Over the last few days the Bahraini government eliminated any remaining doubt about the direction it is moving on human rights. After forcing prominent dissident Zainab Al Khawaja into exile last week, on Saturday it prevented a group of human rights activists from attending the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, and today took leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab from his home in an early morning raid. This latest attack on civil society comes just as the State Department is about to release its long-overdue report on how well the Bahraini regime is doing on implementing human rights reform. It's hard to see why administration officials missed the February 1 deadline and still haven't sent the report Congress asked for. The situation isn't that complicated--the Bahraini authorities have carried out only a small handful of the 26 recommendations they promised to fulfill in 2011, and in recent weeks have intensified their attacks on human rights activists. Rajab was arrested a few hours ago and is said to be held at Riffa police station. It's unclear if he will be released, if fresh charges are to be brought against him, or old ones resurrected to put him back in prison. He has been prevented from leaving the country since he was released from jail a year ago. Over the weekend, half a dozen other activists were also prevented from attending the U.N. Human Rights Council. One of them, Ebtisam Alseagh, told me: "I went to the airport on Saturday the passport officer prevented me from traveling and said I should ask at the Ministry of the Interior. So I went the next day but they said there was no note in their security files preventing me from traveling," she said. "So a few hours later I tried to leave Bahrain by road via Saudi Arabia but again I was stopped at the border without any explanation." Another, Hussain Radhi, told me a similar story: "I went to the airport Saturday night to go to Geneva for the human rights council. The passport officer said I couldn't travel--he said he couldn't tell me why. Then Sunday I tried to leave via the causeway to Saudi Arabia and was stopped again. It's clear the authorities don't want activists going to Geneva." Today the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid bin Ra'ad Al-Hussain, again criticized Bahrian's regime for its human rights record, rightly noting that "Repression will not eliminate people's grievances; it will increase them." But Bahrain's ruling family is clearly past caring what the international community, including its allies in Washington and London, say in statements of concern.
Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa, a senior royal, dismissed the U.N. High Commissioner's comments in a tweet that said, "We won't waste our time answering a powerless commissioner."
Bahrain's impunity continues also because there are too many American and British officials who are willing to believe evidence of fake reform.
A year ago the State Department even thought it was a good idea to lift holds on arms sales to Bahrain's military, citing "meaningful progress on human rights." Such a hopelessly naive analysis does nothing to deter the dictatorship, which earlier this month increased the jail sentence for peaceful opposition leader Shiekh Ali Salman from four to nine years. What's clearly needed now are consequences for these repressive acts. Congress is considering bipartisan legislation which would ban the sale of small arms to Bahrain's security forces until real human rights reform has been achieved. It won't solve all Bahrain's problems but it's one tangible way for Washington to show it's finally prepared to stand with Bahrain's civil society.