October 31 To Test Bahrain's Reforms

Monday October 31 will be a vital test for Bahrain. Two scheduled court verdicts will give a major indication on whether the regime is taking any notice of international pressure to finally ease off its months-long repressive outburst, a clear signal on where the country's much-vaunted reform project is really headed.

Opposition figure Khalil Al Halwachi and human rights defender Nabeel Rajab are both due to hear the outcome of their separate sham trials. Al Halwachi, a founder of the opposition Amal group, was arrested in September 2014 and has been tried with 16 others. Like many in custody in Bahrain, he says he has been tortured into making a false confession.

Al Halwachi is 59, studied electrical engineering at London's prestigious Imperial College in the mid-1970s, and spent 14 years teaching in Stockholm. He is charged with possessing a kalashnikov rifle for terrorist purposes--one of the regime's favorite fabricated charges--and faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty. The judge set to give his verdict is the notorious Judge Ebrahim Al Zayed, who in December 2012 confirmed a previous jail sentence for Nabeel Rajab.

Al Zayed is also expected to issue Rajab's verdict that day. Rajab is back in prison now and has been in solitary confinement for over four months. He faces up to 15 years in prison for a series of free speech-related issues including "undermining the prestige of Bahrain" after having an opinion piece published in the New York Times. Sentencing Rajab to more years in prison would be another catastrophic step for Bahrain to take, one that will remove a leading peaceful voice from the country's political conversation and give greater appeal to those who support violent protest.

Rajab is one of the best-known human rights defenders in the world. To its credit, the U.S. State Department has called for Rajab's release, but there are still international voices apologizing for Bahrain's appalling record on rights. In a piece for The Irish Times this week Pauline McCabe, "an independent criminal justice adviser" on Bahrain, defended the regime's performance after British NGO Reprieve questioned why the U.K. government continues to fund training programs for Bahraini officials when the human rights situation is deteriorating so dramatically. Reprieve said the training program "whitewashes torture and death sentences in the Gulf kingdom" while McCabe claimed: "I know that the [Bahrain] ombudsman and his team are trying to do the right thing."

International human rights organizations aren't allowed into Bahrain and few would agree that the Bahraini authorities--including the Ombudsman's Office--are trying to do the right thing. The training of judges and prison guards, and the setting up of the Ombudsman's office are all part of an unconvincing comb-over reform effort. The real outcomes of the reform program are shown in court verdicts every week, and in the ill-treatment of detainees every day.

November will be five years since the king of Bahrain promised to implement a series of human rights recommendations presented by an international inquiry. It hasn't happened yet and doesn't look like it will, despite what the Bahraini government and its apologists claim.

If Al Halwachi and Rajab are freed unconditionally, allowed to peacefully dissent freely, and not subjected to travel bans or other harassment, that will be a sign that Bahrain is maybe turning a corner. If, as expected, that doesn't happen and the pair are condemned to join other human rights and political opposition leaders in prison for several more years, it's hard to see why anyone would continue to argue that Bahrain is on the right path.