U.S. Fails to Use Leverage on Bahrain

by Matar E. Matar

Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). It is also an authoritarian island kingdom that continues to crack down on its pro-democracy opposition. The U.S. government claims to lack sufficient leverage to influence Bahrain’s human rights policy. In reality, Washington is simply unwilling to use its influence for fear of compromising its military alliance.

The U.S. government, for instance, has not communicated strongly or effectively enough after the arrest of prominent Bahraini opposition leaders and human rights activists like the leaders of the largest opposition political party, al-Wefaq (Sheikh Ali Salman, arrested December 27, 2014) or the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (Nabeel Rajab, arrested in 2012 and again last October). These men were taken into custody essentially for expressing support for statements made by President Obama and the U.S. administration since the pro-democracy uprising began in 2011. Washington’s failure to respond adequately in those cases no doubt encouraged the Bahraini authorities to arrest Jameel Kadhom earlier this week. The former MP and senior leader of al-Wefaq received the maximum penalty of six months in jail and $1300 in fines for one of his tweets that alleged that authorities were offering money to encourage candidates to enter parliamentary elections in November.

The U.S. government hasn’t even done much for a U.S. citizen, Taqi Al-Maidan, who was convicted of attempted murder of a police officer in 2013. Currently serving a ten-year sentence in Bahrain, Taqi claims that Bahraini security forces tortured him into making a false confession and that he never actually attended the protest at which the assault allegedly took place. The U.S. government has been in contact with the Bahraini authorities and has extended consular services to Taqi, but Washington has not raised the profile of the case as a potential human rights violation against one of its own citizens.

The Case of Sheikh Salman

Bahraini authorities like to use Western holidays to deflect attention from domestic political crises and human rights violations. In 2011, for instance, the Bahraini government released the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry during Thanksgiving. This time, while the West was in the middle of Christmas celebrations, the government arrested Sheikh Salman, who had just been reelected as al-Wefaq’s leader in the aftermath of the party’s boycott of the November parliamentary elections.

Despite the timing, Sheikh Salman’s arrest drew wide international media coverage, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement urging Bahrain to “immediately release him, as well as all other persons convicted or detained for merely exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

According to his lawyers, Sheikh Salman’s interrogation focused on his political activism and criticism of the government. He was also questioned at length,  according to his defense attorneys, about his appeal during a public event in September for the OHCHR to open a permanent office in Bahrain. The eventual charges published by the attorney general’s office December 30 alleged, among other things, that Salman was seeking the “forceful” overthrow of the ruling regime by foreign powers (although that part of the statement was not included in the official English-language press release regarding his detention).

Criminalizing International Contact

It is important to identify the real motives for Salman’s arrest and planned prosecution. It is no longer politically credible to charge an opposition political figure with communicating with Iran, particularly since the Bahraini authorities have been unable to provide evidence that any opposition leaders (imprisoned or free) have done so with the intention of overthrowing the regime. Instead, Bahraini authorities are targeting opposition figures who have communicated about the human rights situation and the deteriorating political climate within the kingdom with the U.S. and other western governments, international NGOs, and UN bodies.

The authorities raised precisely this charge against al-Wefaq municipal leaders, who were sacked and subsequently convicted for allegedly seeking an international intervention in Bahrain by signing a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Similarly, human rights defenders who participated in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva were threatened under this policy, prompting Ban himself to denounce the reprisals against them.

Bahrain recently issued a law banning local political parties from holding meetings with foreign diplomats without official permission or in the presence of a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This law has sparked a wave of protests, including objections from the U.S. State Department. The Bahraini authorities used this law to expel U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Tom Malinowski in July 2014 after he met with the Sheikh Salman and his assistant, Khalil al-Marzooq, outside the presence of a government official.

Indifference to the West

The fact that Bahraini authorities felt they had to carry out the arrest of a prominent figure during the Christmas season—and didn’t raise charges related to communicating with the United States and the UN in their release—means that they still care very much what the West thinks. That sensitivity suggests that the UN, the EU, and the United States, in particular, could exert more pressure on the kingdom to respect human rights if they can muster the political will to do so.

As a major non-NATO ally and the host of the Fifth Fleet, Bahrain occupies a special position in Washington’s geopolitical strategy in the Gulf. In turn, however, Washington has a special obligation to the Bahraini people. The Obama administration must not give up on finding a genuine solution to the political crisis that has been wracking the country for the past four years.

In a recent paper outlining opportunities for positive U.S. influence in a changing Middle East, former NSC staffer Dafna Rand asserted that it is “far too simplistic—and premature—to lament the decline of U.S. influence in the MENA region.” The United States should prove the truth of her assertion by exercising its influence where it can—over one of its closest allies in the region.

Photo: President Obama Addresses Reporters During Meeting With Anti-ISIL Coalition on Sidelines of UN General Assembly. Credit: State Department

Matar Ebrahim Matar is a former Member of Parliament who served as Bahrain’s youngest MP representing its largest constituency. In February 2011, along with 18 other members from his Al-Wefaq political party, he resigned from Parliament to protest the regime’s crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators. During the Feb. 14 uprising, he served as a major spokesman for the pro-democracy movement. Matar was subsequently arbitrarily detained, and, after his release, left Bahrain for exile in the United States. In 2012, he received the “Leaders for Democracy Award” from the Project on Middle Democracy (POMED).

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One Comment

  1. Contrary to the Syrian opposition who quickly turned violent and called for foreign fighters with the disastrous results that we know, the Bahraini opposition has rejected violence and is patiently waiting for changes to occur. Yet the West is uninterested in calls for democracy that are non-violent. Until the blood flow they prefer to ignore it.
    Bahraini opposition is resilient and sooner or later the Sunni minority controlling the island will have to bow, then the USA and the West will applaude them. It will leave a stain on them that will nt easily be forgiven

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