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May 26, 2016

50 Days of a Broken Promise in Bahrain

This article is cross posted from The Huffington Post:

Last month, four days after Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa stood next to Secretary John Kerry at a press conference and announced that dissident Zainab Al Khawaja and her baby son Abdulhadi would be released from jail, I wrote a piece here pointing out that four days was a long time to fill in some paperwork and find the prison key. Tomorrow will be 50 days, and she’s still in jail.You can fly to the moon and back, sail the Atlantic and climb Mount Everest in 50 days if you put your mind to it. The Bahraini government doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to make this happen.

“Zainab al Khawaja will be released pending her case in the court. She will be sent to her home and to be with her family,” said the Foreign Minister on April 7. The previous month Zainab started a jail sentence of over three years for a series of peaceful protests, including tearing up a picture of Bahrain’s king to highlight the monarchy’s abuse of power.

Fifty days after publicly promising to release her and she’s still in Cell 19 in Bahrain’s Isa Town Prison. This incident says much about the Bahrain ruling family’s relationship to the truth, and about the Bahrain-Washington dynamic. On May 9 Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry repeated that Zainab was about to be released, confirming that the Bahrain government has difficulty distinguishing things it declares to be true from things that really are.

Those of us who have followed Bahrain for the last five years aren’t surprised that a senior government minister promised something in front of cameras that wasn’t then delivered. In November 2011 Bahrain’s king accepted the recommendations of an inquiry into human rights violations by his government earlier that year, promising to introduce badly needed reform.

It hasn’t happened. No senior government official has been brought to account for the deaths and torture of 2011. Undeterred by the facts, Bahrain’s government earlier this month simply announced the recommendations from 2011 have been “fully implemented”.

Promising at a public event with Secretary Kerry to release Zainab and then not doing it is all rather embarrassing for the State Department, which renewed arms sales to Bahrain nearly a year ago in the hope of encouraging human rights reform.

This week’s stuttering State Department response to questions about what it intends to do about the unmet promise offers little hope of a firm line from Washington against its repressive ally. And no one is surprised. The State Department has responded to the Bahraini government’s crushing of peaceful dissent by rewarding the regime with more arms. Weaponizing and politically supporting dictators enables their repression, something the U.S. government is willing to do in the case of Bahrain.

A few weeks ago Zainab managed to get a letter out of jail. In it she wrote, “If nothing changes for the people of Bahrain, then my staying in jail or release is not of great consequence.” Maybe she's right, but her staying in jail now represents something else – an embarrassing public snub for the State Department that, 50 days on, is developing into a diplomatic incident.

Seven weeks after promising to release her on “humanitarian grounds” Zainab remains in prison, currently suffering from the flu. Feeling too unwell to look after her son she tried a  few days ago to have the baby taken out of prison to be looked after by her family. The authorities refused.

The State Department had trusted the Bahraini government's intentions for too long, allowing itself to look increasingly gullible as Bahrain’s list of broken promises on human rights gets longer. Next  month is the first anniversary of the U.S. government lifting the holds on selling weapons to Bahrain’s military. It’s time to reassess that decision. Trusting the regime’s promises clearly isn’t working.

UPDATE - On Tuesday, May 31, 2016, Bahraini authorities released Zainab, 53 days after Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmen Al-Khalifa promised to free her.