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November 15, 2013

Report Recommends New Strategy for U.S. Action in Bahrain

Washington, D.C. – In a new report detailing steps the United States should take to support Bahrain’s transition to democracy and the rule of law, Human Rights First is urging the Obama Administration to overhaul its diplomatic approach in the Kingdom. From withholding arms transfers to Bahrain military and police forces to stronger engagement with human rights defenders, the organization’s recommendations come as simmering tensions in Bahrain raise fundamental questions about how best to protect U.S. military interests in the region.

Two years ago this month, Bahrain’s rulers pledged to implement reforms rooted in the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. The U.S. government has supported this goal, as well as efforts to bolster the Crown Prince and the “reformist” wing of the monarchy in the hope that it can deliver meaningful change. Today’s report, Plan B for Bahrain, What the United States Government Should Do Next, outlines how this strategy has largely failed  and how increasingly violent protests, a rise in sectarianism and a relentless government crackdown on dissent further threaten a peaceful solution to the crisis.

“While the Government of Bahrain insists it is carrying out the implementation of the BICI recommendations, there is little evidence of sustained follow through,” noted Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley, author of today’s report. “No senior government figure has been held accountable for the arrests or deaths in custody, and key political leaders remain in jail. Bahrain is a strategic regional ally of the United States and is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The United States should rethink its strategy as human rights abuses persist on the fleet’s doorstep.”

Bahrain’s abuses have persisted in the years since the BICI report was released. In the past 12 months alone, about a dozen people have been targeted for offenses related to criticizing the king on Twitter. In September 2013, dozens were sentenced to long prison terms of up to 15 years after an unfair trail for their perceived part in the protests, including human rights defender, Naji Fateel. Other leading oppositions and civil society figures have remained in jail since March or April of 2011. The situation has proven so dire that in a July 2013 letter Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) asked Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel to explore a contingency plan for moving the Fifth Fleet.

Though many had high hopes for reforms to take shape after the Crown Prince’s new appointment in March 2013, he has failed to deliver change. Since his appointment, the regime has adopted new measures to limit freedom of expression, ban public gatherings in the country’s capital Manama, and proposals to revoke the citizenship of Bahrainis who have been convicted of terrorist offenses.

“In recent months the cabinet, which includes the Crown Prince, has approved measures to criminalize anyone who disrupts public morale online, and it has endorsed an amendment to Article 214 of the Penal Code that increases the penalty to up to five years in prison for offending Kind Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the country’s flag and other national symbols,” noted Dooley.

This year the Bahrain government has also introduced new rules requiring Bahraini political opposition representatives to tell the government in advance of meeting with foreign embassies so a Bahraini government representative can be present. It has also imposed a de facto ban on allowing international human rights NGOs and many media outlet to enter the country. A planned visit to Bahrain by Human Rights First in March 2013 was cancelled at short notice by the authorities, and Human Rights First has been unable to obtain permission to visit since.

To address these concerns, Human Rights First is calling on the U.S. government to overhaul its strategy toward diplomatic action in Bahrain. Today’s report calls on the U.S. government to:

  • Withhold arms sales and transfers to the police and military, contingent upon human rights progress, starting with a request for the publication of current representation levels of Shias in recruitment and promotion targets for under-represented groups
  • Urge the release of the peaceful opposition figures and other political prisoners
  • Publicly announce it will continue to meet Bahraini opposition figures without the presence of a Bahraini government representative
  • Defend U.S. officials under attack by the Government of Bahrain and its representatives for their advocacy of human rights and reform
  • Ensure that U.S. arms transfers are not facilitating repression and gross human rights violations in Bahrain.
  • Vigorously implement the Leahy Law governing U.S. military and other security assistance to Bahrain
  • Promote the State Department March 2013 Principles of Human Rights Defenders to Bahraini civil society, including in Arabic
  • Engage more closely and regularly with a broad range of human rights defenders in Bahrain
  • Publicly call for international media and international human rights organizations to be afforded meaningful access to Bahrain

For more information about today’s report or to speak with Dooley, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder at bowsersoderb@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3323.