In the island nation of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, a man by the name of Nabeel Rajab is sitting in jail for the "crime" of peaceful protest. But the government that has imprisoned him is a U.S. military ally, and the Obama Administration has done little to push for his release. When U.S. officials arrive in Bahrain this weekend for a global conference, will they finally change course?
Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and this fact has everything to do with his three year prison sentence. That's why Amnesty International members worldwide are calling for his freedom, as part of our global "Write for Rights" campaign.
Like Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the region, Bahrain's ruling al Khalifa family has imprisoned many people who have dared to criticize the government. And while the U.S. government has issued mild statements of concern along the way, the Obama Administration has fundamentally failed to hold its repressive military ally accountable.
Bahrain didn't have to be this way. After a massive crackdown on protests in 2011, the King of Bahrain signaled a desire to back away from the tactics his government had employed. He created an independent commission, put a prominent human rights lawyer in charge, and essentially allowed an honest investigation of his own government.
It was a rare occurrence for any government, and the commission issued a public report (PDF) whose conclusions were not kind. But one year later, despite promising to change course, the government of Bahrain has stuck to its old ways. Amnesty International's latest report (PDF) documents exactly how Bahrain has escalated its repression:
- A sweeping ban on all protests
- Laws making it illegal to criticize the government.
- Reports of torture by Bahraini security forces, including beatings, electric shocks and threats of rape.
- Court decisions upholding the imprisonment of nonviolent critics.
- The detention of as many as 80 children under the age of 18, many of whom were arrested during demonstrations.
Despite these terrible developments, the Obama administration has continued to prioritize its military relationship with Bahrain over support for basic freedom. Bahrain is host to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and the U.S. naval base there is a major focus of the U.S.-Bahrain conversation. Perhaps that is one reason why the U.S. government's statements on Bahrain have been far milder than criticisms of human rights violations in a country like Iran.
Instead of condemning the Bahraini government's human rights violations, U.S. diplomats have offered somewhat cautious expressions of concern. These have included calls for Bahraini officials and opposition voices to engage in dialogue. But how can dialogue be possible when a government keeps some of its most prominent critics in prison?
This weekend, U.S. officials will have an important opportunity to change direction. Representatives from some 30 nations will gather in Bahrain's capital for the Manama Dialogue, a regional conference on security issues. For the U.S. government, this is a significant moment. While Bahraini prisoners of conscience languish in jail cells, will U.S. and Bahraini officials continue with business as usual? Or will there be consequences for the relationship when a U.S. military ally represses its citizens?
While in Bahrain, Obama administration representatives should publicly condemn the repressive actions of Bahrain's government. This should include a blunt call to end the countrywide ban on protests and a call for the reversal of the decision to strip 31 Bahraini opposition voices of their citizenship. U.S. officials should also push to meet directly with nonviolent Bahraini critics who have been imprisoned by the monarchy.
Meanwhile, the rest of us should be paying close attention as well. When it comes to U.S. military allies, successive U.S. administrations have demonstrated that they are most likely to push for human rights when the American public makes it difficult for them to look the other way. If the message out of Bahrain this weekend is more of the same, it will take an engaged American public to achieve something different.