Siege of Duraz in Bahrain: Vengeful exploit to persecute majority section of society

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Lately, the Bahraini authorities have embarked on a wide and aggressive campaign against the political and religious majority of Bahrain, and concluded with the arbitrary and unlawful nationality revocation of Bahrain’s highest religious authority, Sheikh Isa Qassim, and a siege of the Duraz area which is currently populated with peaceful solidarity protests for Sheikh Isa Qassim. It is a systemic ploy to end the Shia Bahraini religious and civil society presence in the country, along with their various institutions, to ultimately end any form of opposition.

One of the principal factors behind the worsening human rights situation in Bahrain can be traced to members of the ruling authority solely administering and ruling the country, and ensuring no real national participation by the population in official decisions. This has resulted in the indigenous Bahraini majority experiencing severe discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization. This has been confirmed through the non-implementation of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) and the UN Universal Period Review (UPR) accepted five years ago. As well as the repeated infringement of various articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bahrain has signed and ratified, that cater in numerous parts for human rights and indeed the right to self-determination. As such, this partly explains why Bahrain has repeatedly ignored statements, recommendations, and demands from both international and national arenas, and has pushed the Bahraini authorities to carry out more violations in the process.

Duraz, 14 February Uprising, and Ayatollah Qassim

Duraz is situated in the north-western region of Bahrain, and has a number of historical sites including temples from the ancient Dilmun era, and tourist attractions like the Abu Subuh Coast, considered important by the residents of Duraz and surrounding areas. Duraz has a population of approximately 18,000 residents, and on the west of Duraz lies Budaiya, on its east lies Bar Bar, and towards its south is Bani Jamra.

Duraz is the birthplace and home town of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim, who is the highest Shia religious authority in Bahrain, and a politically and socially influencing personality among the Shia Muslims in the Arab Muslim world, and international Muslim world in general.

Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim represents the religious authority of a large portion of the opposition in Bahrain, and was the first prominent personality to back the popular uprising that commenced on 14 February 2011. Ayatollah Qassim worked tirelessly to preserve the peacefulness of the protests, and ensured that Bahrain did not slip into a sectarian or violent disagreement. This was done through his Friday Sermon pleas for all protests to remain peaceful, his persuasion of youth to abide by law and refuse to take up violent means despite violent actions by security forces, and to call out for peaceful democratic transformations in the country.

On 20 July 2016, the Bahraini authorities carried out aggressive political, security, and pecuniary measures against Duraz, key of which is the revocation of the Bahraini nationality of Ayatollah Qassim. The process of nationality revocation was abrupt and void of legal procedure, on the outside clearly directed at the opposition that represents the Bahraini Shia majority. Bahrain’s security apparatus subsequently sieged the Duraz area, after calls by Shia scholars and civil and political activists to peacefully surround the house of Ayatollah Qassim and commence a peaceful sit-in.

The Bahraini authorities cut-off all roads leading to Duraz and has cornered the present protesters to stop others joining the sit-in, and to ultimately prevent a gathering like that witnessed during 14 February up to 14 March 2011 at the Pearl Roundabout, or the 300,000 strong march that occurred on 9 March 2012, which was recommended by Ayatollah Qassim himself.

A Siege That Violates Constitution and International Agreements

Article 19(b) of Bahrain’s constitution stipulates the following:

“No person shall be arrested, detained, imprisoned, searched or compelled to reside in a specified place, nor shall the residence of any person or his liberty to choose his place of residence or his liberty of movement be restricted, except in accordance with the law and under the supervision of the judicial authorities.”

Furthermore, Article 13(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which applies to Bahrain since it signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states the following:

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

Duraz Siege

Bahraini authorities commenced plans to siege Duraz promptly after releasing news that Ayatollah Qassim has been stripped of his nationality. Protesters against the decision started a sit-in around Ayatollah Qassim’s house on 20 June 2016. The Bahraini authorities utilised a number of forceful tools to carry out the siege, namely: security patrols, cement and brick barriers, barbed wires, and blockades using armored vehicles.

1) Testimonies on Duraz siege

SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights has endeavoured to communicate with families residing in the Duraz area, to document factual testimonies on the siege.

Numerous residents of Duraz provided SALAM with insight to the situation in and around Duraz and confirmed that the siege began with the official confirmation that Ayatollah Qassim’s nationality has been revoked, which occurred on 20/06/2016 at roughly four in the afternoon.

One of the residents that SALAM communicated with stated:

“On that day I personally witnessed the start of the siege, and that is when I tried to enter Duraz and it was extremely difficult. Numerous search points were set-up by the regime [Bahraini authorities] around Duraz, which were particularly aggressive. The area was finally sieged completely on the second day.”

After this, all main entry routes leading to Duraz, a total of 9, were closed off, and works to close off 16 other minor routes commenced. This was carried out by barricading the roads with sand bags along with all open spaces. Cement blockades and barbed wires were brought in and placed to strengthen the barricades.

Barbed wires were also placed around Sheikh Darwish Mosque, and search points remained at all nine main entry routes leading into Duraz, with seven closed-off and two left open (open routes are the entry point by Bar Bar and a route that leads to north-western cities).

A witness confirmed this, stating:

“There were two routes that allowed into Duraz – one of which is the road coming from the village of Bar Bar. But all other roads were closed off with sandbags, cement blockades, and barbed wires. Security personnel are present at all the entries.”

Duraz residents confirmed that all nine routes into Duraz were blockaded, including Bani Jamrah, Sar, Duraz, and Al-Markh roads. A resident of Duraz added that:

“After blockading the roads with search points, barbed wires, and cement blockades, security forces deployed foreign militias in plain-clothes and female police officers at the remaining two open roads. Also, there are search points at Qatar Palm Trees, whilst Martyr Fadhil Al-Obaidi roundabout (Duraz Roundabout) is closed from all directions. There are search points close to Ghassan Halls and Palm Trees road.”

Witnesses claim that all search points and barricades are protected through the following means:

“They look like military barracks, where every barricade and search point has atleast three anti-riot vehicles, accompanied by roughly 18 to 22 security personnel in military clothing, who we cannot converse with as they do not speak Arabic. Also, such military vehicles are used to close off smaller roads and spaces to stop people from entering or leaving Duraz on foot.”

All witnesses confirmed that the means used by the Bahraini authorities to siege Duraz is through the use of sandbags, cement barricades, barbed wires, and military vehicles. Numerous witnessed repeatedly stated that, “telephone lines do not operate between the hours of seven in the evening until two in the morning”.

Another witness added the following:

“Female police officers replaced many members of the criminal investigations department which were present at search points. One search point that was stationed on the east side of Duraz was moved as it lay too close to houses used by expatriates, which had caused a lot of traffic in front of the house of the Moroccan ambassador to Bahrain. Also, drones patrol the sky above Duraz which usually fly over areas with protesters present, and an army helicopter is always flying over the area.”

All witnesses confirmed to SALAM that all routes to Duraz are closed apart from the two mentioned above, and that only residents of Duraz that can show “identification that they live in Duraz” may be allowed to enter or leave through these two routes.

Many residents of Duraz have complained that their vehicles were given parking fines for being stationed in open spaces close to Budaiya road, despite no evident contravention stopping them from parking there.

The following was included:

“Many citizens were prevented from entering Duraz on Eid to meet with family and friends, with numerous attempting various routes leading to Duraz. It has caused distress to many citizens.”

“Questioning at check points leading to Duraz are usually antagonizing and foulmouthed, with security personnel dishing out obscene remarks against our Shia Muslim beliefs. The questioning usually lasts about five minutes, but queues will go on for hours. You will be rejected if you personally do not live in Duraz, even if you have come to visit your parents.”

Many cases were documented in which local residents, in both Duraz and surrounding areas, are repeatedly subjected to arbitrary investigations, beatings, insults, and other forms of degrading treatment during their exit and entrance into Duraz. These instances have occurred between Sar Roundabout to the entrance of Bani Jamrah, and especially areas close to the entrance of Duraz.

All instances of abuse at search points according to witnesses’ testimonies revolve around the victim’s family, religious affiliation, and opposition members. In certain instances, Ayatollah Isa Qassim is mentioned as a figure that is insulted infront of Duraz residents while they wait at entry routes.

Residents of Duraz have articulated complaints regarding the adverse effect on their financial states. Many that work or own shops nearby are prevented from properly attending to their businesses, as they are regularly held up at search points. The fact that landline and mobile lines are regularly disabled between specific hours means many local businesses are inoperable when this occurs.

The siege has also made it especially difficult for the emergency services, like the fire department and the ambulance service, from entering Duraz and surrounding areas. With many being caught up in the queues formed as result of the search points, and the fact that they cannot use the other blocked routes.

A witness affirmed the following:

Employees, business owners, and residents, have complained about the security measures surrounding the Duraz area, with many institutions, stores, and works being adversely effected. Many staff from the Duraz High School for Boys were significantly delayed from attending to the school in time, requiring the school administration to hand out identification cards to members of staff to show at search points, in hope that they will be allowed through.”

SALAM asked some families in Duraz the following question:

Have you experienced a scenario that has adversely affected you while you tried to enter Duraz?

All replied with an array of situations and details.

Below is one reply:

“Severe traffic that last in some instances more than two hours, are particularly hard on older citizens stuck in the traffic. Many times food will spoil or children would succumb to panic, especially in circumstances that we as parents can’t quickly return home.”

Many Duraz citizens confirmed that they at times broke their fast during Ramadhan two hours after sunset, due to the level of delays at search points.

The following instance described how a citizen who was required to leave to her family’s house in Bani Jamrah from Duraz to obtain milk for her child.

“She was stopped at a search point for more than four hours, whilst her child screamed and cried of hunger and thirst from the back of the car.”

SALAM can confirm that the internet signal is manipulated to go down between certain hours in Duraz specifically, and what looks like to prevent communications with protesters stationed in Duraz and news of the events that unfold.

Arrest of Duraz Protesters

Documented eyewitness reports relayed to SALAM the following arrests:

  • Fakhri Abdullah (from Sanabis Town) arrested on his way out of Duraz;
  • Mahdi Al-Ikri arrested on his way out of Duraz;
  • Abdulhamid Abdullah arrested on his way out of Duraz;
  • Four other residents were arrested close to Abu Saiba Roundabout and forced to stand in a degrading manner;
  • A group of youth arrested near Duraz Roundabout;
  • A group of four women arrested;
  • A group of seven detained near Sheikh Darwish Mosque;
  • Abdulraheem Mudeer was detained for 15 days, pending further investigations under charges of illegal gathering due to his participation in the sit-in;
  • Abdullah Sabaah Al-Shajar was also detained in Duraz for 15 days under the same charges lodged against Abdulraheem Mudeer;
  • Many families in Duraz were summoned to Budaiya Police station to sign a pledge after attempting to attend the sit-in;
  • Some residents have regularly been stopped near Qaba’il stores, Jabir bin Hayan School, Palestine road, and Bareed road; and
  • Two young residents were subjected to beatings near Raidan restaurant and then arrested.

With that, the Bahraini authorities have also opted to target and prosecute Shia religious scholars following the nationality revocation of Ayatollah Qassim. The process involves the summoning of a religious scholar to a police station, followed by an arrest without reason, which would end up being a 48-hour detention. A case would then be lodged to the Criminal Prosecutions after 48 hours of detention. This has so far been carried out against approximately 10 Bahraini religious scholars between the dates of 06/07/2016 to 02/08/2016, with new summons appearing every week. The scholars targeted include Sheikh Ali Al-Hameedan and Sheikh Ali Al-Juffairi, who have experienced identical means of prosecution.

Furthermore, SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights has received corroborated grievances of citizens complaining of abuse at search points surrounding Duraz, and in Bahrain at large. Abuse generally revolve around insulting religious affiliation and prominent figures from the Shia Bahraini community, as well as repeated “Magus, safavids” insults directed at Shia Bahraini citizens at search point. Such abuse is usually dished out from members of the Ministry of Interior working at these search points, intending to insult citizens joining in with the sit-in in support of Ayatollah Isa Qassim. A specific search point where this abuse occurs much more vigorously is, according to residents of Duraz, the Bareed search point, the closest point to the sit-in, where the breadth of Bahrain’s opposition, and Ayatollah Isa Qassim, are referred to in a derogatory manner whilst citizens drive through.

A citizen aptly summed up the circumstance in which he leaves and enters Duraz:

“I am insulted every time I enter and exit Duraz.”

Another citizen who owns an electronics business mentioned the following:

“I own an electronics store, and have suffered considerably because of the search points that encircle my store. The business has experienced great losses, with customers unable to travel to us and retrieve their devices which we have fixed. I regularly get prevented from travelling to my business premise.”

SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights can also confirm that the Bahraini authorities do send individuals in plain clothing to carry out reconnaissance on citizens partaking in the sit-in. Many protesting citizens feel a sense of fear of the potential repercussions of being seen by members of the Bahraini authorities.

Residents have also aired their grievance regarding official cars from the Ministry of Interior that appear in large numbers during nights in which arrests are imminent. Citizens that pass too close to the sit-in during such times are subjected to beatings and insults. Cars parked anywhere close to the sit-in or in adjacent streets are arbitrarily handed parking fines. Searches are usually uncalled for, with a special focus on private items of citizens, such as female purses and mobile phones.

SALAM can further establish that many citizens of Duraz have been forced to take leave from work as they are unable to reach their employment venues in time due to the siege, and may later face pecuniary penalties by their employers if they still cannot arrive on time.

Al-Wasat Newspaper Coverage

On 10 July 2016, Al-Wasat Bahraini national newspaper covered the siege and published an article titled, “Duraz in social and economic isolation after 20 days of persistent siege”.

To summarise, the article first reiterated the facts that internet usage is consistently down within certain times inside and surrounding  the Duraz area, and that the Duraz area has been in isolation from the rest of Bahraini society, both financially and socially, due to the strength of the siege on it. The article explains how internet cuts started to occur consistently immediately after the nationality revocation of Ayatollah Qassim. The article expanded on how many businesses in Duraz and around the area have suffered dramatically, with major losses incurred on local businesses directly due to the siege.

The article concluded by confirming that only two routes allow access to Duraz, with the rest fully cordoned off.

The article further concluded by describing difficulties faced by Duraz residents in meeting other family and friends outside the Duraz area, with another article published on 5 July 2016 articulating the point-of-view of Duraz residents.

Call to the International Community

SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights issues an urgent call to the international community and its various institutions to severely push Bahrain to respect their international obligations, specifically the demands of the UN Human Rights Council and ratified international agreements. By ensuring Bahrain’s legal, ethical, and moral duties, the international community can better and more effectively force the Bahraini authorities to abide by international laws and cease the siege. Such a siege must cease to end the current hardships faced by residents of Duraz, and avert future difficulties, specifically ones that may affect children, women, and the elderly.

On the same hand, SALAM also urges the international community to ensure united pressure is directed at Bahrain through all legal means and to demand of Bahrain to rescind the arbitrary nationality revocation of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, the decisions to close Tow’iya and Risala societies, including Al Wefaq political society, and to release all prisoners of conscience, specifically prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and leading opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, as well as the rest of the political opposition behind bars. If Bahrain does not respect international agreements that endowed the citizens of Bahrain with human rights and freedoms, such as the freedom to peacefully protest, and decides to continue ultra vires killings, dissolution of national institutions, torture, and other violations, then it will push Bahrain deeper in turmoil, graver human rights abuses, and potentially even sectarian violence.

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