U.S. Government Should Respond Strongly, Immediately to Al Wefaq Suspension
Bahrain’s government suspended the main opposition group, Al Wefaq, on Tuesday. Its headquarters are shuttered, its assets are frozen, all activities are halted, and its website is reportedly blocked in Bahrain. A court hearing is scheduled for October 6 to decide whether to “liquidate” Al Wefaq; until then, it will be unable to operate, unless an appeals court specifically decides to halt the emergency order suspending it.
The U.S. government has repeatedly asserted the importance of Al Wefaq’s participation in political dialogue to achieve long-sought reforms. Now that its very existence is at stake, and the Bahraini regime has demonstrated a clear intent to crush it, the United States should consider its whole toolkit—diplomatic, military, and economic—and mobilize a significant response to show that this suspension is unacceptable.
In September 2011, after the Bahraini government’s crackdown on popular protests, President Obama addressed the situation in his remarks at the U.N. General Assembly. He said, “America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc—the Wifaq—to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.” The same year a State Department press statement highlighted that “Al Wifaq’s participation adds an important voice of Bahrain’s political opposition to a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation.”
When former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner visited Bahrain in 2012, he “acknowledge[d] the positive response of Al Wifaq and a coalition of other opposition societies to the Crown Prince's call for dialogue, and their reaffirmation of the previously-issued Declaration of Non-Violence.” And in mid-2015, when Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary general of Al Wefaq, was convicted and sentenced for peacefully expressing his views in a speech, the U.S. government issued a press statement asserting that “creating an atmosphere in which a full range of political opinions can be peacefully expressed is essential in Bahrain.”
These statements of support for Al Wefaq should now be followed up with urgent action. And members of Congress should cosponsor a bipartisan bill that would ban the sale of small arms to Bahrain’s security forces until real human rights reforms are achieved.
The suspension of Al Wefaq comes on the heels of the arrest of leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who was detained on Monday after an early-morning raid on his home. He is still in custody. Earlier this week the government prevented a group of human rights defenders from attending the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and last week activist Zainab Al Khawaja was forced into exile after being detained for months with her infant son. Sheikh Ali Salman’s sentence was recently more than doubled; he now faces nine years in prison, and more than a dozen other high-profile dissidents are incarcerated, many for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
For a country trying to build its credibility with the United States as a partner on counterterrorism and anti-ISIS initiatives, Bahrain has done an awful lot this week to suffocate civil society and disrupt any illusion that it might be willing to engage in badly-needed political reforms. The question now is how the U.S. government will respond—and if American officials will stand by their earlier assessments that Al Wefaq is a crucial player in the effort to resolve Bahrain’s protracted political crisis.