Starbucks Kicks Out Families of Torture Victims

BAH_9343Update 2 December, malady 2010: Last week Change.org reported below that a Starbucks in Bahrain willingly agreed to an unofficial government request to kick out a group of journalists, vitamin international observers, resuscitation human rights advocates and the families of torture victims, all just sitting around drinking coffee. But after we 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! Check out our update here.

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.”

Starbucks “partners” (employees) in the tiny Middle Eastern island kingdom of Bahrain, however, don’t seem to have gotten that memo.

Managers at a Starbucks outside Bahrain’s Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs in the capital Manama, willingly and immediately agreed to an unofficial Ministry of Interior request to kick out a group of journalists, international observers, human rights advocates and the families of torture victims being tried over their opposition to the government.

The incident began as supporters of 23 human rights activists, bloggers, opposition members and dissident clerics gathered yesterday 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. A group of journalists from the BBC, who had their equipment confiscated upon their arrival in Bahrain to cover the trial, were also outside the court trying to get in.

“A number of activists and journalists were out at the entrance to the court and they made us to move,” Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights told Change.org.

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.

“We went over to a nearby Starbucks and everyone was buying coffee, cappuccino, etc,” Mohammed said. “At a certain point, most of the customers in the Starbucks were journalists from the BBC who were not allowed to enter the court, human rights activists and families of the tortured detainees.”

“Then representatives of the Minister of the Interior apparently asked the Starbucks to close,” he said.

Faced with a request to expel community activists and the families of torture victims, all paying customers, what did the Starbucks management do? Did they recall their mission to “bring people together,” be “good neighbors” and “a catalyst for change”? Or did they succumb to the request and kick everyone out within minutes?

Mohammed Al-Maskati again: “Starbucks staff ordered us to leave within five minutes and said that they are closing the Starbucks immediately. We left, they closed it down, and reopened after 45 minutes.”

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

Explicitly collaborating with a government that tortures and violates the human rights of its citizens is not consistent with Starbucks’ own stated policies.

“Starbucks is committed to support and uphold the provision of basic human rights,” read’s the company’s policy on Global Human Rights. “Starbucks promotes, protects and helps ensure the full and equal enjoyment of human rights by all persons… It is every partner’s responsibility to understand Starbucks Global Human Rights Policy concerning basic human rights and uphold the provision of these rights in the workplace.”

“We treat our customers as we treat one another, with respect and dignity,” reads the Starbucks Standard of Business Conduct. “This means, for example, that we never harass or discriminate against our customers.”

Further, the Starbucks statement of business standards continues, “When you think a conflict exists between the Standards and an applicable law, rule or regulation, you should consult with your manager or another party described in the “Asking for Guidance and Voicing Concerns” section of this booklet.”

Apparently, the manager of Starbucks in Bahrain apparently never quite made it round to reading the booklet at all.

Bahrain, a strategic American military partner and home to the US Fifth Fleet, 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.

Last month 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.” Two of the 25 are being tried in abstentia.

The detainees claim they were tortured by Bahraini security forces, and last month their defense team called on the judge to order a doctor to examine them, a demand which was initially refused, but later ‘fulfilled‘ by the government’s “senior forensic science consultant“, who in his infinite senior forensic scientist wisdom determined that severe bruising, swelling, cut and burn marks on 13 of the detainees were not signs of torture.

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 last month’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.”

Bahraini activists like Mohammed have been working day and night to try publicize the trial, which has been explicitly censored by Bahraini authorities from all local media.

At yesterday’s hearing, a number of detainees testified that they had been repeatedly tortured, including one detainee who claimed he had been sexually abused. The detainees also claimed that they had been forced to shave off all their hair, although no explanation was provided as to why.

The detainees defense lawyers made five requests of the judge:

  1. An investigation into numerous and consistent allegations of torture by all 23 detainees.
  2. The formation of an independent medical committee to examine the detainees.
  3. An improvement in the conditions for the detainees in prison.
  4. To allow local media to report on the trial.
  5. To release the detainees.

The judge did not respond to any of the request and schedule the trial to resume December 9, 2010.

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.