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December 08, 2014

Bahrain Jails Al Khawaja Sisters: What’s Next for Civil Society?

Last week, sisters Maryam and Zainab Al Khawaja were issued prison sentences in separate hearings in Bahraini courts. The judgments against these leading human rights defenders signal that the small island kingdom has no intention of ceasing its crackdown on dissent.

Maryam’s one-year sentence came down in absentia. She left the country after spending three weeks in detention in September. Maryam is based out of Denmark, where she has citizenship. She traveled back to Bahrain in August to visit her ailing father Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who was hunger striking in protest of the continued jailing of human rights defenders. He was given a life sentence for his participation in the 2011 protests, which called for democracy in Bahrain.

At the airport, Maryam was detained and later charged with assaulting a police officer. But it was the police who did the assaulting, she says. Not expecting to receive a fair trial, she left Bahrain to continue her work abroad urging the international community to put pressure on Bahrain to reform.

Zainab was accused of tearing up a photo of the king, which she did again publicly at a court hearing in October. She just gave birth to her son last week, and now faces a three-year jail term. She has three more hearings this week, which may result in other sentences.

So far the U.S. government has been hesitant to call out the Bahrain regime on their human rights abuses. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and an ally in the coalition against ISIS. However, it’s sectarian conflict like that in Bahrain and other Gulf nations that fuels the fire of extremist groups like ISIS. Members of Bahrain’s security forces have reportedly joined the Islamic State.

Bahrain’s crackdown on human rights defenders is part and parcel of a broader trend of authoritarian regimes repressing civil society. The United States often has significant influence in these places and can potentially be a strong advocate for democratic reforms and human rights. But the U.S. government often leaves this by the wayside in favor of prioritizing its counterterrorism agenda. What it fails to realize, however, is that supporting civil society and human rights is the best defense against the conditions that lead to extremist violence.

Even supposedly democratic states like Hungary are joining in the attack on civil society. Such nations have seen the effectiveness of these tactics in Russia in silencing dissent. The United States needs to step up to its role in promoting civil society and human rights internationally and use its leverage to influence repressive countries.

We’re confronting some of the tough questions on how to make that happen at this year’s Human Rights Summit, in the panels “NGOs as the Enemy Within?” and “Show Them the Money: What are the Lifelines for Civil Society in a Sea of Restrictions?” and more. The event starts tomorrow in Washington, D.C. The Summit is free and open to the public—it’s not too late to register. You can also join in the conversation by tuning in to the live stream tomorrow morning. ​