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Time for Action on Bahrain

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Thursday’s appeal court ruling in Bahrain confirming the dissolution of the main opposition group Al Wefaq looks to have finally extinguished any prospects for reform. The Obama administration is now presented with the choice of meekly accepting this latest destructive act of repression or responding with consequences.

Until now White House reaction to attacks on rights by its military ally has been more one of weary acceptance, and as the administration enters its final weeks its Bahrain policy seems one of going quietly into the night rather than raging against the dying light.

{mosads}It hasn’t reimposed the arms ban it lifted last year on the Gulf monarchy, and last week failed to send anyone to speak to the congressional hearing on Bahrain hosted by the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights. “It kind of bugs me that the administration didn’t send a witness,” said Lantos Commission Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during the hearing, explaining that the administration had declined the commission’s invite to defend and its current policy.

No doubt it wouldn’t have been a fun couple of hours for anyone representing a failed approach, or trying to justify why the State Department still thinks it’s a good idea—several months into harsh crackdown on peaceful dissent by the kingdom’s ruling family—to continue to arm the monarchy’s security forces.

But the administration—including the Pentagon—needs to be part of this conversation with the Hill, with NGOs, and with what’s left of Bahrain’s civil society. It can’t afford to avoid this discussion when it has so much at stake.

We’re in the fourth month of an attack on Bahrain’s civil society and political opposition, the ferocity of which hasn’t been since since the violent crackdown on mass protests for democracy in early 2011.

The appeal court today confirmed Al Wefaq’s closure, the group’s leader is already in jail with other peaceful leaders and leading rights activists. Those not in jail have been forced into exile or are forbidden to leave the country to give details of the repression to the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international meetings. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights delivered a highly unusual censure of Bahrain at the opening of the September session of the council last week, warning “how disastrous the outcomes can be when Government attempts to smash the voices of its people, instead of serving them”.

To its credit the State Department has stepped up its public criticism of Bahrain recently, including calling for the immediate release of leading rights advocate Nabeel Rajab, facing an unfair trial on trumped-up charges. But words are clearly not enough, because they’re not working. As I said in my testimony at the Lantos hearing, Secretary John Kerry and Vice President Biden have urged Bahrain’s king to stop the crackdown, but he’s not listening.

It’s time for President Obama to publicly condemn the arrests, the kangaroo courts, the forced confessions and the travel bans. But it is also time to introduce real consequences for Bahrain’s reckless behavior. It encourages further unrest in a volatile region where the U.S. has so many assets – not least the headquarters of its Fifth Fleet.

The hearing discussed arms bans, including the bipartisan legislation already before the House and Senate, and compiling a list of officials credibly linked to human rights violations to be presented to the State Department with a view to imposing visa bans on those wishing to come to the U.S.

There are more ideas about how to respond to the current crisis which is threatening regional stability and other vital Washington interests to which the administration needs to respond. It has made plenty mistakes in recent years on its approach to Bahrain, and its No Show at last week’s hearings was another.

Avoiding awkward conversations is a sign of weakness, and no strategy for solving complicated political problems with Bahrain. The administration needs to reengage fully and openly in this debate. Shying away from the hard questions about what to do next on Bahrain isn’t helping anyone, including itself.

Dooley is director of human rights defenders at Human Rights First.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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