Biden Administration Should Move to End a Decade of Pain in Bahrain
Exactly ten years ago today I was sitting in a Bahraini royal palace witnessing an extraordinary event.
An international lawyer, who had been appointed by the King of Bahrain to investigate the government's response to a pro-democracy uprising in early 2011, was declaring his findings in a very public setting.
There were hundreds of us in a huge room listening to international legal expert Cherif Bassiouni tell the assembled that yes, the king’s security forces had wrongly arrested and tortured people. It probably was not the outcome the king had anticipated when he commissioned the study, and he sat on his throne in awkward silence studying his shoes as the awful truth was presented.
Bassiouni’s report, The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), confirmed what Human Rights First and other international NGOs had been documenting throughout 2011 -- that thousands of people had been arrested in the government crackdown against the protests, there had been a pattern of torture in custody, and dozens of people had been killed in the streets.
Bahraini government officials squirmed as the facts were revealed. The king finally responded, assuring us he was "dismayed" to learn that his security forces had committed these acts and that they must not happen again. He said officials responsible would be replaced and held accountable. To prevent any repeat of such a disaster, he promised to implement all the recommendations in the report.
The report contained detailed accounts of the torture of several human rights defenders, including Abduljalil Al Singace, an academic and peaceful critic of the government. It documented that, “on 17 March 2011, security forces entered the witness’s home, pulled him from bed and pointed rifles at his head.” At the police station, he was subjected to threats and intimidation including, “Your daughter is being raped.”
The report detailed the Bahraini government’s torture and humiliation of Al Singace: “He was verbally abused and sexually molested with a finger thrust into his anus. He was beaten with hands and shoes.” Police forced him “to lick their shoes and wipe them on his face. A man placed a pistol in his mouth and said, ‘I wish I could empty it in your head.’”
The police “took his wooden crutches away and made him stand on one leg for prolonged periods. They kicked him in his good leg until he fell down. He was beaten with batons and a shoe every night and he sustained an injury to his left rib as a result. His crutch was pushed into his genitals.” “He was forced to repeat the national anthem whenever the main door was opened,” and other indignities.
The report also documented the torture of prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, arrested on 8 April 2011. They broke his jaw and he needed major surgery on four broken bones in his face.
In the hospital, he “was blindfolded the whole time and handcuffed to the bed… Security personnel in the hospital threatened him with sexual abuse and execution. They also made sexual threats against his wife and daughter… Eight days after his surgery, regular beatings started at night. Masked guards cursed him and hit him in his head and hands, causing swelling. They forced a stick into his anus. He was also beaten on the soles of his feet,” and humiliated in other ways.
The king’s public promises to reform just didn’t happen. Al Khawaja and Al Singace had to face an unfair mass trial with an array of other dissidents; both received life sentences and both remain in jail. Al Singace has been on hunger strike for months after the prison authorities confiscated his academic research on Bahraini local language and culture.
Since November 2011, peaceful opposition in the kingdom has been crushed, its only independent newspaper forced to close. Executions have resumed. After inviting international NGOs to the big show in the palace, virtually all human rights researchers, including me, have been shut out of the country.
As Bahrain’s human rights record grew even worse than it was ten years ago Washington has largely failed to press Bahrain to improve. While some members of Congress, notably Jim McGovern (D-MA), have persistently spoken up against abuses in Bahrain, a succession of U.S. administrations have failed to exert public pressure needed for progress. Worse, the U.S. continues to supply the regime with arms.
After a decade of pain, it’s now time for the Biden administration to publicly urge its military ally Bahrain to release Al Singace, Al Khawaja, and other peaceful dissidents still in jail. The administration has nominated Steve Bondy as ambassador to Bahrain. Before the U.S. Senate confirms him to that post, senators should insist that he and the administration commit to pressing for the release of Bahrain’s jailed human rights defenders.