House debates

Monday, 3 June 2013

Private Members' Business

Bahrain: Human Rights

6:29 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The main ingredient of this resolution seeks that the Bahraini regime follows the full implementation of recommendations in its own November 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry on human rights violations. One cannot be very confident that this will occur. In April of this year, amongst other events since the outbreak in 2011, there was the cancellation of a UN visit, after which Amnesty International concluded that the Bahrain regime was not serious about human rights. That followed the second cancellation of a planned visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Mr Juan Mendez, the other having been in February 2012. Mr Mendez himself went on to say:

'This is the second time my visit has been postponed at very short notice. The authorities seem to view my visit as an obstacle rather than a positive factor to the reform process …'

Now, we know that events in Bahrain in 2011, including an upsurge in resident action, was followed by Saudi Arabian intervention in the internal affairs of Bahrain in protection of the current regime. There has been wide coverage by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department in regard to events there.

A disturbing development was the contract signed between Prince Charles, with one of his operations, and the Bahrain regime for the architectural oversight of a 4,000-home development in the southern part of Bahrain, where there are discriminatory housing policies against Shia residents of the country. They remain on waiting lists while priority is given to migrant workers who join the police and security forces, from countries including India, Pakistan and Syria. What we have in a sense is an attempt by the regime to change the population balance in the country and to utilise outside bodies to enforce their measures. Amongst their other activities over the last little period were dawn raids and incarcerations of people in demonstrations, legitimate though they are. With regard to the Formula 1 Grand Prix in April 2013, it was said:

'This latest crackdown and the way it’s being carried out raises new questions about the Bahraini authorities' commitment to reform,' said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. These raids and detentions suggest that officials are more concerned with getting activists out of circulation for the Formula 1 race than with addressing the legitimate grievances that have led so many Bahrainis to take to the streets.'

On 6 April, security forces shot 16-year-old Hussain Khadem in the head with a teargas canister during a protest in the town of Sitra; the incident was filmed and posted on the internet. Khadem was reported to be in stable condition in a hospital awaiting surgery.

In an article from Amnesty International entitled 'Bahrain's dark side—empty promises while repression goes unabated', there is significant coverage of the government's failure to agree with the public perception that their forces had been especially repressive. A commission set up in November 2011 by the regime released a report about abuses carried out during the initial protests. The authorities conceded abuses were committed and said they were reforming. However, in the interim, we have seen their complete failure to act on their commitments; we have seen them fail to engage with outside human rights bodies and NGOs around the world; and we have seen the cancellation of the visit by the UN special rapporteur. We have seen the US State Department report on the Bahraini government repeatedly refusing entry to representatives of international human rights organisations, stating:

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not always implement the law effectively, and some officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

The US State Department report further concluded:

The government owned and operated all radio and television stations …

The report also talks of the arrest of a 13-year-old boy, Yassin Shebar, on 29 April 2012:

… according to local and international media, he was beaten by security officials when arrested. On May 3, he was charged with illegal gathering (participating in an illegal protest or demonstration), rioting, and tearing a policeman's shirt.

The State Department also noted:

… in many such situations, the law prevents citizens from filing civil suits against security agencies.

It is a regime that, by any international standard, is suppressing the majority of its people, denying democratic rights and suppressing political opposition.

6:34 pm

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and rise in support of it. If you look at the full motion you will see that, yes, it is very critical of the government of Bahrain but it also attempts to give an outline, guidance and some way forward that might be adopted by the government of the Kingdom of Bahrain so that we do not have to have recurring debates like this in the Australian parliament that reflect the concerns of not only the wider Australian community but also, in particular, those who have made their home in Australia from Bahrain. I supported a previous motion in May last year. So we might end up having to do this every year, unless the government of Bahrain actually takes concrete action.

Some commentators might say—and they would have every right to do so—that the human rights situation over the last 12 months has deteriorated. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a culture of impunity reigns, with human rights violations and arrests occurring on a weekly basis. We welcomed the 2011 Independent Commission of Inquiry, appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Its recommendations have yet to be fully implemented. You often see that it is the case that the easy part is to have the inquiry and to have independent suggestions about the way forward, but the difficult part is to then be genuine in your response to what you are told., and this has to be in a true sense of reconciliation and reflection on the deed that have been done.

This commission of inquiry found that security forces had used excessive force against peaceful protestors during demonstrations and had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, ill treated and denied them fair trials. Unfortunately, according to Human Rights Watch, protest leaders remain behind bars and no high-ranking officials have been held responsible for the abuses. Indeed, Human Rights Watch goes on to say:

Security forces used excessive force in 2012 to disperse anti-government protests. Authorities jailed human rights defenders and people who participated in peaceful demonstrations or criticized officials. The government dissolved an Islamic opposition party.

More recent examples include that, on 15 May, last month, Bahrain state media reported that six people were jailed for a year for insulting the king in a messages on Twitter.

On 25 April 2013, the United Nations expert Juan Méndez said that the Bahrain government had effectively cancelled his scheduled visit to Bahrain. So they would not allow the UN expert to visit. He was going to investigate reports that authorities abused and tortured protestors in detention. On 15 March this year, dozens of people were injured when protestors clashed riot police on the second anniversary of the Saudi-led military intervention in Bahrain.

On a positive note, I acknowledge that on 29 March 2013 a court in Bahrain cleared 21 medics of charges linked to antigovernment protests in 2011. If I remember rightly, that was the basis of our motion in May 2012. Arrests of dozens of medical workers were part of a crackdown by the Bahrain's Sunni rulers after the Arrests of dozens of medical workers were part of the crackdown by Bahrain’s Sunni rulers after an uprising began in 2011 by majority Shiites seeking a greater political voice. I acknowledge that on 13 March this year two police officers were sentenced to 10 years in prison for the fatal beating of an antigovernment protestor at the beginning of Bahrain's political crisis in 2011. The sentences are amongst the harshest against security forces for abuses in Bahrain.

I join with the member for Werriwa in welcoming the resumption of Bahrain's national dialogue, which has been held twice a week since 10 February 2013. However, I note that on 22 May the majority Shiite groups announced that they would boycott these meetings for two weeks due to a crackdown by authorities that has seen hundreds of citizens arrested and the home of a prominent Shiite cleric raided. I hope that the Bahrain government take the discussion here in the spirit that it is meant. Something must be done to show that Bahrain is going forward, not further backwards.

6:39 pm

Photo of Michael DanbyMichael Danby (Melbourne Ports, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad to have this opportunity to speak about the situation in Bahrain, as we did this morning about the situation of Assyrian Christians, particularly in northern Iraq. When the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East in 2011, there were high hopes that this would lead to a new age of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. In Tunisia last year, I met Rashid Ghannushi, the head of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. His comments disassociating himself and his party from Hamas were most encouraging, but unfortunately there has been much unwelcome backsliding of democracy in Tunisia. I trust the words of Mr Ghannushi, and I call upon him to address the situation there.

In Bahrain, however, the Arab Spring produced a deadlock between the king and his government, dominated by the Sunni Muslim minority, and the Shiah majority of the population. Since 2011, there have been a series of mass demonstrations in Bahrain against the government, demanding free elections and an end to Sunni domination. The government has met these demonstrations with violent repression and highly political trials. Over 100 people have been killed and many have suffered torture while in detention. The government went so far as to prosecute and imprison doctors and nurses who gave medical aid to demonstrators who had been injured by police gunfire or affected by tear gas. Over 50 medical professionals were convicted of sedition, and about a dozen are still in prison. This is a disgraceful proceeding. Doctors who are undertaking the requirements of the Hippocratic oath should not be treated like this and have rightly brought Bahrain international condemnation. All of this is deplorable, and I join with the members for Werriwa and Scullin in demanding that the government of Bahrain cease violent repression of peaceful demonstrations and release all who have been arrested for taking part in such demonstrations, particularly the doctors and nurses, who are doing no more than their medical duty.

At the same time, however, we need to be cautious in our approach to this situation. From 1602 to 1783, Bahrain was under the control of the Persian Empire. The Islamist regime in Tehran has not forgotten this and regards Bahrain as part of its sphere of influence. Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the ayatollahs, particularly Ayatollah Khamenei, have continued to seek to extend Iran's power to the Gulf region and have consistently interfered in the internal affairs of Bahrain and other Gulf States.

It is clearly not in the interests of peace in the Middle East that the Iranian regime gain control of the Gulf States. The King of Bahrain postulates himself as a friend of the West, and Bahrain provides basing facilities for the US Fifth Fleet. I make no apology for the fact that it would be against peace in the Middle East, against democratic interests and against Australia's interests for the government of Bahrain to be overthrown and replaced by an Islamist regime controlled by Iran.

But there are other ways out of this dilemma. If the government of Bahrain wishes to stay in power and retain the support of the democratic world and of other people in the Middle East, it needs to win the confidence of its own subjects. As the member for Scullin suggested, the people of Bahrain should be allowed to enter into a dialogue with their government. The king should release all political prisoners and allow free elections within a constitutional framework that guarantees the rights and freedoms of all Bahrainis. Then Bahrain would be a worthy recipient of the support of the democratic world against Iranian expansionism, amongst other things.

I commend the member for Werriwa and the member for Scullin for their participation in this debate—and indeed the member for Werriwa's initiation of it—and join them in calling for a national peaceful dialogue in Bahrain, which has recently commenced and recently been suspended. I call on the government of Bahrain to recommence those peaceful negotiations as soon as possible in the interests of all of its subjects and peace in that part of the world.

Photo of Mike SymonMike Symon (Deakin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before adjourning the debate, I certainly acknowledge the gallery following this debate and obviously following the debate on human rights in Bahrain with some interest. With no further speakers on this topic, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next meeting.