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Lifting arms restrictions to Bahrain would enable the regime’s oppression

The Bahraini government is pushing the U.S. government to lift remaining restrictions on arms sales to the kingdom. For some weeks a letter from the Bahraini embassy in Washington has been circulating in Congress arguing that, in the common interest of fighting ISIL, the U.S. government should do away with the restrictions imposed after a violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.

In the fall of that year Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and other members of Congress blocked a $53 million arms package to Bahrain. Since then, the U.S. government has delivered much of that package, but some restrictions—on TOW missiles, for example, and on equipment that could be used against protestors—remain.

{mosads}There’s no logical rationale for removing the restrictions. Bahrain’s human rights problems persist, and the country is no nearer to an inclusive political settlement than it was four years ago.

Bahrain’s case for a full resumption of arms sales relies on two main arguments: that it’s unfair to penalize its military—the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF)—because it was only the police that committed the human rights violations of 2011, and that the United States cannot expect Bahrain to play a full part in the coalition against ISIL if it limits its access to weapons.

The first argument is strictly for those with severe memory loss. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established by the government of Bahrain in the summer of 2011 to investigate the violence earlier in the year, found the BDF responsible for three civilian deaths and a hundred arrests (including of two medics). It also said that nine Shia mosques were “reportedly demolished…with the involvement of the BDF.”

Many of those interviewed by the BICI staff said they were tortured in the BDF prison and even in its hospital. Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ali Alekry was arrested by BDF soldiers at the hospital where he was treating injured protestors. He says he spent 15 days in a BDF facility where he was forced to eat his own feces and subjected to other forms of torture. He was convicted in a military court and remains in prison. No BDF officers have been held accountable for the torture.

The letter circulating in Congress contains the second argument: that Bahrain’s slate should be wiped clean because it’s fighting ISIL. “[L]ifting the holds placed on the sale of certain military items to Bahrain would send a strong message of support to our allies in the region,” it says.

But here’s the loudest message that “lifting the holds” would send: that the United States will reward governments for cracking down on peaceful protestors. In recent months, the Bahraini monarchy has continued to attack dissidents, jailed the main opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, and sentenced leading activist Nabeel Rajab to six months in jail for a tweet criticizing the security forces.

Last month, at a summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama rightly said, “When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied—particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines—when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”

While Bahrain is fomenting sectarianism and crushing peaceful dissent, lifting the arms restrictions would be exactly the wrong move. Bahrain’s security forces are drawn almost exclusively from its Sunni minority, and selling them more weapons will be read as a vindication for those who refuse to reform or diversify the forces.

In September 2014 President Obama also rightly remarked that when “… [human] rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism. So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”

Lifting the ban would undermine those in Bahrain’s civil society trying to persuade protestors to refrain from violence, those arguing that international pressure will push the Bahrain government to reform. There are plenty ways the United States can press for stability in Bahrain, as outlined in the Human Rights First blueprint issued last month.

It’s hard to see how it’s in Washington’s interest to resume sales of weapons that can be used against protestors. Does it really want more press photos of tear gas canisters marked “Made In The USA” fired against peaceful civilian crowds?

If the administration’s approach to countering violent extremism is to encourage avenues of peaceful dissent, it shouldn’t enable Bahrain’s repression by lifting the remaining holds on arms.

Dooley @dooley_dooley is a director at Human Rights First.

Tags Ron Wyden

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