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November 23, 2018

Bahrain Stages Fake Elections For Poodle Parliament

We know from Roman historian Suetonius that Julius Caesar’s reforms included a political system where half the magistrates were popularly elected and half were appointed. Such a system has served various parliaments, including Britain’s, fairly well for generations.

Bahrain ostensibly copies this bicameral model, with the 40 members of its upper house of parliament appointed by the king and the 40 members of the lower house elected every four years. But Saturday’s round of elections will be bogus, because the regime has jailed opposition leaders or forced them into exile. 

Once thought to be the Gulf state most likely to reform, Bahrain resembles Saudi Arabia a little more every week. Like its powerful neighbor and benefactor, it’s revealing itself to be an erratic and unpredictable ally for the United States by insisting on an increasingly volatile repression instead of fostering stability through an inclusive politics where grievances can be safely aired and addressed.

Leading human rights activists and other dissidents are routinely jailed and tortured. The country’s only independent newspaper was forced to close last year. Al Wefaq and the other peaceful opposition groups have been banned, and anyone associated with them forbidden from contesting the elections. Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Al Wefaq, was sentenced to life in prison earlier this month after a sham trial on politically motivated charges.

Successive administrations have stayed largely mute as promised human rights reforms evaporated. At this point, giving any credence to the fake elections will only enable further repression, and confirm to Bahrain’s ruling family that the State Department will applaud its empty PR exercises in democracy while allowing it to detain and torture rights activists.

So, what should the Trump Administration do? It should call out the charade for what it is, a stunt to make the dictatorship even more powerful. And it should use its leverage to push Bahrain to reform. It should, for starters, restore the suspension of arms sales to Bahrain’s military, lifted in 2015, and use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Bahraini government officials responsible for human rights violations. There is no shortage of evidence. 

U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, Justin Siberell, should publicly ask for access to meet Ali Salman and the other political and civil society leaders in prison. This would afford them a measure of protection and show that the administration recognizes them as legitimate leaders.

Meanwhile, members of Congress should continue to urge the release of political prisoners and refuse to recognize visiting Bahrain members of parliament as properly elected representatives of the people. They should also pass appropriations legislation conditioning co-operation with Bahrain on verifiable human rights progress. 

The Khashoggi murder reminds us that Gulf monarchs exercise power like the ancient Roman emperors, operating a policy of kill at will, giving a thumbs up or down to who lives or dies, who’s put in prison or sent into exile. 

Bahrain’s ruling family’s absolute authority means it can also immediately order the release of political figures such as Ali Salman, Hassan Mushaima, and Khalil Halwachi and human rights defenders such as Abdulhadi al Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab and Naji Fateel. It could likewise order an immediate lifting of travel bans on human rights activists and allow in international human rights organizations. It could put end to torture and say that publicly criticizing the king would no longer land you in jail.

Even Julius Caesar’s successor Tiberius did that. Suetonius reports that Tiberius was “quite unperturbed by abuse, slander or lampoons on himself and his family, and would often say that liberty to speak and think as one pleases is the test of a free country.”

So are fair elections. Bahrain is failing that test too, and the U.S. government shouldn’t pretend otherwise.