Congressmen Confront Bahrain Over Recent NGO Visa Restrictions

WASHINGTON -- With the first anniversary of the popular uprising, and subsequent suppression, in Bahrain fast approaching, a number of human rights organizations are asking a dreaded question: What happens if there's another crackdown, and not enough international organizations are there to witness it?

This unlikely circumstance has started to seem like a serious possibility in recent weeks, as the government of Bahrain -- amid its own internal investigation and repeated promises of reforms and accountability -- has stepped up its denial of visas to human rights oriented non-governmental organizations.

On Thursday, the brewing controversy received a boost in attention as a bipartisan collection of congressmen signed on to a letter to Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, asking him to "reconsider the recent travel bans" on the NGOs:

As we approach the one-year anniversary of mass protests in Bahrain on February 14th, reversing these bans would support your pledge to engage international organizations and individuals "in order to ensure that there is no return to unacceptable practices once the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry has left Bahrain."

The letter, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Huffington Post, is set to be delivered to Sheikh Hamad later Thursday.

The letter is being circulated by the office of Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), and is also signed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), James McGovern (D-Mass.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) Jim Moran (D-Va.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and John Carter (R-Texas).

“In Bahrain, representatives from organizations such as Freedom House and Human Rights First have been denied access or told to delay their visit to Bahrain," McDermott told HuffPost. "Many of these organizations have been instrumental in advancing the rule of law and human rights in Bahrain. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the protests in Bahrain, it is critical now more than ever that the Bahraini government let these NGOs into the country.”

The increased congressional attention to the matter comes as Egypt faces growing condemnation from the international community over its treatment of American and European pro-democracy NGOs. In late December, heavily armed security officials stormed the Cairo offices of several NGOs under the pretense of investigating whether the groups were properly registered.

The obstacles to NGO workers in Bahrain have been far less aggressive, but equally disruptive, aid workers say. The trouble began in early January, when Richard Sollom, the deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, was turned away from the border at the Bahrain airport.

Sollom, who has visited Bahrain a number of times, had arrived to attend a court hearing for several doctors who had been charged with crimes after providing care for protesters during last February's uprising.

Soon, several other human rights workers found that their planned visits hit snags.

In mid-January, a few days before a planned flight, Brian Dooley, the director of Human Rights First's Defenders Program, received a letter advising him that "it would be more beneficial" to visit in March.

"I had to read it a few times because I was trying to understand, does this say I can't come?" Dooley told HuffPost.

The NGO Freedom House reported that it received a similar letter shortly before its own trip.

A spokesman for Bahrain did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the letter.

In November, an international commission investigating the 2011 crackdown published a report that documented evidence of "systematic" abuse by security services.

The government of Bahrain, which supported the commission, has since promised to enact substantive reforms by the end of March, a pledge that was welcomed by the Obama administration, but that many human rights activists have greeted with skepticism. Many observers anticipate a spike in clashes and violence in mid-February, during the failed uprising's anniversary.

"Things are getting very tense there," Dooley said. "What happens in the next few weeks could completely turn everything on its head. If something very serious happens in the middle of February, around the anniversary, all bets might be off."

Not everyone has found it difficult to visit Bahrain lately. In recent weeks, several American think tanks have sent staff to the country, including analysts for the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, without trouble.

And staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross have also had no problem moving freely in and out of Bahrain, a spokesman for the group confirmed, and recently negotiated a plan to visit detained protesters in prison.

This article has been updated to include a quote from Rep. Jim McDermott.