Hasan Jamali/ AP

Bahrain’s human rights still fall short, despite Washington policy shift

US lifts ban imposed on Gulf nation for its poor human rights record, but activists say little has changed

Despite the United States’ decision this week to lift a ban on security assistance to Bahrain imposed on the country for its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2011, activists groups and campaigners say the Gulf nation still has major human rights issues.

More than 3,000 prisoners are in arbitrary detention, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) reported on Monday — the same day the U.S. announced the ban’s lift.

“Bahrain’s human rights situation is deteriorating,” said BCHR Vice President Said Yousif al-Muhafdah. He fears that the U.S. move could lead to the government’s further suppression of Bahraini rights. “This is a very negative sign,” he added.

The U.S. ban was imposed after Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy cracked down on pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring, when populations across the Middle East rose en masse to topple some of the region’s longtime dictators. Since then, more than 100 Bahraini activists have been accused of crimes against the state and stripped of their citizenship, according to BCHR data.  

The U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Bahrain for 2014 found “significant human rights problems included arbitrary deprivation of life; impunity for security officers accused of committing human rights violations; arbitrary arrest; violations of privacy; and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion.”

Nevertheless, the State Department said that the Bahraini government has enacted a number of “meaningful” human rights reforms ostensibly deserving of the ban’s reversal.

“While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate … we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation,” department spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement on Monday

The announcement came after Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Bahrain’s main opposition political movement Al Wefaq, was sentenced to four years in prison — a punishment that has been widely criticized, including by the U.S. Rights group Amnesty International, which called the ruling “shocking,” considers Salman “a prisoner of conscience” who is in prison only for peacefully expressing his views.

Al Wefaq Deputy Secretary General Khalil al-Marzooq was unavailable for comment because he had been summoned on Tuesday by Bahrain’s Interior Ministry and charged with insulting the Ministry of Interior, said Muhafdah.

“There is no way to dress this up as a good move,” Brian Dooley of Human Rights First said in statement. “It’s bad for Bahrain, bad for the region and bad for the United States.”

Bahrain’s Defense Ministry and national guard may now receive Humvees, TOW missiles, track vehicles and assorted small arms and ammunition. However, the ban is still in place on sending equipment to the Ministry of Interior, which is in charge of internal security and led the aggressive campaign to put down anti-government protests.

Human rights defenders in Bahrain continue to be targeted. In May a national appeals court upheld a six-month sentence for Nabeel Rajab on charges related to a tweet. Rajab had tweeted that Bahrain’s security services played a role in supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Rajab, the president of the BCHR, has also accused Bahrain’s government of repression and torture.

In June, Zainab al-Khawaja, an activist, was given an additional nine months in prison, extending her prison term to five years and one month. She was charged with offenses related to freedom of expression and for destroying government property; in 2012, she tore a picture of Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Meanwhile, blogger and activist Ghada Jamsheer is serving 20 months in prison for a tweet she wrote accusing management at King Hamad Hospital of corruption.

Bahrain hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet and has also aligned with Washington in its fight against ISIL, leading some analysts to speculate that lifting the ban has more to do with regional politics than meaningful progress in Bahrain’s human rights record.

“There are big political and social problems in Bahrain that have not been fixed,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. But there is a lot of tension in the Gulf ahead of a possible Iranian nuclear deal and to engage with Bahrain the U.S. has “to send signals that it supports Bahrain” — that it is “vested in its security.”

The U.S. has wider regional concerns about Iranian expansion in the region and the lifting of the ban must be viewed in this context, Stephens added.

Jane Kinninmont, the deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, agrees that the move by the U.S. appears related to a possible “game-changing agreement with Iran, as well as Gulf counterterrorism assistance.” However, she notes that the political situation in Bahrain is deteriorating “and the U.S. seems unwilling to use up its leverage or political capital on domestic reform issues when preoccupied with the larger regional strategic changes.”

But helping a country that is suppressing internal dissent could backfire. It was U.S President Barack Obama who said in April that the biggest threats to Gulf countries “may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” 

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