Last week, Josh Rogin reported: Five Democratic senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday to ask her to delay a planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain because of the island kingdom’s continued violence against protesters.
“We recognize the administration’s commitment to the United States’ strategic relationship with Bahrain… However, the Bahrain government’s repressive treatment of peaceful protesters during the past several months is unacceptable,” the senators wrote in their Oct. 12 letter [PDF], obtained by The Cable.
“The United States must make it clear to the government of Bahrain that its ongoing human rights violations and unwillingness to acknowledge legitimate demands for reform have a negative impact on its relationship with the United States.”
The letter’s signatories were Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
The letter accuses the Bahrain government of torture and notes reporting by Human Rights Watch that states Bahrain’s government has killed 34 protesters, arrested 1,400 more, and dismissed 3,600 people from their jobs for anti-government activities.
“Completing an arms sale to Bahrain under the current circumstances would weaken U.S. credibility at a critical time of democratic transition in the Middle East,” the senators wrote.
Today, Gulf News reports: Washington has finalised a $53 million (Dh195 million) weapons deal with Bahrain, a top US diplomat has said. “Congress has expressed no opposition to this sale,” said Stephen Seche, Deputy US Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs.
The deal is part of a move to defend Bahrain from aggression, Seche said at a roundtable meeting, local media reported.
The official said that the US looked forward to the recommendations by an international panel that investigated the events that hit Bahrain in February and March and their consequences.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), set up in June, is scheduled to announce its findings on October 30. The BICI, locally known as the Bassiouni Commission, after its leader Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni an expert in international criminal, human rights and humanitarian law, has interviewed thousands of people in its quest to appreciate what really happened.
“I think we would like to wait for the Commission report to speak for itself. We have been encouraged by the process that has ensued here since the Commission first arrived in Bahrain. They have been very thorough and Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni has spoken publicly about the response. He has been encouraged by the receptivity of all aspects of the Bahraini government to probe into the different questions, their need to get to as much information in the time they had,” Seche said.
“This is a positive development and we believe that the Commission’s findings will reflect a process which has been thorough and comprehensive and very professional. We will look forward to the recommendations,” he was quoted as saying.
This week, the “Manama Document: Bahrain’s road to freedom and democracy,” a joint document written by opposition groups, was released. It calls on the monarchy to relinquish political power.
In the presence of an unelected government under statesmanship of a single person for 40 years, some 80 per cent of public land ended being controlled by senior members from the royal family and other influential figures. Consequently, this has placed constraints on availability of lands for the purposes of developing projects for housing, municipality, education and health facilities.
Still, the country suffers from an acute poor distribution of wealth and widespread poverty notwithstanding Bahrain being an oil exporting nation, exporting some 200,000 barrels per day. Wrong policies like extending citizenship to foreign nationals have further undermined distribution of wealth in the country.
Against a backdrop of political dictatorship, economic failure and social confusion of government policies, people of Bahrain had pressed for change. Popular demands date back to 1923 with calls made for participation in decision making and 1938 for having an elected assembly with full legislator and regulatory powers. In reality, popular uprisings kept reemerging almost like those of 1954, 1965 and still 1994-2000, the largest of its kind at the time. Thus, there were the revolts of 1954 plus that of March 1965 as well as that of 1994-2000.
Still, affected primarily by events in Tunisia and Egypt as part of Arab Spring, nearly half of Bahrain’s people took to the streets in early 2011 pressing for democracy, respect of human rights and sustained human development. Yet, the demands call for retaining the royal family in terms of ruling and governing without powers, as a true constitutional monarchy.
In short, Bahrain is undergoing rivalry between two camps, one demanding democracy, comprising of people of all walks of life and diverse ideologies with another struggling to maintain the status quo despite need for addressing political, economic and social challenges.
Last month, in an editorial, the Washington Post called on Congress to block the sale of arms to a regime that continues to repress its people.
The rulers of Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf that hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet, undoubtedly worry that their harsh crackdown on a peaceful pro-democracy movement could damage vital relations with Washington. The government has hired a pricey Washington lobbying firm and regularly dispatches senior officials to stroke the administration and Congress. It has repeatedly promised to free political prisoners, reverse a mass purge of suspected protesters from government jobs and negotiate meaningful reforms of the al-Khalifa monarchy, a Sunni dynasty that rules over a majority-Shiite population.
Yet the regime hasn’t kept its promises — and its unjustified and self-defeating repression goes on. The latest brazen step came Thursday, when a special security court sentenced 20 doctors and other medical professionals to lengthy prison terms after a grossly unfair trial. The doctors were charged with stockpiling weapons and trying to overthrow the regime; in fact, their offense was treating injured protesters who arrived at their hospital and reporting what they saw to international media. A host of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, pronounced the trial a travesty; Human Rights First said the medics had given “consistent and credible accounts of being tortured into giving confessions.”
The convictions came just a day after a court upheld the convictions of 21 opposition leaders, including clerics, members of political parties, human rights activists and bloggers. None are guilty of violence, but all were nonetheless accused of terrorism; eight received life sentences. They, too, have offered credible reports of torture. Another human rights group, Freedom House, said the rulings continued “a pattern of repression that belies any promises of meaningful reform by the government.”
Such a unanimous verdict from human rights groups ought to spell trouble for a government that depends on the United States for defense and enjoys a free-trade agreement with it. Yet there is no sign of serious friction between the Obama administration and the al-Khalifa family. Administration spokesmen have largely kept quiet as the crackdown has proceeded. On the military front, it is business as usual. This month the Pentagon notified Congress of a plan to sell Bahrain armored Humvees and anti-tank missiles worth $53 million.
The message this sends is unmistakable: The regime’s crackdown will not affect its cozy relationship with the United States. This is dangerous for the United States as well as for Bahrain, because the government’s attempt to suppress legitimate demands for change from a majority of the population is ultimately doomed to failure. Bahrain’s ruling family should be given more reason to worry about its standing in Washington. A congressional hold on the arms package would be a good way to start.