BEIRUT: Lebanon provides one of the last safe havens in the region for activists covering human rights violations committed by the government in Bahrain, activists leaders said Wednesday at an international conference in Beirut. Bahrain’s largely Shiite population began calls and protests for democracy in Bahrain against its Sunni regime. The constitutional monarchy led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has led an often brutal crackdown against protesters that has left around 100 people dead and 1,000 wounded.
Leading activists and religious figures from around the region gathered in Beirut to voice their support for the protest movement, condemn infractions by the regime and highlight the lack of attention the international community gives to the Gulf uprising compared to other Arab protest movements.
Analysts said the international community has largely turned a blind eye to the uprising because Bahrain is close to many Western nations and some groups in the opposition have ties to Iran.
Working in Lebanon gives opposition leaders the chance to battle that deficit with relative freedom to educate other activists and document violations in their country, said Mohammad al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.
“It’s a positive environment to do advocacy work in,” Maskati said.
A number of human rights groups set up a presence in Beirut after the outbreak of the uprising in Bahrain, unsure of their freedom to operate in their home countries. Those groups include the Gulf Human Rights Center led by high-profile activist Nabeel Rajab, who opened an office and applied for a permit for the NGO in Lebanon early this year
Rajab’s move offered his organization a measure of protection to operate but the danger he was fleeing was real. Rajab, internationally recognized for his democracy and free speech work, was arrested and sentenced to jail when he returned to Bahrain.
After a public outcry, Rajab’s sentence for leading protests was reduced from three years to two Tuesday, but human rights defenders have decried the fact that Rajab had to serve any time for democratic protests.
With the climate for opposition work quickly deteriorating in Bahrain, Maskati said the numbers of places where Bahraini opposition activists are welcome in the region is also dwindling. Even countries like Egypt, which used to welcome Gulf activists, has made entry and stay there more difficult, he said.
But Lebanon does not have military agreements with most Gulf countries, making arrest and deportation unlikely. The presence of a large Shiite population and supportive political parties also offers a measure of cover.
“I think a lot of human rights defenders try to come here and stay because there is no military [cooperation] agreement” that threatens activists with deportation, Maskati said. “Lebanon is the most democratic state in the Arab region.”
“It’s not the first time Lebanon has hosted a conference for human rights defenders,” he said.