The Bahrain problem

Last week, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to re-impose the ban on arms sales to Bahrain that the State Department partially lifted at the end of June, pushing Washington’s Bahrain problem back into public focus. When lifting the ban, the State Department cited “meaningful progress on human rights,” just one of several key untruths about what’s happened in the country over the last few years. 

{mosads}Here are five more common myths about Bahrain that Congress should be aware of:

1.       Iran is running the protests.

Not really. The Bahraini government claims that the violent attacks on security forces, including the deaths of two policemen last week, can be linked directly to weapons from Iran. There is little doubt that the Iranian government is delighted at the unrest in its tiny Sunni neighbor and is enjoying the regime’s difficulty in trying to contain calls for reform, but that doesn’t mean it’s an Iranian-controlled revolution. In fact, the investigation into the protests and violence of February and March 2011 ordered by the king of Bahrain, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), found [para 1584] “The evidence presented to the Commission by the GoB [Government of Bahrain] on the involvement by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the internal affairs of Bahrain does not establish a discernable link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February and March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Insistence by the Bahraini authorities that Iran is the hidden hand of influence behind the protests – which are really about local grievances on the lack of democracy, not a Trojan horse for Tehran – sound increasingly like J. Edgar Hoover’s insistence that the U.S. civil rights movement was infiltrated by communists. Were there Marxists in the civil rights movement? Sure, but that didn’t mean the movement was illegitimate or controlled by the Kremlin.

2.       Bahrain is a dependable U.S. ally that deserves the fullest possible support.

Not so much. Despite hosting the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and holding a “major non-NATO ally” designation, Bahrain is proving to be an inconsistent, erratic friend to the United States – it expelled senior U.S. diplomat Tom Malinowski from the country after he met with opposition leaders last year, refused to admit Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) who tried to visit last August to assess the human rights situation for himself, and has cozied up to President Putin at a time when Washington is trying to isolate the Russian leader internationally for his aggression on Ukraine. It has ordered new weapons systems from Russia’s state arms dealer Rosoboronexport, and in October 2014 the king of Bahrain visited Russia, where he was personally welcomed by Putin. A few years ago the mercurial Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) and ruling family member Field Marshal Shaikh Khalifa Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa claimed the pro-democracy protests were “a coup attempt supported by foreign forces,” and that 22 NGOs had been plotting against Bahrain – “Nineteen of them are based in the US,” he said.

3.       Bahrain’s military personnel weren’t guilty of serious human rights abuses – that was the police.

Untrue, although it’s repeatedly parroted by U.S. officials in private as a reason to re-arm the military. In fact, the BICI report documented that Bahrain’s military was responsible for three civilian deaths and a hundred arrests during early 2011. Many of those interviewed by BICI staff and from international NGOs  – including myself – have documented credible and consistent testimony from people citing torture by military personnel, including in military facilities. No senior Bahraini military official has been brought to account for any of those violations.

4.    Bahrain’s jailed medics are all out of prison.

False. In March and April 2011 Bahrain arrested and tortured dozens of its medics after they had treated injured protestors. International outrage against the treatment and sham trials given to the medics helped most of them to be released, but others served several years in jail. One of those arrested by the Bahraini military was pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr Ali Alekry. He told me he spent 15 days in a military facility where he was forced to eat his own feces and subjected to other forms of torture, and is still in prison, serving a five-year sentence.

5.    No-one in the U.S. government cares about Bahrain.

Thankfully also untrue. While U.S. officials generally have a shameful record on Bahrain over the last few years there are exceptions, especially in Congress. McGovern  has consistently pressed the Obama Administration to take a much tougher line with Bahrain’s dictatorship, and Wyden and Rubio just introduced a bipartisan bill to re-impose the ban on the U.S. selling small arms to Bahrain. McGovern has confirmed he’ll introduce a similar bill in the House.

This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue, this is about Congress rectifying an awful mistake made by the administration. Members in both houses have the chance to put right a disastrous wrong, to salvage some of America’s credibility in the region, and to persuade the Bahraini government that it needs to take the path of reform.

Dooley @dooley_dooley is a director at Human Rights First.

Tags Marco Rubio Ron Wyden

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