French weapons sales bolster Bahrain's crackdown on dissent

French weapons sales bolster Bahrain's crackdown on dissent
6 min read
25 February, 2015
Analysis: Photos taken by human rights activists appear to show French tear gas grenades were recently used in Bahrain, possibly supplied via Gulf allies.
Tear gas used against demonstrators in February 2011 [Lewa’a Alnasr]

The streets of Manama are choked by clouds of tear gas.

Policemen fire grenades filled with the chemical weapon through the windows of houses and even into protesters' cars.

Such scenes are widely documented on YouTube and recorded in NGO reports, to the extent that the widespread and sometimes lethal use of tear gas against protesters has become the macabre signature of the repression of dissent in Bahrain.

From the start of the first peaceful demonstrations of February 2011, the police opted for the sweeping use of this "non-lethal" weapon for "riot-control", employed by police forces the world over.

"At the very beginning of the protests, the Bahraini police used pellet guns a lot," recounts one Bahraini citizen, who joined the protests at their outset in 2011.

"But awful photos of protesters riddled with lead caused a scandal abroad. So, in order to avoid criticism from its Western allies, the regime decided to resort to the widespread use of tear gas." The citizen asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

But the Bahraini police chose to employ tear gas differently from other police forces; shooting cannisters into houses to cause more damage.

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Inside houses, the air, heavy with clouds of gas targeting the corneal nerves, becomes unbreathable. Newborns and the elderly are most affected.

Between 2011 and 2013, according to a report from the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, at least 39 people died from the consequences of prolonged exposure to tear gas.

In using tear gas in confined spaces such as houses, the Bahraini police force is violating the international convention prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, pointed out Weaponizing Tear Gas: Bahrain's Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians.

This is because the chemical agent in tear gas grenades - often CS gas, but sometimes a mixture of other lachrymatory agents - is officially classed as a chemical weapon, and should only used to maintain order and in open air so it can dissipate quickly and affect only those targeted.

This has clearly not been the case in Bahrain.

Soldiers fire a tear gas grenade into a house
in Aali, 27 May 2012

Suspended sales?

In the face of the violent repression of protesters in Bahrain, France quickly took the lead.

A press release from the ministry of defence announced that "our country suspended deliveries of material that could be used for repression as of 17 February 2011".

France is one of the biggest manufacturers of riot-control equipment in the world and, in particular, of tear gas grenades. The French market leader is Alsetex, a company specialising in pyrotechnics. The company maintains a minimalist website and is famously reserved where journalists are concerned.

In an old catalogue, however, the brand's prize product appears: the GM2 tear gas grenade.

Grenades like this were sold entirely legally to Bahrain before the events of February 2011, but were used extensively after France banned their sale, between 2011 and 2013, as shown in this amateur video posted on YouTube in November 2011, which appears to show Alsetex's GM2 model lying on the ground at around the 2:33 mark.

This video from November 2011 appears to
show tear gas being used after a supposed
ban was to take effect

This does not necessarily mean that the ban on exporting riot-control equipment to Bahrain was broken, as the regime had likely stockpiled Alsetex tear gas.

"When the ministry bans a delivery of tear gas grenades, the company abides by the ban and stops its deliveries," said an official with knowedge of the subject. "If tear gas grenades are found on the ground after the ban this just because the police is using up its stock. There have been no new deliveries."

However, information obtained by Orient XXI contradicts this version of events and substantiates the accusation that France supplied Alsetex tear gas grenades to Bahrain after its supposed ban.

Compromising photos

On 16 February 2015, Orient XXI obtained photos from human rights activists in Bahrain showing grenades found on the ground on 13 February 2015, which had been fired by police during demonstrations celebrating the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising.

The inscription on them is particularly important. The last two figures "12" reveal the year there grenades were manufactured: 2012.

These Alsetex grenades were produced after the ban on exporting to Bahrain came into force. France has broken its own self-imposed export ban.

The serial number on these tear gas grenades indicates they were  manufactured in 2012

Bahrain Watch, an NGO, has kept fastidious records documenting events since 2011.

"The excessive use of tear gas grenades by Bahrain has already led to the death of dozens of people since 2011", it stated.

"The French authorities must stop export of tear gas grenades to Bahrain and carry out an inquiry into how it is possible that Alsetex grenades continue to be used to put down demands for democracy."

How did these tear gas grenades find their way to Bahrain despite the ban imposed by the ministry of defence in Paris? Did France deliberately break its 2011 ban?

The official documentation available does not shed any light on these questions.

In a French parliamentary report on weapons exports for 2012, the ministry of defence notes a sale to Bahrain worth €251,357 ($285,000) in the "ML7" category, a classification on the European Union's Common Military List governing the export of military equipment that includes, among other things, tear gas grenades.

But was this a delivery of tear gas grenades? When questioned at the end of last week, the ministry of defence insisted this was not the case. Speaking via its spokesperson, Pierre Bayle, it stated "riot-control equipment is not war equipment, and is therefore not affected by the regulations in force from the ministry of defence".

This is strange, as the European Union's common list of military equipment that France must refer to for arms exports clearly classifies tear gas as "riot-control agents" that fall into the "ML7" category.

Getting round the regulations

The ministry of defence stated it stands by the answer it gave in a Canal+ documentary, when Pierre Bayle explained that equipment in the ML7 category was delivered to Bahrain on a frequent basis, but that it was only "detection equipment, and under no circumstances was it offensive equipment".

However, Bahrain can easily obtain French tear gas grenades by other means. The first involves acquiring grenades exported by France to Bahrain's allies in the region.

In 2012, France sold €2,838,675 ($3.2 million) and €397,577 ($450,000) of ML7-category equipment, including tear gas grenades, to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain respectively.

Did the small kingdom of Bahrain acquire French riot-control equipment from its allies in the region?

Alternatively, under French law, there is another way to export tear gas grenades. In addition to the ML7 category, they can also be exported under an "AEPE" licence (Authorisation to Export Explosive Products) granted by customs, but there has been no public announcement to this effect.

Alsetex has yet to provide an answer to questions posed to it by the authors of this report.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed cannot independently verify the contents of videos posted to third-party websites and cannot be held responsible for their contents.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.