For two years, as the United States has condemned massive abuses of protesters throughout the Middle East, it has largely turned a blind eye to equally horrific treatment in Bahrain, a small but significant ally. As the situation in Manama shows no sign of abating, the United States needs to step up its game — before it’s too late.
Last week, a Bahraini court sentenced 50 Shiites, including the human rights activist Naji Fateel, to harsh prison terms of up to 15 years after a mass trial allegedly linking the activists to the "February 14" movement, which it claims is working to overthrow the government. February 14 is the date in 2011 when the recent protest movement began. The leaders of those largely peaceful protests remain in prison and have been joined over the past two years by other activists convicted solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
A week before the sentencing, U.S. President Barack Obama made an unexpected reference to Bahrain, alongside Iraq and Syria, as a country fraught with sectarian tensions that challenge democracy and regional stability in his September 24 address to the U.N. General Assembly. This reference prompted the Bahraini foreign affairs minister to issue a statement extolling the country’s culture as tolerant. Bahrain’s U.S. ambassador also responded, contending the speech did not properly portray Bahrain’s progressive and open-minded society.
The presidential mention ruffled feathers in Manama — a sure sign of U.S. diplomatic leverage there — but it was not enough to stop last week’s sentencing.
The majority of Bahrainis are Shiites, but the country is governed by a Sunni-dominated, autocratic monarchy that has shown reluctance to reform, despite a number of cosmetic initiatives. Historically, civic groups have played an important role in shaping the country’s political debate but the government has consistently undermined these groups with restrictive legislation. Security forces have increasingly employed brute force, particularly in response to peaceful protests. Detained civilians are prosecuted in farcical trials, with many documented cases of torture to elicit confessions.
To be sure, the Obama administration hasn’t been silent about Bahrain’s escalating political crisis, but it hasn’t taken a strong or consistent stance either. This is primarily because Bahrain is a strategic ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet. Located in the oil-rich Gulf, with Iran to the north, Bahrain is linked to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile causeway. The Obama administration’s security partnership brings with it influence over Bahrain’s ruling family. But that leverage will be lost if the government’s reliance on repression pushes society to a boiling point and the 5th fleet can no longer maintain its presence.
In May 2011, Obama raised concerns about Bahrain in his major speech about the Arab uprisings. He declared that, "mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens." And he noted "you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."
These comments were welcomed as a sign that the administration planned to flex at least some of its diplomatic muscle. After the speech, and in response to growing congressional pressure, the administration decided to withhold military equipment that could be potentially used against protesters — including armored vehicles, anti-tank weapons, and certain small arms and light weapons.
In early 2012, the U.S. State Department spokesperson noted the administration would maintain "a pause on most security assistance to Bahrain pending further progress on reform." But less than five months later, and in conjunction with a visit to Washington, D.C. from Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, the administration announced potential military sales to Bahrain. Since then, the administration has walked back its public pressure on the ruling party. As a result, U.S. policy has suffered from an inconsistency that belies any commitment to pressing for meaningful reform.
For instance, when authorities recently arrested Khalil al-Marzooq, deputy leader of the largest opposition group, al-Wefaq, for allegedly "inciting terrorism" in a speech — despite his clear statements to the contrary — at first the State Department barely responded. Instead of calling for al-Marzooq’s release, the spokesperson criticized the opposition for withdrawing from the national dialogue. She shifted gears the next day, noting al-Marzooq’s detention with concern and urging the Bahraini government to "uphold its obligations to protect the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression." But the damage had already been done.
Instead of hedging its rhetoric, the Obama administration should develop a stronger and more consistent approach. Specifically, the administration should make good on its claim to hold Bahrain to the recommendations of its own Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) — appointed by the king to review abuses that occurred during and after the 2011 protests.
The State Department’s report to Congress found that Bahrain has fully implemented only five out of 26 of the commission’s recommendations. In the nearly two years since it was published, there have been no consequences from the United States for backsliding and inaction.
In addition, the United States needs to seek access to all detained political activists and press publicly for their release. Simple calls for all parties to return to the deeply flawed national dialogue process make no sense when so many potential participants are behind bars. Finally, the administration needs to meet regularly and publicly with Bahrain’s remaining activists in a show of solidarity.
If the United States is trying to gain leverage with Bahrain’s rulers by limiting its criticism, there is no evidence that this approach is making a difference. In fact, it appears to be making a bad situation worse.
Sarah Margon is acting Washington director at Human Rights Watch. Mary Laurie is a fellow in the Human Rights Watch Washington office.