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July 24, 2014

Bahrain Regime Targets Opposition--and the United States

This blog is cross-posted from the Huffington Post:

After nearly three years in the job, the much-vilified U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, Thomas Krajeski, will be replaced - if the U.S. Senate agrees to his confirmation - by William Roebuck, a middle east specialist at the State Department. After stints in embassies in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Israel, a spell with close U.S. ally Bahrain might seem like a relatively cushy number, but being American ambassador to Bahrain has become a nightmare job.

Krajeski and his staff have been regularly attacked in media loyal to the Bahrain government. Last year the cabinet, which includes the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince, approved a proposal to "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs."

One of the typical components of a U.S. Ambassador's job is meeting with the country's civil society and opposition groups. In Bahrain it's not that straightforward. Earlier this month Tom Malinowski, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, was expelled from the country after meeting leading figures of al Wefaq, a prominent opposition group. The Bahrain state news agency said Malinowski was unwelcome and had to immediately leave the country, due to "his interference in its internal affairs." In June last year the Bahrain government passed a bizarre law--not enforced until the Malinowski incident--requiring political groups to secure government permission in advance of meetings with foreign diplomats in Bahrain and abroad, and for a Foreign Ministry representative to be present.

This would be Roebuck's first ambassadorial post, and how he will engage with a broad spectrum of Bahraini society without "interfering in internal affairs" or violating this law is hard to fathom.

Members of Congress are beginning to wonder if it is time to reexamine the U.S.-Bahrain relationship. On July 18, a bipartisan group of 18 members wrote to the King of Bahrain pointing out that "Malinowski was in the country doing exactly what high-level diplomats are called on to do; meet with members of the government, opposition parties and members of the public to gain a deeper understanding."

Bahrain is behaving more like a volatile adversary than a reliable ally to the United States. This week Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who serves on the influential Armed Services Committee, suggested that "the Government of Bahrain is increasingly proving itself to be undependable and erratic - putting the long-term viability of our [Naval Base] presence in the country at risk."

The government's treatment of opposition group al Wefaq in recent weeks is an important feature of this "undependable and erratic" behavior. Although other opposition leaders remain in prison, al Wefaq has been the government's main negotiating partner in a series of cosmetic political talks since widespread unrest broke out three years ago during street protests for democracy in the kingdom. But now the two leaders of al Wefaq who met Malinowski have been charged with "violating the 2005 Law for Political Societies," and this week the Bahrain authorities went to court to seek the suspension of the al Wefaq group for three months "until it rectifies its illegal status following the annulment of four general assemblies for lack of a quorum and the non-commitment to the public and transparency requirements for holding them."

According to the local press, more opposition groups are to be similarly targeted. Every day seems to bring more news of the Bahrain regime moving against the opposition or against the United States. Washington needs to take a hard look at why it continues to arm and train Bahrain's military, and whether it's finally time to fundamentally change its relationship with the country's ruling family.