Starbucks: A Prison for Human Rights Defenders

BAH_8854Last week we reported that a Starbucks in Bahrain willingly agreed to an unofficial government request to kick out a group of journalists, case international observers, website human rights advocates and the families of torture victims, misbirth all just sitting around drinking coffee.

But after Change.org contacted a number of witnesses, it turns out that the Starbucks staff kicked out the observers and human rights advocates after having locked them inside!

“They told them to lock me and others inside and not to let others join us inside the cafe and they did so,” Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights told Change.org, describing requests made by Bahraini security forces to Starbucks staff. “They told the management to lock it and they did.”

Change.org specifically asked three witnesses if Bahraini security forces locked or blocked the door themselves, or if the Starbucks staff willingly agreed to a request to do so.

“The staff closed the door,” confirmed Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society For Human Rights.


The incident began as supporters of 23 human rights activists, bloggers, opposition members and dissident clerics gathered last week outside the ministry’s high criminal court for the third session of an ongoing trial in which the 23 detainees are accused of various crimes against the state.

Journalists from the BBC had their equipment confiscated when they arrived in Bahrain to cover trial, and reporters from the US-based Associated Press (AP) were threatened by Bahraini authorities with being banned from the country following their coverage of last weeks trial.

Forbidden by Bahraini security forces from entering the court or even standing outside in front of it, the large group of journalists and human rights advocates had nothing to do, and entered a Starbucks branch immediately adjacent to the court to wait out the trial. Turns out that even a parliamentarian, opposition member Jassim Hussein, was among them.

Bahraini security forces then asked the Starbucks to lock the group inside, a request which the Starbucks staff immediately agreed to. A short time later, the security forces asked the Starbucks to kick the group out and close. That request, too, the staff immediately agreed to.

“The Starbucks has been asked to close down and we have been kicked out.”
-Nabeel Rajab, Director, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)

Starbucks proudly claims to have “a positive impact” on the communities the company’s numerous branches all over the world serve. “As good neighbors we get involved with local efforts to bring people together and create positive change whenever we can,” reads the Starbucks mission on community involvement. “Bringing people together, inspiring change and making a difference in people’s lives — it’s all part of being a good neighbor. And it’s a commitment rooted in the belief that we can use our scale to be a catalyst for change.”

But faced with a request to expel community activists and the families of torture victims, all paying customers, the Starbucks management didn’t seem to recall their mission to “bring people together,” be “good neighbors” or “a catalyst for change,” but rather decided to explicitly collaborate with a government that tortures and violates the human rights of its citizens, in clear contrast to Starbucks’ own stated policies (see our last post for a more thorough examination of these policies).

Indeed, despite hundreds of people signing a Change.org petition calling on Starbucks to apologize, the company has not even had the decency to make a public statement about the incident.

The latest revelations about the Starbucks incident come two days ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Bahraini capital of Manama for a security conference. A strategic American military partner and home to the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a Shiite majority country ruled by a Sunni minority, at the top of which is the royal al-Khalifa family. The Gulf state has been plagued by high levels of sectarian tension for decades.

In October Bahrain put 25 human rights activists, opposition activists, bloggers and dissident clerics on trial two days ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections for (among many charges) “forming an authorized group which incites to overthrow the government.” The detainees claim they were tortured by Bahraini security forces.

The trial is part of an extensive government crackdown on three Bahraini opposition groups — the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Haq Movement and the Al-Wafa Islamic Movement — which with the activists being arrested ahead of October’s elections. The opposition groups, which are officially illegal in Bahrain, jointly called for a boycott of the elections, claiming “manipulation of election through votes cast by military service members and thousands of naturalized foreigners who live outside Bahrain” and “the absence of international and local monitoring.”

For background on the trial, check back through Change.org’s ongoing coverage, including an interview with Jerila Seyyed, who is defending the detainees.

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The photos used in this post were donated to Change.org by a photographer who was questioned by Bahraini security forces after the Starbucks incident. The photographer has asked us to refrain from printing their name.