Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the head of Bahrain’s Public Security Force (formerly Bahrain State Police), Maj. Gen. Tarek Al Hasan hailed recent reforms in the national security apparatus, affirming that the country has safely navigated dangerous protests and security threats over the past two years. He claimed that Hezbollah is working with some local forces to destabilize the country, but drew short of pointing the finger at Iran, instead saying that “there are groups within Iran who are involved.”
Hasan decried the media portrayal of the situation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state, adding that an eagerly expected GCC security agreement for a joint police force will soon be in the implementation phase.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Bahrain is currently one of several Arab states facing demonstrations and protests, at least according to media’s portrayal of the situation in the country. Do you agree?
Maj. Gen. Tarek Al Hasan: Bahrain’s image in the media is distorted. Since the outbreak of the crisis in 2011, we have been subjected to a smear campaign by the media to the extent that two satellite channels had to formally apologize for broadcasting inaccurate information. The coverage was biased from the outset and did not portray the reality of the situation. Some media outlets reported that Apache helicopters were targeting demonstrators from the air, despite the fact that the Bahraini government does not possess a single Apache helicopter.
Media outlets report what they hear without verifying the stories. There are some reporters in Bahrain who only report things that agree with their own personal political disposition. They convey an image that serves their own personal political leanings, and thus the news becomes distorted. The news outlets cannot be bothered to verify the stories they publish. As always, we are committed to operating transparently and we are trying to correct the misconceptions. We are confident that the truth will prevail over time.
Q: Has Bahrain then passed through this phase of protests and demonstrations? Have things returned to normal?
We believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and the Bahraini security forces emerged from the crisis of 2011 all the stronger. Many of our preconceived notions were dispelled, and we have now become a world-class police force. As you know, a fact-finding commission was created in the wake of the crisis headed by Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, which was given full access for its investigation. It presented its official recommendations, five of which concerned the police force. Not only were these recommendations implemented in full, in some cases we went beyond what was recommended in the report.
For example, one recommendation suggested expanding the functions of the Office of the Inspector General to encompass registering grievances. We went beyond that and formed the General Commission for Grievances, which is independent of the Ministry of the Interior and has the power to investigate all allegations of misconduct committed by members of the security services. If abuses are confirmed, it [the General Commission] can take two possible courses of action: if the offenses are judged to be criminal in nature it can refer the offenders to the public prosecutor or civil court, or if the case involves violation of police protocol it can refer the offenders to the Police Discipline Tribunal.
Q: What of the recommendations concerning those who had lost their jobs and cases of enforced disappearance?
Regarding those who had lost their jobs, they have all been restored to their posts, even those who were involved in the riots. As regards enforced disappearance, we have introduced a new electronic system that enables us to track the location of any and all detained persons. A suspect is tracked and monitored from the moment they are arrested until they are released or incarcerated. When were they admitted to the hospital? When were they given access to a lawyer? Where were they first detained? When did the family visit? It is now a simple task to tag a person and create a virtual profile that contains all of their relevant information. Our police cars are equipped with GPS, so we can track their movements at all times. All of these measures are intended to prevent any wrongdoing or misconduct by the police.
Q: How have these changes affected morale among the Bahraini security forces?
We are more confident now. The grievances concerning police officers have changed significantly. While there are still some irregularities in the field, these are natural and a result of the thousands of interactions with members of the public on a daily basis. After all, we are only human. The difference now is that we have the ability to uncover misconduct and remedy the mistakes. If the misconduct occurred while enforcing the law, we deal with it in accordance with the law. However if it resulted from a lack of training, we make the offenders undergo additional training.
Q: What is your perception of the situation as it stands now?
The level of fear has dropped significantly, as have the number of crimes. Terrorism-related crimes have also decreased significantly since 2011. True, there are sporadic incidents, but even these are diminished. Moreover, we are uncovering sleeper cells seeking to destabilize the country. We have documents proving their criminal intentions, and we are certain that these terrorists were trained abroad. We have the evidence to support this, and many of these sleeper cells have been eliminated. We are focusing on combating terrorism.
We are not saying that everything is perfect. Attacks on police officers are still occurring, as are disruptions of public transport. However, this will not keep us from implementing our reform measures. Between January and November of 2013, we licensed 77 rallies, meaning that there was a rally every four days. Our presence on the ground is now stronger, and we are capable of adapting to the situation in real time. We are improving discipline in the face of provocation, which was the reason for many of the injuries we suffered during the demonstrations.
Q: Bahrain’s security forces have lately been criticized for importing large quantities of tear gas. Do you have any response to this criticism?
Isn’t this better than using live ammunition, especially when confronting groups engaging in guerilla warfare? The people and the leaders of Bahrain are non-violent by nature. It is foreign to us, and thus we work tirelessly towards establishing discipline so that no one gets killed. We try to strike a balance between human rights, freedom of expression, and establishing stability, which can be difficult. Security without freedoms means oppression, and we do not desire that. But similarly, unchecked freedom without security means chaos, in which no human would choose to live.
Q: How have the reforms, which were implemented at the behest of the senior leadership, changed the police force?
They have made a great difference. Following King Hamad’s reform initiative, which was launched shortly after he ascended to the throne in 1999, one could sense that things were changing. It focused on fundamental reforms and placed Bahrain on equal footing with the most advanced democratic countries. It created the separation of powers, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary, and legislative powers. Prior to this, we had not seen legal gatherings or lawful rallies, but this all changed after the reform initiative. We were charged with encouraging this new political reality and be the driving force behind it, not an obstacle standing in its way. It was our responsibility to make this new philosophy a reality.
Q: How did this affect Bahrain?
Some groups tried to exploit the momentum of the Arab Spring by lumping Bahrain in with the other countries. At the outset there were modest demands regarding quality of life and other small issues. However, the wave of the Arab Spring changed the rhetoric of the grievances and they began demanding the end of the [current] political system and the establishment of an Islamic republic. The strange thing was that these demands were being made while true reforms were being implemented by an elected parliament in which the opposition held a strong presence, and in a political climate that afforded many freedoms, including freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, etc.
We were permitting demonstrations to be held; one year the number of lawful demonstrations was more than 400. Despite the prevailing democratic climate, some groups still called for the collapse of the political system. They attempted to ride the wave of the Arab Spring and drag Bahrain into a spiral of violence and conflict. They seized control of the strategic roundabouts in the city’s center and took over the hospital in order to disrupt daily life and undermine the economy. There were calls to undermine the national economy in a manner that would paralyze the country. They began to act in ways that were far removed from the peaceful demonstrations. The situation devolved into sectarian rallying cries that threatened the very social fabric of the country.
In all of Bahrain’s history, it has never known strife between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, or between Sunnis and Shi’ites. In Manama, one can find churches and synagogues alongside mosques; we are a very religiously tolerant society. However, the situation grew into sectarian polarization and social friction, which threatened our social fabric, thus there was no option for the state but to intervene. We intervened with as little force as possible so as to return life to its normal course.
Q: You have previously said that there were foreign entities seeking to destabilize the country. Do you still believe this to be true?
We are certain that Hezbollah and the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades support elements within Bahrain that are seeking to destabilize the country. We have documents proving this. We are not talking only about confessions; we have hard evidence which we uncovered on their confiscated computers, overheard on their telephone conversations, and documented in their financial activities.
Q: What about Iran?
We are not accusing the government of Iran of involvement; however, there are groups within Iran who are involved.
Q: Bahrain’s parliament has recently recommended intensifying the punishment for engaging in terrorist activity. Some have described these measures as a step backwards following the reforms. What is your view?
The National Assembly’s decrees are an indication of the state’s willingness to combat the scourge of terrorism. The state opposes the spread of terrorism, which would undermine our freedoms and impede the path of reform. When life is disrupted in Manama for sectarian ends and the national economy sabotaged, the state must intervene. We are not banning demonstrations or suspending freedom of expression, but we must protect the capital and the security of the people. Moreover, similar measures have been undertaken by every country around the world.
Q: What can you tell us about the joint GCC security agreement, following reports of an accord to establish a joint GCC police force?
As far as I know, the agreement has made great progress, with four countries [Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain] signing it and Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman abstaining. After a few more obstacles are overcome, it will enter the implementation phase. It will help to strengthen security, create an atmosphere of cooperation, and provide legal cover for the security services among all of the Gulf States.
We, as a group of countries, are under threat because of our strategic status regionally and internationally and our immense natural resources. Security can only come with progress, and thus we are holding continuous meetings to exchange information and facilitate stronger coordination. There are hundreds of committees within the GCC, with a large proportion of them being devoted to security issues.
Q: What is the largest obstacle facing the Gulf collectively? Which crimes occur most often?
Aside from cases of extremism and terrorism, cross-border organized crime rings represent a danger, along with drug trafficking, human trafficking, labor violations, and electronic crimes on social networking sites, which have begun to increase rapidly.
The police forces of the Gulf have made huge strides in documenting and combating such crimes. We have a branch that specializes in e-crime and organized crime. We have divisions for economic security, corruption, and electronic security. We live in a region distinguished by its high levels of economic activity, and it is necessary that we protect these investments.