Al Jazeera - 11/5/2006
With Bahrain getting voted into the UN's new Human Rights Council on Tuesday in New York, activists are expected to step up pressure on the kingdom to introduce a human-rights convention of its own.
In recent months, Bahrain has been improving its human-rights record by initiating investigations of past abuses, a process receiving growing support from the authorities.
The new mood is also illustrated by one Bahraini newspaper that has since February been running daily coverage of past victims of state torture, marking an unprecedented campaign to raise awareness of human-rights issues in the country.
Manssoor al-Jamri, the daily Al-Wassat's editor-in-chief, said: "We are now running a daily torture [section]."
This unusual initiative comes amid growing political unrest in the country, as activists from the country's Shia majority escalate their protests and demands for change in what many of them see as a Sunni minority-dominated kingdom.
At the same time, an important factor in this recent political liveliness has also been the demand from human-rights groups from both communities for compensation for past maltreatment by the authorities.
"We run a full page every day of interviews with torture victims as well as photographs of the tortured," al-Jamri said. "We also run a number of articles which address the issues – this is our way of demanding compensation for the victims."
The newspaper campaign focuses on those who were allegedly abused by state authorities during the period after 1974, when the Bahraini parliament was shut down after controversy over a new state security law.
The law had been introduced by the country's rulers, who saw security threats in strikes and protests then sweeping the country.
Lawyer Carla Firstman of the London-based group Redress, which specialises in gaining compensation for victims of torture, said: "During the period the law was enforced, torture was endemic in Bahrain.
"People could be detained without trial for a period of up to three years for crimes relating to state security."
Al-Jamri said the term "state security" was interpreted loosely. "The interior ministry was given powers by the law to arrest and to do what it liked with people suspected of being involved in political activities that might destabilise the regime," he said.
Now, however, the story of those dark years is beginning to emerge as the country starts to liberalise its laws.
Abd al-Hadi Marhoon, the parliamentary first vice-chairman, told MPs and rights activists at a conference in Manama in late April that: "The social and political situation in Bahrain will not be stable without finding real solutions to issues related to victims in the country's previous, pre-reform, phase."
He called for the establishment of a human-rights court to judge such issues.
Firstman said: "There has been a slight opening in Bahrain in the last few years and non-governmental organisations have been invigorated."
One result is that groups such as the Bahrain Human Rights Society have been able to offer help to many victims.
Abd Allah Alderazi, the society's deputy secretary-general, said: "We have treated around 100 cases of torture since we began. The main problem in Bahrain is that doctors are not trained to cope with the trauma of torture cases, as it's not only the physical damage we are treating.
"The stigma of going to a psychiatrist is something that people in Bahrain are not used to coping with."
Victims are often deeply traumatised, while lack of treatment for physical wounds also often leads to psychological difficulties later.
"We have run workshops to train our doctors, so they are better prepared than previously. They are doctors in the local hospitals, and they give their time and resources free to help with these cases," Alderazi said.
"Ali", who was afraid to reveal his real name even 20 years after he was arrested under the security law, was one such victim who was helped by the society.
A former employee of the state oil company, Ali was arrested in his village just outside Bahrain's capital Manama in 1985.
He was never charged, but said he was taken to a detention centre where he was held in a cramped cell with six others. This was his home for nearly two years.
"I was beaten most days," he said, adding that he was crippled as a result. He spent his time bent over double in bed at a relative's house, unable to walk or look after himself.
"They arrested me because I tried to help my brother and some friends who had been arrested earlier," he said.
In a gesture of reconciliation, the Bahraini authorities introduced a law in 2002 giving amnesty to those jailed under the security law crackdowns.
Al-Jamri said: "In the 1990s around 10,000 people were in jail in Bahrain."
The total population at the time was about 650,000.
"We know of at least 500 individual cases of people terminally affected by torture and around 2,000 partially affected," he said.
However, the torturers were also granted amnesty, a measure condemned by many human-rights groups.
Bahrain's parliament, which reopened in 2002, has been trying to meet demands of these groups by ratifying a convention on civil and political rights that would meet international standards. This might also open the door to compensation for torture victims.
Abdulnabi Alekry, of the The Bahrain Human Rights Society, said: "The convention for civil and political rights is being discussed now in parliament but there are some reservations on one of its articles, as it has some wording that the parliament feels is against state security."
Bahrain's powerful Shura Council has adopted a draft law on approving the convention, an important step towards eventual ratification. This will go to parliament for debate and a vote.
Saeed Mohammed Al Faihani, Bahrain foreign ministry representative and former ambassador and permanent representative to the UN Office at Geneva, said in a prepared statement last month: "The government believes that human rights are key pillars for national development."
He said that the promotion and protection of human rights was "one of the main priorities of Bahrain's domestic and foreign policy agenda".
As for "Ali", the change in government's attitude came too late.
Admitted to hospital in March, he died last month after doctors were unable to help him recuperate from his wounds.
"I am only 50," he said shortly before his death. "No one has ever apologised for what happened and I have been unable to work since then.
"But what I want most of all is just to be healthy again. To live a normal life."