On 14th February Mahmood al-Jaziri suffered a direct hit to the head from a tear gas canister fired by a member of the state security forces. Later a video reportedly depicting the incident appeared on YouTube. In it the victim can be seen bending down when a police officer, who is no more than 15 metres away, fires a tear gas canister directly at his head. On 22nd February, Mahmood al-Jaziri died in Salmaniya Medical Complex as a result of his injuries. Later that evening, the MOI preemptively distanced themselves from any potential responsibility in Mahmood’s death by announcing a carefully worded investigation into the ‘circumstances surrounding the initial injury’. The MOI also claimed that Mahmood was injured and treated in an unknown location, but do not mention a video.
In addition to the human tragedy, the nature of al-Jaziri’s death raises a number of key issues about politics and police accountability in Bahrain. These are as follows; the tendency of the MOI to absolve itself of responsibility with regards to police criminality, the spatial politics of funerals and deaths in Bahrain, the ambiguity surrounding police investigations, the state media’s role in reporting potential police criminality, and the limitations of social media (and youtube videos in this case) in serving as an effective means of improving accountability by monitoring the police. The purpose of this blog post is to examine these issues, though it is appropriate to begin with a discussion about the video of Mahmood’s death.
Mahmood Al Jaziri’s head injuries are consistent with those suffered by the person shot in the video. Both appeared to have been struck on the left side of the head. The picture below, reportedly of al-Jaziri after the injury, shows him wearing a beige top – similar to that worn by the man in the video. The photo and video (see picture on the right) also show someone in a matching red tracksuit top carrying al-Jaziri after the injury.The man in the photo on the left looks like Al Jaziri.
According to a report in Al Wasat published on 23rd February 2013, the family of Al Jaziri said that the video confirmed that al-Jaziri fell to the floor after being hit by a tear gas canister. Bahrain’s largest opposition political party Al Wefaq also appeared to confirm that the person in the video was al-Jaziri, and tweeted a link to the video stating that ”al-Jaziri’s murder was fully documented’.
Strangely, however, the Daily Tribune (DT) reported on 7th March that Mahmood’s brother claimed that the person in the video was not Mahmood. The brother also reportedly said that two masked men brought Mahmood home on the night of the 14th, further delaying his admission to hospital. Apparently this information came from Mahmood’s brother’s testimony to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which was set up after the BICI to establish an independent and impartial mechanism to determine the accountability of government officials*. It is perhaps worth noting that the Daily Tribune piece is misleading, for Mahmood’s brother’s testimony seems to have come via SIU head Nawaf Hamza, as reported in this GDN article. The GDN use a direct quote from Hamza, who stated
“The brother also said that he saw on the Internet a video of a policeman firing a tear gas canister at a masked man, but the clothes he was wearing were different to what Mr Al Jazeeri was wearing when he was brought home after his injury.”
Whether or not the brother said anything else is unclear, but Hamza appears only to mention that al-Jaziri was wearing different clothes from those worn by the person in the video. Hamza does not seem to say that Mahmood’s brother claimed the person in the video was not Mahmood. However, the Daily Tribune piece is quite unequivocal, with the headline and tagline reading
”It’s not Al-Jaziri’.
Internet footage showing a different person says Mr Al Jaziri’s brother
Despite this seemingly misleading journalism, a member of Al Wefaq was initially reported to have offered witness testimony to the incident. However, according to Raji Unnikrishnan, the DT journalist behind the aforementioned dodgy piece, Al Wefaq reportedly ‘failed to submit these proofs’, and are apparently going to provide video evidence instead. Although Al Wefaq’s alleged u turn may simply be the result of a misunderstanding or a journalistic fabrication, there could be more sinister forces at work. After all, the MOI has been meeting with religious leaders, newspaper editors and members of political parties, and the Justice Minister has alluded to Al Wefaq being dissolved for committing unspecified acts that divided the country. Whether or not Mahmood’s death was being employed as a bargaining chip is impossible to tell, though rows over the funeral proceedings have certainly been a contentious issues between the MOI and the opposition for the past 12 days.
The MOI also appear to be preemptively blaming the death of Mahmood on the fact he was not immediately taken to hospital. The same rhetoric surfaced around the death of Hussain al-Jaziri, Mahmood’s cousin, who was shot and killed by police on February 14th. An article in the Gulf Daily News (GDN) on 21st February reported a ‘well-places source’ as saying that Hussain’s life could have been saved had he not first been taken to an ‘illegal’ clinic. Similarly, on 15th March the GDN reported a consultant from Salmaniya Medical Complex as saying that Mahmood’s head injury was initially minor and he he would have been saved if he had been brought to hospital immediately. The Bahrain News Agency also reported that anyone caught treating an injured suspect in a recent hit and run case would be held ‘ legally responsible for’ the victim’s ‘ health and well being’. The MOI and state-controlled media’s rhetoric would suggest they are already launching a PR campaign designed to shift the blame from the police to those attempting to treat the victims. Naturally, neither the MOI or Bahrain News Agency mention the militarization of Bahrain’s hospitals or the fact doctor’s are legally required to inform the police if their patients are suspected to have been involved in criminal activity.
Rows over Mahmood’s Funeral and Cause of Death
Mahmood’s funeral has also been the cause of tensions between the Ministry of the Interior and Al Jaziri’s family. The debate centred around the fact that the family wanted to have the funeral procession in the village of Al-Daih, whereas the MOI wanted the procession to be in Nabih Saleh. The family argued that many of their relatives lived in Al Daih, while the MOI were reluctant to have the procession in Al Daih as it is so close to the capital city. The dispute lasted 12 days, and eventually the family agreed for the procession and burial to be in Nabih Saleh. While some people (including an ‘ anonymous Shi’a’ cleric) criticised the family and Al Wefaq for trying to politicise the death, other questions were raised, including the issue of the death certificate.
The Daily Tribune reported that Sameera Rajab, Bahrain’s notorious Minister of State for Information Affairs, said that Mahmood’s cause of death was due to a wound from a ‘ metal piece’. The Daily Tribune said this contradicted the family’s assertion that he was shot by a shotgun, though as far as I know Mahmood’s family never said he was shot by a shotgun. Indeed, it sounds like the Daily Tribune were confusing Mahmood al-Jaziri with his cousin Hussain al-jaziri, who was shot and killed by police with a shotgun on February 14th. Al Jaziri’s death certificate apparently said he died as a result of a ‘head injury from a fall‘. Despite the apparent finality of this statement, the Gulf Daily News reported on 7th March that ‘ experts’ were re-examining the bodies of Hussain and Mahmood al-Jaziri. Although this examination has not yet been completed, the family apparently dropped their demands that the death certificate should say tear gas canister. Whether or not these re-examinations will alter the outcome remains to be seen.
Videos of Brutality and Police Accountability
The video documentation of Mahmood al-Jaziri’s death is just the latest of many videos that show the criminality of Bahrain’s police. Bahrain Watch are in the process of documenting all available videos that show police violence in Bahrain since 2011. This table shows an extensive (though undoubtedly incomplete) list of videos of police criminality that occurred in 2012 (work on compiling videos from 2011 is in progress). The table categorises the videos according to whether they show any of the following; police brutality, police vandalism, police theft, excessive use of tear gas, and police use of non-standard weapon. So far, for 2012 alone, there are 37 videos, 16 of which depict police brutality. It is also important to the bear in mind that videos of police violence represent only a tiny fraction of actual police violence that occurs in Bahrain.
Arguably, the 16 videos of police brutality may demonstrate the more abhorrent and clearcut instances of police violence than videos related to tear gas. So, for the sake of argument, let us exclude videos of police misuse of tear gas for the purpose of the following statement. Out of the 16 videos from 2012 that show police violence against civilians, the MOI have only announced four investigations. Of these four investigations, no outcomes are known. Despite the MOI’s claim that it will update the public, little has been heard since. In addition to this, the Information Affairs Authority have not responded to a request by Bahrain Watch for more information on the status of all police investigations announced by the MOI** .
Considering the fact ‘secret sources’ reportedly saw HR activist Yousif al-Muhafadha tweeting illicit photos during a gathering, it is amazing that the MOI continue to ignore video evidence that has garnered tens of thousands of views. Clearly their vision acuity is not so good when it comes to holding the police accountable.The establishment of the Cyber Crimes Unit and the state’s prosecution of citizens who insult King Hamad on Twitter demonstrate the state’s actual capacity to address such issues. However, there is clearly a lack of willingness to prosecute members of the security forces.
On the rare occasion the MOI do actually announce an investigation, it is usually followed by an ominous silence. Given the state’s continued failure to hold anyone account for torture, the MOI’s weak response to videos of police brutality further highlights a policy of non-accountability and willful blindness. It also illustrates the limitations of social media as a tool for holding authoritarian government’s accountable. Indeed, the presence of such evidence is meaningless when commitment to accountability appears to be non-existent.
Finally, it is interesting to consider what effects the existence of such videos have, especially when the perpetrators are not being held accountable? Do they simply serve to increase public anger towards the police and the government, or do they have the effect of generating fear of authority – or both? Either way, the social control function is useful. If they generate fear of authority, the benefits to the regime are self explanatory. If they further public anger, and potentially increase radicalization leading to further violence, then the opposition movement will remain fragmented – making it easier for the regime to operate a divide and rule policy. Social media is also a good litmus test of the sincerity of police reform in Bahrain. After all it is all well and good announcing training programs and hiring the likes of John Yates and John Timoney to train the police, but if the MOI cannot even respond to widely circulated videos of police violence on Twitter then one must doubt their commitment to the reform project.
*Incidentally, I am not sure why a mechanism designed to hold government officials accountable allows the press to identify the witnesses giving testimony.
** This request pertained to investigations announced into police brutality by the MOI that were not related to the BICI report.