In February, Radhika Sainath flew from New York City to Bahrain with the idea of reporting live Twitter updates on the growing turmoil in the streets of the small kingdom in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, where pro-democracy marchers and security forces have clashed since the so-called “Arab Spring.”
In the couple of days before the American attorney was tear-gassed, arrested, tossed in jail for 11 hours, ordered deported and then thrown on a London-bound plane where she was struck in the back of the head and then handcuffed, Sainath said there were two things Bahrainis wanted to know from a U.S. citizen.
She said the first question was “why are you manufacturing the tear gas canisters” – made by a firm in western Pennsylvania – “that fly at our heads every night?” – and the second question was usually this:
“Why are you sending your police chief over here?”
That American police chief is John Timoney, the former Philadelphia top cop. His tenure as commissioner here in the late 1990s-early 2000s is still well remembered here both by fans who say he reduced street crime and dragged the police department into the 21st Century -- and by critics who say his tough crackdown against protesters at the 2000 GOP convention violated civil liberties.
But Timoney’s memorable stint on the streets of Philadelphia was a warm-up act for a star turn on a global stage. The charismatic cop with the thick brogue of his native Dublin was hired last December -- along with an equally controversial Scotland Yard alum -- by Bahrain’s oil-engorged monarchy to clean up security forces accused of torture and wanton brutality during a lethal crackdown in 2011.
It’s hard to imagine a mission more fraught with irony and contradiction. Bahraini officials hailed the hiring of Timoney and former high-profile London cop John Yates – ousted over his ties to the Rupert Murdoch phone-hacking scandal – as a victory for human rights under a plan to eliminate torture and other police lapses.
As Bahrain’s pro-democracy activists and their allies in the human rights community note – a successful mission by Timoney and Yates may well curb civic unrest. But that outcome would also prop up Bahrain’s long-time ruler King Hamad – long accused of presiding over one of the world’s most repressive governments and of denying basic rights, especially to the nation’s majority Shiite population.
“People are fighting for basic democracy – to vote for their leader, for equality, for the right of free speech,” said Sainaith, the human rights activist, now back in New York. “Timoney is on the side of the oppressors.”
Efforts to reach Timoney – now working full-time as a consultant to Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior – for this article were not successful. He has defended his work elsewhere – insisting last month to National Public Radio that he is not in Bahrain to support repression.
“I would not be here if I wasn't convinced from the Ministry of the Interior that these folks are serious about reform, looking to get it right,” Timoney told NPR. He blamed the ongoing violence in Bahrain not on the majority of peaceful protesters but on small bands of young men who attack the police at night with Molotov cocktails, adding of the security forces: “I think the restraint has been extraordinary.”
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, met with Timoney and Yates during a visit to Bahrain last month and returned with a nuanced view of the dilemma facing the former Philadelphia commissioner. The D.C.-based rights activist said Timoney knows he’s walking on a political tightrope and “candidly acknowledges that none of what he is trying to do can possibly work if there isn’t a political solute to the Bahrain crisis.”
The Human Rights Watch official also worries that the Timoney-Yates reforms so far have done nothing to prevent the situation in Bahrain from currently spiraling out of control, with increasing episodes of security forces firing tear gas and supposedly non-lethal birdshot at protesters and reports. And the group has confirmed that police brutality still takes place – just not in the police stations where the western consultants have installed high-tech cameras.
“I’m really worried,” Malinowski said. “We’re seeing this cycle of escalation on both sides.”
Most Americans, and the Obama administration, have been generally supportive and even enthusiastic about the wave of protests and reform that swept much of the Arab world beginning in January 2011. Since then, “the Arab Spring” has resulted in new governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the bloody U.S.-and-NATO backed overthrow of slain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, and an ongoing civil war in Syria in which the American government has urged the regime to step down.
Bahrain is different, the outlier.
The small Gulf island nation of more than 1.2 million people, including imported workers, is a key strategic ally of the United States in the region, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Bahrain is a close friend of America’s friend, Saudi Arabia, and an opponent to its neighbor Iran. Unlike almost every other Arab uprising, the Obama administration did not openly voice support for Bahrain’s democracy movement when large protests began 15 months ago. Instead, activists say, the U.S. has sought quietly to broker a deal that would expand democracy but keep the monarchy in place.
Meanwhile, the Bahraini regime received widespread condemnation for its repression of the 2011 protests, which resulted in anywhere from 35 to 90 deaths and reports of many more beaten and tortured. A commission established by King Hamad reported back in November on widespread human rights abuses and called for major reforms – and then Timoney and Yates were hired to help the government put those in place.
The criticism of Timoney and Yates takes place on two levels. For starters, many activists say the police reform campaign hasn’t even ended police brutality – just changed the nature of it. Last month, Human Rights Watch reported that arrestees in Bahrain were still being beaten or tortured by police, but at informal facilities, before the detainees were taken to a police station where the cameras have been installed.
Then there is the issue of birdshot that police have fired at protesters – which Timoney described to NPR as “very, very tiny metal - little balls” that are “not aimed at the torso -- usually at the lower extremities.” The activist group Bahrain Watch reported that birdshot injuries have increased dramatically in recent weeks, with 11 serious injuries in just one night of protests, April 18, with some of the injured shot in the back. Two days later, a 36-year-old protester was found dead on a rooftop, reportedly from birdshot.
“The perception is that there has been little improvement,” activist Ala'a Shehabi told the Daily News in an email from Bahrain, complaining bitterly that the presence of Timoney and Yates is only to “legitimize” an ongoing brutal police crackdown.
Indeed, the second problem is that focusing on the incremental policing reforms pushed by Timoney can overshadow the much more important issues in play: Citizens forced to take their greivances to the streets in an effort just to win basic rights such as free speech and free assembly.
Sainath and another American visitor were arrested as they were trying to report on Twitter and shoot video after police fired tear gas at protesters in the streets of the capital city of Manama. She said police were already seeking her because of her affiliation with the rights group Witness Bahrain, exclaiming “That’s her!” when they saw her name.
She said that while in jail, her interrogator asked her to confirm that she supported human rights -- as if that were a crime.
"So you admit it!” he exclaimed, according to Sainath, recounting her experience that was truly Kafkaesque.
This is John Timoney’s brave new world. He may ultimately show some success in modernizing Bahrain’s cops. But at the end of the day, this son of Dublin -- the cop whose civic “beat” once included the revolutionary landmarks of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell -- is also keeping an unelected king on his throne.