Violence Escalates in Unstable Bahrain

Today's news that two more policemen have been killed in Bahrain, and others injured, is awful and alarming, but ultimately unsurprising. In recent months the Bahraini government has shut off peaceful avenues of dissent for Bahrainis to express their frustration at the country's lack of democracy and its ongoing human rights violations. These attacks on the police are wrong and should stop. Protestors won't be able to bomb their way to democracy. In recent months, the Bahraini government has been suffocating legitimate dissent along the lines of some bizarre version of the board game Monopoly. When peaceful dissidents make a move, they face a penalty. Speak out against the government at a rally? Go Directly To Jail. Tweet criticism of the king? Go Directly To Jail. Call for a republic? Go Directly To Jail. Share information about torture in prisons? Complain to the international media? Tear up pictures of the ruling family? Jail, jail, jail. The Bahraini government must allow people real peaceful alternatives to achieve change. As President Kennedy said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." These bombings mark a further escalation in Bahrain's political crisis. Chances of a negotiation settlement seem impossible with the leading political opposition figures in jail. Prominent human rights activists are either in prison, banned from leaving Bahrain, or in exile. The government is effectively fueling polarization and sectarianism in the country, a recipe that will inevitably lead to more violence. The U.S. government has so much invested in the small kingdom -- not least its Fifth Fleet naval base -- that it can't afford for Bahrain to spiral into the sort of widespread violence destroying so much of the rest of the region. As President Obama rightly noted in April this year, "The biggest threats that [Gulf counties] face may not be coming from Iran invading. It's going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries." Yet Washington is playing its cards poorly, last month lifting a ban on arms sales to the Bahraini military, weirdly citing "some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation" in its announcement. The truth is Bahrain looks like it's actually moving away from reconciliation; its U.S.-equipped military still effectively excludes the country's majority Shia population from joining it, and prospects of political dialogue seem more remote that at any time since 2011. There's now so much distrust in the government from large parts of the Bahraini public that investigations and prosecutions from today's attacks will likely polarize the country more. The security forces' reputation for lying and fabrication means that some twitter users are expressing doubt that the bombings happened at all and have instead been invented as a political excuse by the authorities to accuse Iran of meddling in Bahrain's internal affairs. Within hours of the attack, Bahrain's Prime Minister -- 43 years into the job without ever being elected -- chaired a meeting of the country's security council, promising "the long arm of the law will bring to justice whoever seeking to undermine the kingdom's security and stability, whether through committing the crime, collaboration or incitement." This, sadly, will almost certainly mean prosecutions based on unfair trials and convictions likely based on confessions the defendants will say were tortured out of them. Bahrain's criminal justice system has such a poor record of impartiality or and evidence-based judgments that convictions for the killings of the policemen today will be viewed by large parts of the community as unsafe and likely false. Unless Bahrain radically overhauls the ways it allows people to voice their grievances, and urgently alters how it prosecutes those suspected of violence, it's on a sure path to further instability and volatility. Sadly, today's reports of police killings are unlikely to be the last.