The Bahraini authorities have started to play a bizarrely macabre version of the Hokey Pokey (itself a peculiar song and dance dating back to the early 1800s and known in the UK as the Okey Cokey). In the Bahraini version a political dissident is freed from jail as another is arrested.
In out, in out, you shake it all about.
In the middle of last month, opposition leader Ali Salman was sentenced to four years in prison on the usual charges brought against peaceful politicians - inciting hatred against the regime and encouraging unrest. A few days later, the regime released another opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif, who had served nearly all of his five-year sentence.
But the dance continued on. Just a few days ago, Bahraini authorities rearrested Sharif (predictably for inciting hatred) and freed prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab "on health grounds." Rajab was granted a royal pardon, according to Bahrain's state media. What he should have been given is a personal apology from the king for spending months in jail for his tweets exposing torture in the country's main prison and highlighting the connection between ISIS and the Bahraini security forces. The pardon apparently doesn't extend to allowing Rajab to leave the country.
Bahrain's main military ally, the United States, has provided its own unhelpful mood music to the odd choreography of dissidents being spat in and out of a revolving prison door. Although the State Department rightfully called for the release of Rajab, two weeks ago it lifted holds on selling weapons to the Bahrain Defense Force and National Guard. The holds were put in place in response to the Bahraini government's crackdown on activists and civil society during peaceful protests in 2011.
At a time when the Obama Administration should be doing everything it can to stem the growth of sectarianism in the Middle East, it has decided to reward Bahrain's military, which is drawn almost exclusively from the kingdom's Sunni sect. Shamefully, the State Department cited Bahrain's "meaningful progress on human rights reforms" as a reason to resume arms sales to the country's military, the same military that was involved with the demolition of nine Shia mosques and responsible for three civilian deaths and a hundred arrests (including of two medics) during the 2011 unrest.
Dr. Ali Alekry, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, was among of the civilians arrested by Bahrain's military. He says he spent 15 days in a military facility where he was forced to eat his own feces and subjected to other forms of torture. He was convicted in a military court and no military officers have been held accountable for the torture. Dr. Alekry has yet to be featured in the Hokey Pokey game and remains in prison serving a five-year sentence.
Bahrain still needs a radical, inclusive settlement to its political crisis to get itself off the path of repression and polarization. Shuffling political dissidents in and out of jail isn't real reform. By freeing all its political dissidents, it can begin to open a real dialogue about the country's future.
It's time, as the song says, for the Bahraini government to turn it all around. That's what it's all about.