Bahrain’s Abuse of Tear Gas

On 20 January, security forces in Bahrain shot an unarmed protestor in the face with a tear gas canister at close range. A video of the graphic incident went viral, garnering so much media attention that the Bahraini government announced an internal investigation into the incident.

Bahrain has a history of abusing tear gas, turning it from an acceptable standard of crowd control into a deadly weapon. Government forces use tear gas to disperse any social gathering, from protests to funeral processions and religious celebrations. Bahraini authorities even shoot tear gas canisters directly into homes and other confined spaces. Bahrain’s own National Institute for Human Rights documented public security officers engaging in this practice. In addition, Bahraini authorities use tear gas as collective punishment on neighborhoods and communities, firing canisters at entire villages to intimidate the residents and deter demonstrating.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, misuse of tear gas resulted in 39 deaths in the years 2011-2012, while The Bahrain Center for Human Rights says that security force abuse of tear gas is responsible for nearly one third of all deaths since 2011. Sometimes people suffocate as a result of the excessive amounts of teargas used by security forces, such as in the case of 87 year old Habeeb Ebrahim and 8 year old Qasim Habib. More frequently, however, individuals are killed when security forces use tear gas canisters as projectiles, firing them directly at an individual at close range. The most recent victim of this practice was Abdulaziz Al-Abbar, who died in April 2014.

While the office of the Bahraini Ombudsman for the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) quickly announced that it would investigate the incident, the Office has thus far proven ineffective at holding members of the (MOI) accountable for human rights abuses. Part of the problem is that the MOI enjoys complete oversight of the Ombudsman’s office. Additionally, an ADHRB report on the Ombudsman revealed deep connections between the Secretary General and his staff and the prosecutor’s office and the MOI itself.

Last week’s events highlight aggressive and excessive action taken by Bahraini security forces against unarmed and peaceful protestors. Until Bahrain holds its security forces and itself accountable for such actions, these abuses are likely to continue. Such accountability is a necessary first step in the process towards reform, and is essential to bringing an end to the instability plaguing Bahrain.

Will MacIntosh is an intern at ADHRB