One month ago, Bahrain Watch launched Access Denied. The project documents over 200 individuals who have been kept out of Bahrain since the start of the popular uprising in February 2011. Despite the government’s continued claims of holding an “open-door policy”, the problem of access denial persisted across January.
A particularly serious case occurred on January 29th when Dr Amy Austin Holmes, Assistant Professor of Sociology at The American University in Cairo, was refused entry at the airport. Dr Holmes, a US citizen, told Bahrain Watch that she had been intending to conduct a four-day research trip to Bahrain with around 20 appointments planned, including meetings with the Bahrain Foreign Ministry, American and British embassy officials, the US military attaché, and various Bahraini opposition groups.
Dr Holmes arrived at Bahrain airport from Cairo, just after 5pm local time. After a period of waiting, she was told that she would not be permitted to enter Bahrain, however officials offered no explanation why this was the case. Dr Holmes made a series of telephone calls to Bahraini and US officials, but the situation remained unchanged. She made a request to the US Embassy for a consular officer to come to the airport to offer assistance, however nobody came. At 1:50am, some eight hours after arrival, Dr Holmes left Bahrain airport on a plane to Qatar.
Officials at the US Embassy suggested to Dr Holmes that her access problem may have been a result of her interest in the Arab Spring and her published work on the Egyptian uprising, to which she was a witness. Dr Holmes does have a research interest in Bahrain, although her only academic article on the subject is currently still in press. She first visited the country in 2010, and attended the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on Bahrain in 2012. She is also presenting a paper on “Sectarianism and Citizenship in Egypt and Bahrain” at a conference in Qatar in early February.
Dr Holmes’ exclusion from Bahrain is a further case of academics being kept out of the country. Last year, British academics Dr Kristian Ulrichsen and Jane Kinninmont were both denied visas to attend a conference in Bahrain. Others suspect that their research interests have led to them being placed on a blacklist. For example, Dr Justin Gengler believes that he is “not allowed in Bahrain” as a consequence of his work on the country.
As well as an academic on a research trip, in January authorities also refused entry to two tourists. On January 22nd, Hugh Lovatt and a friend were travelling to Bahrain for a holiday, but ended up being put on a flight to Qatar:
— Hugh Lovatt (@h_lovatt) January 22, 2013
Felt like I was just in Ben Gurion! #Bahrain has one seriously paranoid/introverted government, but thankfully one of our major Gulf allies!
— Hugh Lovatt (@h_lovatt) January 22, 2013
At the airport, Hugh, who works for the London based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), was kept waiting for a short period before being told that he had failed a “secondary background check” and should “apply through [the] embassy next time”. He observed that passport authorities appeared to be “quizzing all Europeans”. After the experience, Hugh noticed that a Bahrain passport officer had visited his profile on LinkedIn. His Academia.edu page had also been visited. It was accessed following an internet search on a misspelling of his name (“Hugu”). This would suggest that the “secondary background check” involved a simple Google search, although precisely what led the authorities to prevent Hugh and his friend enjoying a holiday is uncertain.
A few days earlier, on January 18th, a large number of Iraqi football fans were reportedly denied entry at the airport. They had been travelling to Bahrain to watch Iraq play the United Arab Emirates in the final of the Gulf Cup. Iraq had secured a place in the final after beating Bahrain on penalties in the semi-final.
Journalist Frank Kane, citing Iraqi friends, writes that fans had, in Baghdad, “been promised visas on arrival in Bahrain, but when many of them got there they were told there were no visa facilities, and they were kept at the airport until their return flight, some 15 hours later.” Two such Iraqi fans, who had flown into Bahrain from Dubai on Canadian passports, made serious allegations to The National:
[Faris Abdulrazzaq and Hamdy Hamoudi] claim a Government official at the airport told them he had received a directive to not let Iraqis in the country – either those with Iraqi passports or people of Iraqi heritage with foreign passports.
Mr Abdulrazzaq, 42, said: “I feel disgusted and insulted. The UAE fans on the flight were shocked at the way we were treated. I have travelled to sporting events around the world and I have never seen anything like this in my life.”
“I’m extremely angry. There was no reason given,” added Mr Hamoudi, 31. “There was an airplane that came from Iraq and everyone came out, including the pilot and stewardess, and they didn’t allow them to enter.”
Tawfeeq Al Salhi, Chairman of the Gulf Cup’s Media Committee, denied that there were any access problems, telling Sport360, “Bahrain did not reject the entrance of any fans or supporters to Bahrain.” He also claimed that “all the media personnel” were given “access into Bahrain”. However, the experience of journalist Muhammad Aldalou and his three colleagues tells a different story.
Muhammad was travelling with “three fellow British journalists”, who were all “detained, ignored and trapped in limbo for the better part of 15 hours”. They had been invited to attend the Gulf Cup final by a PR company. However, upon arrival they were separated from the PR representative they were travelling with, who then failed to offer any assistance when they were stopped by officials. Muhammed writes of the experience:
We’d filled out our immigration forms and approached the counter. That was when the suspicion began. What followed was approximately twenty minutes of irrelevant questioning (or at least what I deemed to be irrelevant) until the official eventually said that we would have to wait at the seating area while they ‘investigated’ us in the control office.
Obviously, by this time regret was seeping through our every pore; wishing we could have somehow avoided disclosing that we were journalists (but we later agreed that it was best not to lie because they would be presented with other pieces of evidence like visas, camera equipment, etc). A number of officials approached us with different requests and questions, all as significantly irrelevant as the next and by the time we’d been given a final form (apparently the immigration one wasn’t extensive enough) we’d given up on entering the country as the match was already underway and we’d lost our only method of transportation. Of course, what I’ve neglected to mention was that throughout this time we’d tried to contact the PR person to help us by presenting some sort of official accreditation that we were here for the Gulf Cup. She’d already gone through to the stadium and the phone was never answered.
Bahrain Watch will continue to monitor access to Bahrain across the coming weeks and months. The anniversary of the February 14th uprising is likely to see increased media interest in the country. Such interest will serve as a further test of Bahrain’s commitments to its pledges at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012, where it promised to “[allow] foreign media to enter the country and report freely” (UPR 115.148) and “lift all restrictions on movements of foreign journalists and international organizations defending human rights” (UPR 115.156).
Access problems can be reported to us through our website.