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While we wring our hands over Syria, there’s silence over torture in Bahrain

The unrest in Bahrain is quietly ignored by our leaders and relegated by journalists to the box marked “news in brief”.

Believe it or not but a funny thing happened at the 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran last month. When the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, denounced the “oppressive” Syrian government, it didn’t go down so well with the pro-Assad Iranians. So, local journalists decided deliberately to mistranslate “Syria”, in Farsi, as “Bahrain”, prompting the latter to feign outrage.

The problem for the Bahrainis is that their government is indeed “oppressive” and therefore lends itself to such easy substitution. Over the past 18 months, Bahraini security forces, aided by troops from Saudi Arabia, have engaged in a brutal crackdown against the island nation’s own Syria-style uprising. Bahrain is home to the Arab Spring’s forgotten revolution. Since February 2011, there have been near-daily protests against the regime, a repressive Sunni monarchy ruling over a Shia-majority country. These have been met with tear gas, live ammunition, mass arrests and torture. While the fighting in Syria is debated in the corridors of the United Nations building and reported on the front pages of the world’s newspapers, the unrest in Bahrain is quietly ignored by our leaders and relegated by journalists to the box marked “news in brief”.

“[The violence] has got worse,” Maryam al- Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, tells me during a rare visit to London. “The Bahraini regime has made some superficial changes but the situation on the ground hasn’t changed . . . Torture has moved from official torture centres to unofficial torture centres.”

The death toll

Apologists for the Bahraini regime claim it is offensive to compare the moderate, pro-western king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, to the Assads or Gaddafis of this world. They point out that the death toll in Syria is far, far higher than in Bahrain. True, says Khawaja, “[but] one of the things you have to do is look at things per capita. Bahrain’s population is 600,000 and you are looking at 100 people dead. If Bahrain had the same population as, say, Egypt, that’s [equivalent to] more than 11,000 people dead in just a year and a half.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Bahrainis languish behind bars on trumped-up, politically motivated charges, including around 90 children under the age of 18. Torture, in the words of the government’s own official inquiry, is “systemic” – detainees have been beaten on their backs and the soles of their feet; deprived of sleep; subjected to sexual assaults, including the insertion of hosepipes and rifle barrels into the anus; forced to urinate on themselves and, in one reported case, eat their own faeces.

Maryam al-Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi, co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court in 2011 on spurious “terrorism” charges and has since been designated by Amnesty International as a “prisoner of conscience”. Her two brothers-in-law were also detained and tortured – “psychologically, physically and sexually”, she says – while her sister Zainab was arrested in August for allegedly tearing up a picture of the king.

“When you want to judge a human-rights situation in any country, look at where the human-rights defenders are,” says Khawaja, who is remarkably calm and articulate for a 25-year-old whose family are behind bars and who herself is regularly subjected to death threats. “In Bahrain, they are in prison.”

So why the silence from the west? You guessed it: unlike Syria, or, for that matter, Libya, the Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain (under British rule from the 1860s to 1960s) is a key ally. It hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is a strategic bastion against growing Iranian influence in the region. President Obama’s call for freedom across the Middle East, Khawaja adds, is “the essence of hypocrisy”.

She says the UK government, in particular, has much to answer for and “has been worse than the US government” in pandering to the regime. King Hamad was invited to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Windsor Castle in May; his elder son, the Crown Prince, has been hosted by David Cameron at No 10; his younger son, Nasser bin Hamad, accused of sanctioning the torture of dissident Bahraini athletes, attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics in London in July.

Odious regime

Our support for this odious regime goes beyond mere hospitality. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills authorised the sale of £2.2m of arms to the regime between July and September 2011. And the Home Office raised not a peep when the former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner John Yates was appointed by the Bahrainis as an “adviser” on security – in which capacity he defended the use of live ammunition against protesters during the Bahrain Grand Prix in April.

So what is to be done? Those of us who decry western inaction on Bahrain are not calling for air strikes or no-fly zones; we don’t want to arm rebel groups or send in the tanks. But we do insist our governments speak out, loudly and forcefully, against the regime’s ongoing crimes. Why isn’t the US State Department or our own Foreign Office calling for the release of all political prisoners? Why aren’t they considering a travel ban on senior members of the regime?

“The inaction of the international community has really emboldened the Bahraini government into believing that they are immune,” says Khawaja, who is clear on what has to happen in order to bring an end to the state-sponsored violence. First, western governments must put pressure on the regime to allow access to the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, and to foreign journalists and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch; second, the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions must be made. She is right: the US and UK governments’ “softly softly approach” hasn’t worked and is, frankly, a moral disgrace. I can’t get Khawaja’s words out of my head: “Your government has the power to stop this mess.”

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and political director of the Huffington Post UK. This piece also appears on the Huffington Post here

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.