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November 23, 2015

Recommendations to the U.S. Government on Bahrain

Anniversary of the 2011 Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry

On the fourth anniversary of the 2011 report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, the human rights situation in Bahrain remains grim. This anniversary of the report calls for a critical assessment of the United States’ relations with Bahrain. In this fact sheet, Human Rights First evaluates the U.S. government’s approach to its volatile military ally and offers recommendations to promote human rights and accountability in Bahrain.

In 2011, the Bahraini government convened the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a group of senior international law and human rights experts, to develop a factual account of the violent crackdown on protestors and to issue recommendations on how to constructively address the situation. The BICI released its report on November 23 of that year, which included 26 specific recommendations to advance a political solution to the crisis and prevent the recurrence of similar events. At that time, the king of Bahrain welcomed the report and publicly committed to implementing its recommendations.

This promise has not been met. Civil society organizations have found that the reforms to date have been superficial at best—such as installing audio and video equipment in police stations but not turning on these devices. The government has failed to even begin to address the most vital measures, including the integration into the security forces of recruits from the majority Shia population. Opposition leaders and human rights defenders remain incarcerated on trumped-up charges.

The United States tiptoes gingerly around the dismal human rights situation in Bahrain, which is home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain, meanwhile, continues to bully the U.S. government. The regime expelled Assistant

Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Tom Malinowski, in July 2014 after he met with opposition leaders. In August 2014, Representative James McGovern (D-MA), known for his long record on advocating for human rights, was denied entry to the country. Assistant Secretary Malinowski returned for another visit without incident in December 2014, but the situation remains delicate.

In June 2015, the United States lifted a ban on arms sales to Bahrain’s military, citing “meaningful progress” on human rights reforms. This ban had been in place since the unrest of 2011, and originally occurred after objections from Members of Congress over a planned arms transfer to Bahrain on the heels of the violent crackdown.

A few weeks before the ban was lifted, the Bahraini government released Ebrahim Sharif from prison. Sharif, an opposition leader from the secular Waad party, had been tortured and convicted by a military court in 2011 for peacefully calling for reform. At the time of his release, he had served nearly all of a five-year sentence. But in July 2015, Sharif was rearrested for peaceful remarks made during a speech again calling for political reforms.

Other opposition leaders remain in prison. Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Bahrain’s main peaceful opposition group Al Wefaq, was convicted in June 2015 on politically-motivated charges and sentenced to four years in prison after an unfair trial. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention officially declared his detention to be arbitrary in November 2015, citing free expression and due process concerns.

Prominent human rights defenders continue to be imprisoned and forced into exile. Zainab Al Khawaja was

convicted in October 2015 for charges including insulting a Bahraini official, tearing up pictures of the king, and trespassing near the jail where her father Abdulhadi Al Khawaja—a leading human rights activist—is held under a life sentence.

Download full Factsheet (PDF)