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Killing the Messenger: Bahrain’s Brutal Crackdown
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English
On February 14, 2011, just days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Bahraini youth held a peaceful demonstration in Manama’s Pearl Square calling for a new constitution that would support economic, political and social accountability. Protesters demanded justice for the victims and perpetrators of arbitrary arrests and torture in Bahrain. Organizers chose this date because it was the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter of Bahrain, a referendum supported by 98% of voters that called for the end of a particularly violent period of Bahraini history (1975-1999) and for constitutional rule in the country. They optimistically viewed the changing political dynamics in the region as an opportunity to advance democratic reform in their own country.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention is particularly disturbing given that Sunni-dominated country’s support for the Sunni-minority Bahraini government’s hardline tactics. It raises concerns that Saudi Arabia is exacerbating sectarian cleavages in a broader attempt to reduce Iranian Shiite influence.
The long-standing practices of incommunicado detention, systematic torture, secret detention facilities, incitement of violence against activists, and other state-supported human rights violations cast grave doubts on the state’s political will to reform.
The National Dialogue that took place in July was doomed to fail before it began. Despite rhetoric that the process would be inclusive, only 35 out of 300 seats were reserved for all opposition groups (individuals aligned with the regime filled the rest). With the disproportionally small representation of opposition in the Dialogue there was little hope for any meaningful democratic reform, and its failure has further shaken the public’s confidence in the government.
Recommendations for U.S. Policy:
Speak out, speak loud. President Obama must continue to apply public pressure on Bahraini officials, such as when he condemned the Bahraini government for “mass arrests and brute force” in a speech at the State Department. The US must speak out firmly in support of the Bahraini people or risk being on the wrong side of history when democracy does come to the country.
Make the $53 million arms package to the Bahrain Defense Force conditional. The US should prevent any military assistance or arms sales—despite “external defense” designations and “end use” discussions—to Bahrain unless the results of the Commission of Inquiry are indeed truthful and independent, and assistance should be tied to progress on addressing the Commission’s recommendations and bringing perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice.
Be consistent in support for human rights and democratic reform. The idea that stability and US interests are best secured by providing unwavering support for repressive monarchies has proven false and short sighted given the recent uprisings in the Middle East. The US should advance its interests and values by being a strategic ally of the Bahraini people and supporting moderates and reformers, rather than unconditionally backing a brutal regime.
The Obama administration should make internet freedom a priority. The president’s condemnations of the Tunisian and Egyptian restrictions on internet and mobile phone networks in the initial days of those revolutions heartened pro-democracy advocates on the ground. The administration should similarly support the right of Bahrainis to express their opinions freely, rather than remain silent when, for example, the Bahrain Interior Ministry said it would punish anyone using new media to post messages of dissent ahead of the September 24 parliamentary elections.
Support Legal and Security Sector Reform. The US should pressure Bahrain to use civilian instead of military courts in cases stemming from political unrest and provide technical support for systems and practices that bolster accountability. Such practices should include unannounced civilian inspections of prison facilities and criminal—not administrative—trials of those charged with torture and murder.