Pledging Allegiance in Bahrain

Since mid-April, the government of Bahrain has urged its citizens to sign pledges of allegiance to the country's "wise leadership," saying the signatures would be inscribed on a golden sword whose existence would then be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records, in the category of... well, "sword bearing the largest number of signatures," according to the official Bahrain News Agency.

Allegiance "events" have been held all over the island kingdom -- in stadiums, schools and, in June, at businesses where citizens lined up dutifully to sign the pledge.

No reports yet on whether the campaign includes prisons, where hundreds of political protestors and dissidents are held.

Bahrain's serial assault on the country's pro-democracy protest movement has been eclipsed by the violent upheavals in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Yet, Bahrain is geostrategically important and should not be ignored. The US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. Bahrain's ruling family and its main regional backer, Saudi Arabia, have positioned the small kingdom at the epicenter of a tense rivalry with Iran.

That would argue for resolving Bahrain's crisis as a high priority both for the government and its international backers. So far, the strategy is full-tilt repression.

On July 5, Human Rights Watch issued a briefing paper detailing the systematic crackdown on critics of the government since mid-March, when government police and army troops violently brought an end to a month of mostly peaceful protests. Hundreds of prisoners remain in incommunicado detention; credible charges of torture have gone unaddressed.

At first glance, the 30 deaths at the hands of Bahrain's security forces don't match the scale of hundreds of civilian deaths in Libya or Syria. But the native population of Bahrain is just 525,000 and official violence has been visited almost exclusively on Shiite Muslim citizens, who make up about 60 percent of Bahrainis. Moreover, the range of repression is breathtaking: besides torture, televised confessions, midnight home raids by masked men with guns, beatings, mass firings from jobs in the private sector, withdrawal of scholarships at home and abroad from students who demonstrated.

You might not hear much about all this, and not only because media attention is elsewhere. On May 24, the government ordered Frederik Richter, a Reuters correspondent and the only resident international journalist based in Bahrain in recent years, to leave. Human Rights Watch has not been allowed in since the authorities, on April 20, gave me 24 hours to leave after I asked to extend my visa.

The government sometimes tries to put out its own version of events, sometimes quite clumsily. In early April, photos circulated on the Internet of the body of Ali Ibrahim Isa Saqer, who died in jail and whose corpse was bruised and slashed. The government threatened to jail a human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, for "circulating fabricated photos" of Saqer's body, but the photos I saw matched the state of Saqer's body, which I viewed when I observed the body prior to burial at its ceremonial cleansing.

Fatima Al Balooshi, the social development and human rights minister and, at the time, also acting health minister also called the pictures fabrications. Then, at a news conference, a BBC reporter told her his crew had seen the body. Al- Balooshi rather haltingly promised to "ask for an investigation." That's the last we heard of any investigation.

If further proof of cruel obtuseness was needed, an image of Saqer, when still alive, showed up on Bahraini television April 28, purportedly confessing to killing two policemen.

An official end to martial law June 1 capped a campaign to show that everything was back-to-normal. Shortly after, organizers of Formula 1 announced that they would race in Bahrain next October to replace the contest scheduled for February, but cancelled due to the unrest. Bahraini officials said the race, an annual affair, will "remind the world about Bahrain at its best."

Whoops. Race teams objected, and the organizers cancelled again.

On June 3, the official Bahrain News Agency said that the top UN human rights official, Navi Pillay, acknowledged to Minister al-Balooshi in Geneva that Pillay had received "false information" about Bahrain's human rights situation. Maybe the minister didn't think Pillay could read the newspapers. On June 7, Pillay's spokesperson complained of the news agency's "blatant distortion of her words."

The government announced a national dialogue on political reforms, saying it wanted the talks to be unconditional. That's basically a code word for keeping dissidents and demonstrators in jail. The country's largest Shiite political party walked out of the talks on Monday, saying its views weren't being taken seriously.

On June 22, a military court sentenced eight leading Shiite dissident activists involved in anti-government demonstrations to life in prison. Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, a former human rights activist, and Ibrahim Sharif, a secular, Sunni political leader, were among them.

Matar Ibrahim Matar and Jawad Fairouz, former parliament members from Wefaq, the largest Shiite party, in jail since May 2, await their trials.

King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa finally did take a promising step on June 29 when he set up an investigative commission to probe "the events occurring in Bahrain February/March 2011, and any consequences arising out of the aforementioned events.'' It is headed by M. Cherif Bassiouni, a distinguished expert in human rights and war crimes, and includes Nigel Rodley, member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

This is certainly more auspicious than the pledge of allegiance gambit -- which itself has its sinister side. On June 29, Reuters reported that Bahrain University is requiring its students to sign the loyalty pledge or give up their right to higher education. I've received messages from students saying they were corralled into signing, and did so, fearing reprisals if they didn't. Among the demands: students must pledge to avoid "harming Bahrain's domestic or international reputation."

But it is the ruling Al Khalifas who have grievously harmed Bahrain's reputation. Bahrain's rulers should consider another approach. How about just pledging allegiance to the rights of citizens of Bahrain to free speech, peaceful assembly and justice?