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June 20, 2016

Time for Washington to Act as Bahrain Government Provokes Crisis

This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post

Exactly what’s behind the Bahraini government’s thinking in provoking a new political crisis is hard to read, but in the last three weeks it has taken a series of astonishingly inflammatory steps, presumably with the intention of goading opposition protests. It’s a risky policy, likely to produce significant instability and a fresh round of large scale protests.

Since May 30 the main opposition group Al Wefaq has been suspended, its leader Sheikh Ali Salman has had his jail sentence increased from four to nine years, activists have been prevented from attending the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister lashed out angrily at senior U.N. and U.S. officials, leading dissident Zainab al Khawaja was forced out the country, and prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was arrested and taken into custody. Then today, leading Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim was stripped of his citizenship.

This amounts to the most ferocious assault on Bahrain’s civil society and peaceful opposition since the large scale violent crackdown in 2011. Bahrain’s powerful allies in London and Washington can no longer insist Bahrain is moving in the right direction, or brandish token reforms as evidence of progress.

What has triggered this outburst is baffling. The opposition was largely moribund, offering no threat to the ruling family. The international community was losing interest in Bahrain, and the regime seems to be sitting comfortably, albeit with mounting economic worries and a struggling oil price.

But totalitarian governments tend to crave total control, even when it amounts to self-harm. The removal of Sheikh Qassim’s Bahraini nationality has provoked the largest protests in Bahrain for years, and at the time of writing a large scale sit-in is developing outside his home. In response Hezbollah has predictably called for Bahrain "to express anger and rage decisively." 

Tehran must be loving this new mess the Bahrain government is creating for itself. This is all very worrying for the State Department, which is due any day now to produce an assessment of how the Bahrain regime has implemented key human rights reforms in the last five years. Whatever the report says, we have clearly been pushed into new territory over the last three weeks.

Washington should have said “enough” years ago when it came to its military ally’s stalling and backsliding on human rights reform and inclusive government. Instead—a year ago last week—it lifted arms holds on sales to Bahrain’s military in a gesture that seems only to have encouraged further repression.

The situation is already far too serious to be addressed with further expressions of concern or alarm, and the State Department should immediately reimpose the ban and announce a series of other consequences. The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain should meet with whatever civil society is left in the country and out of prison to explain its strategy and listen to ideas of how the crisis can be prevented from spiraling further.

Bahrain is now bracing for another dangerous show of strength from the government as reaction to the crackdown mounts. As Bahraini human rights defender Maryam al Khawaja tweeted today, “Regime in #Bahrain thinks it can regain control by eliminating opposition and civil society - tends to have opposite effect.”