The first time I saw representatives of the private militia belonging to the Khalifa family was in an area called Jasra on the west coast of Bahrain (which is more like a western suburb of Manama) in September, 2008. I was with a group of friends on our way to a party at Hamala Beach Resort and our vehicle, which was driven by the husband of one of our colleagues at the Polytechnic, passed by a very long and ornate wall which was guarded periodically by armed, uniformed men. I had been in Bahrain for less than a month at the time and this was my first glimpse of any armed security personnel anywhere in the country. When my friend asked Paul, the driver, who the men were and what they were “protecting”, he rather casually replied, “Oh, they’re just some of the guys who protect the Khalifas. That place is one of their properties.”
I have since learnt that “that place” is one of a collection of private palaces belonging to the Prime Minister of Bahrain. I’ll be blogging more about this amazing individual in the near future but for now I’ll just repeat that he is the uncle of the King of Bahrain and has held the position of Prime Minister (unelected) for 40 years. If you would like to see what “that place” of his looks like from the air, take a look at this. The large white things near the water are private boats.
The road we travelled along on our way to Hamala was the one on the right of the picture going from top to bottom. The personnel we saw guarding the Prime Minister’s “Waterside Palace” belong to a special group called the Royal Guard. Paul told us that this group were handpicked by the King himself and consisted of non-Bahraini nationals who also belonged to the same religious persuasion as the royal family. I remember thinking to myself at the time that it was a pretty smart move by the King to use foreigners to protect his family as it effectively prevented any form of military coup taking place in the future. I now know that one of the King’s sons, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa was promoted to take charge of the Royal Guard on 19th June 2011, three days after being promoted from captain to colonel in the Bahrain Defense Force. At the time of writing, Sheikh Nasser is 24 years old.
Not long after our trip out to Hamala Beach Resort I began living on the edge of Sanabis and saw other Bahraini security staff on a very regular basis. These members were only ever seen driving around in their Four-Wheel-Drive vehicles (vehicles which, incidentally, are never needed in Bahrain because the country is as flat as a pancake) with the word POLICE painted on the sides as well as the website address for the Ministry of the Interior (http://www.interior.gov.bh), which I always felt looked strange.
I also discovered that all the windows of these vehicles were protected by heavy mesh grilles, so obviously they had been involved in altercations with Bahrainis in the past. Later, of course, I learnt that the same youths responsible for setting the tyres alight in the Sanabis area were also involved in throwing missiles at these vehicles. Seeing groups of these vehicles slowly cruising around the streets in and around Sanabis (and disrupting traffic, I should point out) became a regular sight for me. It wasn’t until February 14th 2011 that I actually got to see them do anything other than driving slowly around.
The personnel inside these vehicles, as hinted from their website address, work for the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). This Ministry is under the control of Lieutenant-General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, a cousin of the King, and is responsible for law enforcement and public safety in Bahrain. The official title of this group, however, is the Special Security Force Command, which comes under the control of the National Security Agency and is associated with the Ministry of the Interior (hence the website address). From their appearance (but not by their actions) most westerners would commonly refer to these personnel as “riot police” and, as with the Royal Guard, most of their numbers come from other countries, most notably Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Jordan and many of their members do not speak Arabic. They receive free housing and become naturalised Bahrainis upon starting their job, helping to swell the numbers of Sunni Bahrainis. Although it is difficult to ascertain accurate figures of just how many riot police are employed in Bahrain, it has been suggested that there are approximately 2,500 – 3,000 working in the country. Assuming that 70% of Bahrain’s population are pro-democracy, this means that there is approximately one riot police member for 140 men, women and children in Bahrain, a truly incredible ratio.
There is also much speculation about the legal training that the Special Security Force Command personnel receive, if any. Most riot police in democratic countries are normal, highly trained police officers who double as riot police if and when the need arises. These professionals are well aware of the legal requirements of their work since it usually involves having to appear in court to give evidence. It is highly doubtful that any of the imported members of the Special Security Force Command are ever expected to or have ever given any form of evidence in court (since many cannot speak Arabic) or that they have been trained in any way to understand the legal or Human Rights requirements of their jobs. The fact that there is no requirement for them to give evidence also suggests that there is no intention to carry out investigations for any of the deaths and injuries that have been caused by the Special Security Force Command members. To an outsider it appears that they have all been brought into the country to simply act like thugs and bullies and to suppress any form of protest, however peaceful it may be. The only training they appear to have had is in the low-skill areas of weapons handling and tear-gas dispensing.
The riot police or Special Security Force Command are very easily recognisable in their white helmets with protective visors (which are almost always raised), their navy blue uniform jumpsuits and their large black boots.
In recent months they have begun wearing ridiculous plastic protective chest and back plates and have also been issued with perspex riot shields with the word POLICE printed on them. (I always find it amusing that in many non-English speaking countries English is used with law enforcement instead of their native language as if to say, “this is serious!”.) Normally when the word riot is used most people have visions of proper riots, such as prison riots, where the inmates take control of the prison and generally smash everything up as a form of protest against harsh conditions or street riots which are extremely rare. Perhaps the most famous recent street riots took place in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of four police officers who were video-taped assaulting an unarmed and totally defenseless civillian. The name of the civillian, Rodney King, would be familiar to any who remember the incident and the overwhelming public furore amongst the black community of Los Angeles resulted in a large-scale riot. The Wikipedia definition of a riot is: “a form of civil disorder characterized often by what is thought of as disorganized groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence against authority, property or people.” What took place in Los Angeles, as an example, exactly fits this description. The black community violently attacked anyone who was white, smashed public property and stole and looted from businesses. This situation quickly became totally out of control and riot police were used to eventually restore order. It should be pointed out that there has never been anything remotely resembling riots in Bahrain and for anyone to describe the protests (which are almost always in the form of peaceful marches) as riots is totally misleading and completely untrue.
My first experience of the Special Security Force Command members in action was the small tear-gas firing incident on February 14th, 2011. At the time I could not see much but I later learnt that these riot police were actually trying to prevent a group of anti-government protesters from reaching the Pearl Roundabout on foot. They certainly were not rioting and they were totally unarmed. But they were treated as rioters nonetheless. What I witnessed at 3.00 am on February 17th was much, much worse. The Special Security Force Command were used to smash an egg with a sledgehammer – there was no rioting, no weapons and absolutely no danger to the riot police or to the general public. As I commented in an earlier blog, the riot police’s objective was not to simply clear the roundabout of protesters; it was also to try to inflict as many injuries as possible to the protesters in doing so.
Ever since the appalling events of February and March of 2011, the Special Security Force Command has been used extensively and intensively by the Khalifa regime to simply stamp out the protest movement once and for all. I repeat that the protesters are not in any way rioting or causing civil disobedience each time they are attacked mercilessly by the riot police. Men, women and children each day in Bahrain have been subjected to a constant stream of attack by these overseas mercenaries with, as in the events of last February, the aim of injuring and, it appears, killing them. Here is a list of the types of activities that these “special” forces are guilty of committing:
- groups of security force vehicles travel to villages during the night and fire or throw tear gas at and into the houses of families. These families are not even outside in the street, let alone protesting or “rioting” and yet they are being subjected to this kind of treatment on a nightly basis. This has resulted in several deaths, particularly of babies and the elderly, which the Ministry of the Interior dismiss by saying the deaths were caused by “bacterial infection” in the case of a perfectly healthy 5 day-old baby or that one elderly man had died from cancer after presumably deciding that sitting in front of his television was preferable to being treated in a hospital.
- riot police throw molotov cocktails at protesters and at the houses of protesters. This action in itself is hard enough to believe but the question of where these molotovs come from needs to be considered. Is it part of the new training that King Hamad promised to introduce after the humiliation of the BICI findings that allows security officers to make molotov cocktails or are they being made for them by Khalifa loyalists? Here is a link to a video showing a law enforcement officer throwing a molotov cocktail at a group of protesters, something I had never seen anywhere before.
- apart from molotovs being thrown, Special Security Force Command members have also been filmed throwing rocks and, more disturbingly, metal rods. These rods appear to be made from similar material as that used in the building industry but cut down so as to be easily handled. Their effectiveness was horrifically revealed when one of them was thrown and hit a completely innocent young lady, impaling itself in her head. She died from her injuries a few days later.
- also falling into the “difficult to believe” category is the fact that the riot police have also been filmed using slingshots against protesters. It suggests that they have been given carte blanche to use whatever means they like to suppress the protesters.
- damage to property also seems to be one of the many other requirements of the job of a Special Security Force Command member, particular damage to parked vehicles. The riot policemen’s batons seem particularly suited for this and are used to smash windows and lights on vehicles for absolutely no legal reason.
- using their vehicles as weapons to run over protesters is also very popular, with at least one protester dying from his injuries inflicted after being repeatedly run over. A group of five protesters were arrested and accused of doing the same thing to a policeman during the March 2011 unrest with two being sentenced to death and the other three receiving life sentences in prison. The policemen who caused the death of the protester, however, have never been investigated. The Special Security Force Command also drive their vehicles at high speeds through the villages of the protesters, endangering the lives of anyone unlucky enough to be outside at the time. Some would suggest that this is done deliberately to cause injury and possibly death, which is one of the reasons residents have taken to blocking the streets in their own villages with whatever large objects they can lay their hands on to prevent it from happening.
- shooting. Riot police in most civilised countries rarely resort to the use of firearms when controlling unrest. They are present as a strong visual deterrent but they are used extensively against protesters in Bahrain. Four people were killed by gunshots during the clearing of the Pearl Roundabout back in February 2011 and there have been many more deaths attributed to guns, particularly shotguns, since then. The government has claimed that the firing of the guns has only ever been in self defense whenever any of the Special Security Force Command members felt threatened but it is interesting to note that very few of the protesters who died from gunshot wounds received them in the front of their bodies, almost always in the back. There has also been much debate about the type of ammunition used in the shotguns themselves and for an excellent analysis of this subject I highly recommend an article written by Bill Marczak, which can be read here.
- also on the subject of shooting is the use of rubber bullets. I had always been aware of rubber bullets being used by riot police around the world (as opposed to live ammunition, of which birdshot falls under the category) but never really understood how they worked. Being hit by a bullet made from rubber, while not being lethal would still definitely cause tremendous pain and although I have been shot by paintball pellets fired from an airgun I cannot imagine what it would be like to receive a hit from a rubber bullet fired from a rifle. I have since discovered, however, that the correct procedure for using rubber bullets is to fire them at the ground so that they bounce up into the legs of the protesters, away from vital organs and the head. The impact with the ground reduces the speed of the bullet, making the subsequent impact to the person’s body non-lethal. This does not explain, therefore, why there have been so many eye injuries to protesters since February 2011, with many youths having lost the sight of one eye due to direct hits from rubber bullets. One can only assume that the riot police have been deliberately aiming for the heads of the protesters, which is obviously contrary to the intended use of rubber bullets. For the government to explain this away as being due to a “lack of training” is both unacceptable and insulting.
So during my time in Bahrain I had seen members of the Royal Guard performing their duties of protecting the many valuable assets of the Khalifa family as well as the fully-imported members of the Special Security Force Command systematically suppressing the pro-democracy protesters. Thankfully, I had no direct contact with any members of the National Security Agency (which includes those responsible for carrying out the appalling cases of torture and human rights abuses in Bahrain’s prisons, as detailed in the highly damning BICI report) but I did have a visit by members of the Minister of the Interior to our apartment. Most of those who have read my blogs will know by now how shocked and disgusted I am by the behaviour of the Khalifa regime’s vast army of security personnel, whose existence is almost purely used for stamping out any form of opposition to the royal family and the government’s actions. I accept that every country must have its own forces to act in case of any form of social unrest, even in my own country Australia and in my wife’s country of Thailand, but I have never lived in a country (or visited one, for that matter) where security forces that have been especially brought in from other countries have been used in such a brutal and sadistic manner to suppress simple street marches. The many deaths, countless injuries and endless arrests and cases of torture that continue to occur in a country that prides itself on being an ally to both the US and Britain leaves me appalled beyond measure.
Next blog: A look at the world’s longest serving Prime Minister