méndez and Amnesty International.

Tear gas used with lethal force

The BICI was so concerned with the use of tear gas by Bahrain security forces it was flagged in its report as a serious problem. In particular, the way in which tear gas has been used against dissidents was, and still is, a highly contentious issue.

Timoney, whose police used tear gas extensively during the 2003 FTAA protests in Miami, has been disingenuous about its use in Bahrain. In February of last year, Timoney told Reuters that he thought tear gas was being used less since the independent commission issued its report in November 2011. Yet, Human rights groups say that at least 25 people have been killed as a result of excessive tear gas inhalation (roughly one-third of those killed during the two-year uprising), 18 of whom died after the BICI report.

Timoney has also publicly defended the use of tear gas, claiming that police have tried to "create distance between them and gangs of rioters," which he said is better than using "live rounds." However, contrary to Timoney's pretense, a common practice by Bahraini police is to fire tear gas canisters into people's cars and homes in order to asphyxiate (and terrorize) them. Several high-profile Bahrainis, including Nabeel Rajab and Ali Salman, the leader of the opposition party Al Wefaq, had their homes attacked in such a fashion.

Another alarming trend among police in Bahrain is to fire tear gas canisters directly at protesters. According to Al Wafaq, five people have died and more than a dozen have suffered serious eye and head injuries after being struck by tear gas canisters over the past two years. Timoney told the BBC in February that tear gas canisters can be lethal weapons, but they were not intended to be used that way. He emphasized that canisters should not be fired head-high, and instead should either be arced into the air or rolled on the ground, but perhaps the Bahrain police didn't get that memo. The same month Timoney was interviewed by the BBC, Mahmood al-Jaziri, 20, died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister.

Reporting on the abuse

In the absence of formal U.N. investigations, human rights groups are trying to expose the abuses, but their efforts are often ignored or suppressed by the al-Khalifa regime. Bahrain Watch is compiling extensive video footage on police abuse and is uploading it online, but the MOI has so far failed to even respond to videos of brutality being widely circulated on social media.

Journalists have also struggled to get the word out. According to Maryam al-Khawaja, there's been a "systematic targeting of the press in Bahrain," including numerous arrests, killings and torture, especially of local or independent journalists. The al-Khalifa regime has also summarily denied visa requests, including from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and has expelled unwanted reporters from the country. A crew with the British media outlet ITN was abruptly forced to leave Bahrain after reporting on protests taking place near Manama in the lead-up to the Grand Prix last month.

What now?

With only six months left in Timoney's contract, it's time to start evaluating the results. Despite his efforts to retrain the police and bring greater accountability to their actions, brutality against protesters has worsened on Timoney's watch. At least 87 people have died at the hands of police since the uprising began, more than half of which occurred after Timoney arrived in Bahrain. Thousands more have been injured and arrested during political demonstrations.

"We're seeing the exact same things that we saw two years ago, but even more so," Maryam al-Khawaja told Democracy Now earlier this month. "We're seeing a deterioration of the human rights situation."

To be fair, though, Timoney is not entirely to blame for this. The country from which he hails should certainly shoulder some of that responsibility. After all, Bahrain is a strategic ally of the United States and home to the Navy's Fifth Fleet, the primary U.S. naval base in the Middle East, which patrols shipping in the Gulf, assists with missions in Afghanistan, and monitors Iran as tensions in the region continue to mount.

Perhaps most egregiously, the U.S. continues to provide arms to the al-Khalifa regime. In October 2011, the U.S. symbolically froze a $53 million defense deal with Bahrain until the monarchy enacted human rights and political reforms based on recommendations in the BICI report. Despite the lack of reform, however, the U.S. resumed weapons sales to Bahrain in May 2012.

Last month, the U.S. State Department issued a report critical of Bahrain's "serious human rights problems," including:

[C]itizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists.

But, some might argue that the State Department's report is too little, too late. As long as the Bahraini government isn't forced to face any real consequences for its actions, it will continue to believe it has international immunity. Late last year, before she was imprisoned for expressing her political views, Zainab al-Khawaja wrote these sobering words in the New York Times:

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.

So, maybe the end of Timoney's tenure in Bahrain represents a turning point. The elements for addressing the violent crackdown on dissent are right in front of us, and Timoney's failure makes them even more resounding. What's left is to hold fast to principles of unconditional respect for human rights, and allow the popular revolution in Bahrain flourish and thrive.

Kris Hermes provided support to political protesters during Timoney's crackdown on dissent in both Philadelphia (2000) and Miami (2003).

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