Human rights activists are calling on the administration of President Barack Obama to radically revise its policy toward Bahrain in light of the decision by an appeals court in the kingdom this week to confirm harsh prison sentences against 13 opposition activists.
The court’s decision, which also confirmed the conviction of the 13 men by military courts in the aftermath of mainly peaceful anti-government protests during the so-called “Arab Spring” last year, followed the sentencing three weeks ago by yet another court of Nabeel Rajab, the director Bahrain’s most important human rights watchdog, to a three-year prison term for helping organize opposition rallies.
“I’m hoping the administration is doing a radical rethink of its policy on Bahrain,” said Brian Dooley, a Gulf specialist at Human Rights First. “It’s pretty clear that its original plan — to support the so-called reformers in the government — just hasn’t worked. The behind-closed-doors, softly-softly approach clearly hasn’t delivered.”
The appeals court decision was roundly denounced by international human rights groups.
“Today’s court decision is yet another blow to justice and shows once more that the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform but seem rather driven by vindictiveness,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, who also noted that many of the defendants have testified that they were tortured during their initial detentions.
“Instead of upholding the sentences, … the Bahraini authorities must quash the convictions for the 13 men who are imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their human rights and release them immediately and unconditionally,” she added.
The ongoing repression in Bahrain — of which the appeals court decision and Rajab’s sentencing are only the latest examples — has posed a major challenge to the credibility of the Obama administration’s claims to support human rights and democratic reform throughout the Arab world.
While it has continuously urged dialogue between the government, which is dominated by the long-ruling Al-Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims, and representatives of the Shi’a community, which makes up between 60 and 70 percent of the kingdom’s population, since anti-regime protests broke out in early 2011, it has been reluctant to exert serious pressure to achieve that end.
Its reluctance is explained both by the fact that the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, whose assets have been significantly boosted as tensions with Iran have increased over the past 18 months, is based in Bahrain and by the strong backing — even encouragement — Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and Washington’s most important U.S. ally and arms-purchaser in the Gulf, has provided the Al-Khalifa family.
Concerned that Manama might have been tempted to compromise with the demands of the opposition, which initially included prominent Sunnis as well, for democratic reform, Riyadh, along with its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sent some 1,500 troops and police across its causeway to Bahrain in support of the government’s crackdown in mid-March 2011.
In addition to charging that Iran was behind the unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has also been worried that any empowerment of Bahrain’s Shi’a community would encourage its own Shi’a population, which is concentrated in its oil-rich Eastern province, to agitate for change.
Since the Saudi intervention, Washington has mainly confined its public statements to encouraging the Bahraini government to engage with the opposition, including the 13 men whose sentences were just confirmed this week. Earlier this year, it went forward with an arms sale to Manama that was strongly criticized by rights groups.
In the strongest statement to date, Obama himself noted in a May 19, 2011 speech that “Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform to go away.” Calling dialogue “the only way forward,” the president noted in a specific reference to the case of the 13 that “you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”
The 13, who include the kingdom’s most prominent human rights activist, Abuldhadi Al-Khawaja — who drew international headlines earlier this year when he went on a 110-day hunger strike to protest his detention — and opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif, were nonetheless sentenced by a military court to between two years and life in prison for allegedly “setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution.”
The State Department said Tuesday that it was “deeply troubled” by the appeals court decision.” Suggesting that the trials on which the verdicts were based were failed to comply with due process, it also called on Manama to “investigate all reports of torture, including those made by the defendants.”
“We continue to call on all parties, including the government, to contribute constructively to reconciliation, meaningful dialogue and reform that bring about change that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis,” it added in a prepared statement.
But the statement disappointed rights activists almost as much as the decision itself, particularly coming as it did so soon after Rajab’s conviction and sentencing.
Rajab, who was already serving a three-month sentence for comments he made on social media, is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), which was co-founded by al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. Al-Khawaja’s daughter, Zainab, has been detained since Aug 2 on charges of “damaging property belonging to the Ministry of Interior” during a peaceful protest against her father’s detention.
“State’s reaction falls short of where it needs to be,” said Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). “The administration needs to call for their release.”
In addition to urging dialogue, the administration has called for Bahrain to implement far-reaching recommendations made last November by an international commission headed by an Egyptian-American war-crimes expert, Cherif Bassiouni. Among other steps, it called for major reform in the security forces to prevent torture and other abuses and a thorough review of all decisions by the military courts.
While the government has made some progress in implementation, according to Dooley, “it’s nothing like enough, and in the meantime, things have gotten worse,” particularly with the latest sentences and increasing harassment of rights activists.
“Everyone thought there would be some reduction in the sentences, including people in the administration,” he told IPS. “The argument that we should give the government more time to implement the Bassiouni recommendations doesn’t hold much weight anymore.”
The latest decision is likely to further polarize the country, according to Bockenfeld, who noted that it will also make it far more difficult for the opposition Al-Wefaq party to engage the government in dialogue.
“I think this move really sinks those talks before they can start. The verdicts strengthen the hard-liners on both sides,” he said.
(Inter Press Service)