The New York Times reports:
At a town-hall-style meeting in Bahrain two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got a pointed question from a member of Bahrain’s Parliament: was the United States letting Bahrain, a Persian Gulf ally, off the hook for a string of arrests of lawyers and human rights activists?
The moderator rebuked the questioner for “hijacking the mike,” but Mrs. Clinton replied anyway. “I see the glass as half full,” she said, pointing to Bahrain’s recent elections. “I think the changes that are happening in Bahrain are much greater than what I see in many other countries in the region and beyond.”
When it came to Bahrain, Mrs. Clinton was not the only American diplomat who tended to see the glass as half full. Her rosy assessment, which seems incongruous in light of the army’s bloody crackdown on protesters, illustrates how the United States government has overlooked recent complaints about human rights abuses in a kingdom that is an economic and military hub in the Persian Gulf.
And it leaves the White House once again scrambling to deal with an Arab ally facing a tide of popular discontent. In this case, its calculations are complicated by signs that Bahrain is being pressed by its neighbor Saudi Arabia, the most strategically important country in the region.
In cables made public by WikiLeaks, the Bush and Obama administrations repeatedly characterized Bahrain as more open and reform-minded than its neighbors, and pushed back when human rights groups criticized the government.
In a January 2010 cable, the American Embassy in Bahrain criticized the human rights group Freedom House for downgrading Bahrain’s rating from “partly free” to “not free” in its global survey of political rights and civil liberties. The cable asserted that Freedom House had been successfully lobbied by a radical Shiite movement, known as Haq, which rejects the government’s reform efforts.
Another cable passed along doubts about a Human Rights Watch report that said the police were using torture in interrogations — saying it relied heavily on allegations made by members of the same group — though the embassy did urge the Bahraini authorities to undertake a “timely and credible” investigation.
“The embassy was feeding this happy talk for years,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain was moving on a genuine reform path for several years, but it did a significant U-turn in the last year, and I think the U.S. government was well behind the curve.”
A year ago, Human Rights Watch released an 89-page report, Torture Redux: The Revival of Physical Coercion during Interrogations in Bahrain:
“Torture is back in the repertoire of Bahrain’s security services,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The return of torture is especially distressing since Bahrain showed the political will a decade ago to end this scourge.”
Bahrain’s reversion to these discredited practices has come with rising political tensions. Street demonstrations by young men from the country’s majority Shia Muslim population protesting alleged discrimination by the Sunni-dominated government have deteriorated with increasing regularity into violent confrontations with security forces. Arrests have often followed. Security officials appear to be using painful physical techniques to elicit confessions from many of those arrested.
These techniques include electro-shock devices, suspension in painful positions, and beatings. Some of those who were detained reported that security officials threatened to kill or rape them or members of their families. Many were subjected to more than one of these practices.
A month later, the State Department’s annual report on human rights downplayed the torture allegations and seemed to insinuate that the victims’ credibility should be questioned. The report repeatedly cited official denials of the use of torture as though such denials constituted some form of evidence. It also repeatedly referred to rioters using Molotov cocktails — as though anyone engaged in political violence should expect to become a target of violence when held in detention, or, that anyone who riots can’t be trusted.
There are indications that the Obama administration did not simply view Bahrain in the way its rulers wanted the kingdom to be seen. State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks to the Daily Telegraph, show in detail the administration’s interest in the power dynamics within the royal family and perhaps expose the US government’s desire to manipulate how the Al Khalifa family exercises its power.
To the extent that the US feels empowered and entitled to control other states, it would seem inevitable that a transition to democracy in those states would be regarded as a threat to American interests.
The US State Department secretly asked its diplomats in Bahrain to report any “derogatory” information about two of the King’s sons and evidence of “rivalry” with senior members of the ruling royal family, leaked documents show.
The office of Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, wanted to know if Prince Nasir bin Hamad al Khalifa or Prince Khalid bin Hamad al Khalifa took drugs, drank alcohol or “caused problems” within the monarchy.
Embassy staff in the Bahraini capital of Manama were also asked whether the princes had any friends among the country’s Shia Muslim majority, which is behind this week’s protests against the minority rule of the Sunni regime.
Prince Nasir, 23, who is serving in the Bahrain Defence Force, and Prince Khalid, 21, are King Hamad’s sons by his second wife and there have been fears in the region that hardliners from neighbouring countries might try to influence them.
In October 2009 a diplomatic cable from Mrs Clinton’s office, marked “secret”, described the princes as “important emerging targets of leadership analysis”.
Another cable reveals that the princes’ father, King Hamad, saw Bahrain’s strategic relationship with the US as so indispensable that he wanted to be sure the US Fifth Fleet would remain for decades:
He said he wanted to ensure a U.S. naval presence in Bahrain “for the next fifty years” and wondered aloud what kind of commitment Bahrain could offer that would serve this purpose. He suggested, for example, that Bahrain could increase production of crude or refined products to meet the Navy’s fuel requirements.
As an extra incentive, Bahrain considered offering the US Navy long-term fuel contracts at a fixed price. And keep in mind that Bahrain is a relatively minor oil producer.
Meanwhile, Eric Avebury provides some political background on the tiny Gulf state.
Bahrain is an hereditary dictatorship masquerading as a parliamentary democracy. The state has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since the end of the 18th century, and still today all ministers are appointed by the King, who chooses 80 per cent from his near relations. The Prime Minister, who is the King’s uncle, has occupied the post since 1971, when Bahrain got its independence.
The al-Khalifas are Sunnis, but the majority of the population was Shia, at least until very recently. The regime has engaged in long-term demographic engineering, by granting citizenship, jobs and housing to Sunni immigrants. At the same time a clandestine organisation headed by another relative, Shaikh Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, works to ensure that the Shia remain powerless, economically and politically. Gerrymandering at the last election saw to it that although 60 per cent of the votes were for Shia candidates, only 16 of them were elected to the lower house of parliament.