US must do more than express 'concern' about Bahrain crackdown

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I was targeted because I am one of the Bahraini doctors who treated injured protestors at the main hospital in February and March 2011 and told the world the truth about what was happening there. We were overwhelmed with demonstrators who had been wounded by government security forces. We treated them as well as we could. In April 2011, I was taken from my home during the night, blindfolded and handcuffed. Over several weeks of detention I was beaten, electrocuted and sexually harassed. Then I was convicted after a sham trial in a military court and sentenced to five years in prison. There were 20 medics convicted in that trial. Nine of us were acquitted on appeal in June, but several of my colleagues remain in prison, and 28 more medics heard their trial verdicts last week – five were acquitted and 23 sentenced to three months in prison for taking part in “illegal gatherings.”

The U.S. government knows all this. It has teams of people in the White House, State Department and Pentagon following what's happening in Bahrain. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in the country and it has an embassy there, too, so it's not short of information about what's going on. It knows that in recent weeks things have become worse. All protests have now been banned, leading human rights activists remain jailed, 31 people have been stripped of their citizenship and others sent to prison for criticizing the King on Twitter. Police use tear gas to attack civilians virtually every night.

Some protestors are urging an increase in violence as a response to the crackdown, saying peaceful protest hasn't worked and the international community doesn't care.

This may make some wonder why I chose to visit the United States. I went with leading human rights lawyer Mohammed Al Tajer, who represents some of the many political prisoners in Bahrain.

Like many of us in Bahrain, I still see the U.S. as representing values of democracy and human rights. We believe the U.S. can help us find a peaceful way out of the current crisis. As we met with officials in Washington, we were hoping to hear about their plans to help us achieve that goal. What we heard is that there's obviously some reassessment going on in the United States government about what to do next. I told them to be bold. The United States must take new and imaginative steps to pressure the Bahrain regime. It's most definitely not going to be enough for the United States to simply change its language from "concerned" to "deeply concerned" in its public statements about Bahrain.

The people of Bahrain need the United States to publicly say it won't sell arms to the Bahraini government unless there is real reform and that it will impose visa bans on those it believes responsible for committing human rights violations. It should tell the Bahraini government that its relationship is not unconditional, that it cannot take U.S. support for granted. Before it’s too late and violence escalates, the United States needs to show peaceful protestors in Bahrain visible signs that the United States stands with them in their quest for freedom and democracy.

Some in Washington understand what's needed. We met senators and representatives from both parties who continue to push the United States to prevent things from spiraling further in Bahrain. But the Obama Administration has to think big and act fast to avoid another disaster in the region. The protests aren't going away and the United States needs to take steps now to save itself an even bigger problem in the future and the inevitable regret that it should have intervened sooner. Bahrain is a key strategic U.S. ally.

We hope that those in Washington will start acting like it.

Haji is a Bahraini physician and the director of Training and Development for the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO).