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Calls Mount for Stronger U.S. Stance as Bahrain Resists Reform

WASHINGTON, May 4 2012 (IPS) - Citing growing violence and polarisation along sectarian lines, human rights groups and independent experts here are urging Washington to exert more pressure on the government of Bahrain to free political prisoners and launch a serious dialogue with its opposition on major democratic reforms.

While the administration of President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on the al-Khalifa monarchy to follow through on recommendations made by an international commission last November, it has been reluctant to take stronger steps for fear of alienating Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s much larger neighbour, according to analysts here.

The Pentagon also does not want to jeopardise its use of the island as the headquarters for its Fifth Fleet, particularly given its strategic location directly across the Gulf from Iran.

The administration “should be telling the Bahraini government that time is short, and, if they don’t act, there will be an escalation on the U.S. side,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who was briefly detained by police at a demonstration during a visit to the Gulf kingdom last month.

In addition to maintaining a de facto suspension on arms sales to Bahrain, he called for Washington to consider supporting a resolution on the situation at the U.N. Human Rights Council and denying visas to senior officials deemed responsible for abuses committed during the past year’s crackdown against the predominantly Shi’a opposition.

Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Thurday, Malinowski also urged Washington to signal its willingness to consider moving the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. “The military base is not sustainable as violence grows,” he said.

Malinowski’s advice fell short of that of some Gulf specialists here, notably a former top Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst for Near Eastern and South Asia. Writing in the Financial Times just after the controversial running of the Formula One race in Bahrain last month, Emile Nakhleh urged the administration to begin pulling the fleet out now.

“The huge U.S. naval presence in Bahrain has not improved western security in the Gulf; has not altered Iran’s behaviour; and, more important, has not silenced the anti-regime opposition in the Gulf and in other Arab countries,” wrote Nakhleh, who also headed the CIA’s Political Islam desk.

“Instead, its presence has arguably increased Iran’s belligerence and given Sunni regimes, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the false impression that Washington has given them a licence to kill their own people,” he added, noting that such a move would signal all regimes in the region that “Arab dictatorship will no longer be tolerated whether in Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere.”

The appeals for a stronger U.S. stance reflect growing concerns here that hardliners led by the world’s longest-serving prime minister, Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifa, have solidified their hold on power and successfully marginalised reformist elements identified with the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

The administration had hoped to bolster the crown prince’s position in the immediate aftermath of the last year’s Saudi-backed crackdown against the opposition by, among other things, arranging a high- profile White House meeting with Obama last June.

They had also hoped that he and King Hamad, considered a “moderate” by the administration, could force through implementation of the key recommendations made in November by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was tasked to investigate abuses committed during crackdown.

In addition to the use of excessive force by security forces, resulting in several dozen deaths, the BICI’s nearly 500-page report detailed other serious abuses, including the rounding up, detention, torture and mistreatment of hundreds of demonstrators, the wrongful dismissal of thousands of others from government posts and universities, and serious due-process violations, including the admission of forced confessions, committed against defendants brought before special security courts.

The BICI’s key recommendations included the release of all political prisoners, investigation and prosecution of senior officials suspected of giving orders to carry out abuses, and launching a serious dialogue with the opposition, which has been led by the al- Wefaq party, leading to democratic reforms that would give the Shi’a community, which is believed to comprise between 60 and 70 percent of Bahraini citizens, a much bigger voice in the government.

While some technical suggestions, such as the installation of cameras in jails to discourage torture (although Malinowski noted that police now commit abuses against detainees in the streets and back alleys) have been implemented, the government has done little or nothing on the more overarching recommendations designed to further reconciliation and prevent radicalisation.

“The crown prince has been marginalised,” according to Joost Hiltermann, a Gulf expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

He also noted that the government appears intent on increasing its dependence on Saudi Arabia – hundreds of whose troops remain in Bahrain after they were sent there to back up Bahraini forces during the crackdon – to the extent of favouring a “Saudi-Bahraini confederation” that, if consummated, would mean “political suicide by Saudi embrace”.

Like Malinowski, Hiltermann said the situation on the ground is deteriorating as more radical anti-monarchical elements in the Shi’a community, notably the February 14 Youth Movement, in support at Al- Wefaq’s expense.

The recent use of molotov cocktails by some opposition elements against the police, as well as the police’s increased use of tear gas and birdshot, represents a “disturbing trend” that underlines the urgent need for implementation of BICI’s recommendations, he said.

“The value out of the BICI is zero on the ground,” according to Khalil Al-Marzooq, an Al-Wefaq leader and former parliamentarian, who also participated in the POMED forum and appealed for a stronger response by the U.S. and the international community, which, he complained, has taken a “wait and see” attitude.

“The cycle of violence is growing; …the hope is still there, but we have to act fast because time is against us.”

In that respect, many analysts are focused on the fate of Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen and long-time human rights activist who was sentenced by a military court with 20 other activists last year to life imprisonment on charges that they plotted to overthrow the government.

Al-Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike for 88 days and, according to some reports, is reportedly being forced-fed in an army hospital, and is co-defendants are considered “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International. Earlier this week, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation accepted an appeal of their case but declined to release them on bail.

“The most important step in turning down the temperature in Bahrain at this point is if Al-Khawaja were released, even as a preliminary move, with an indication that other political prisoners will be released,” according to Toby Jones, a Gulf expert at Rutgers University.

“Things are very, very bad and will only get worse unless there’s a breakthrough,” he told IPS. “Letting Al- Khawaja go would be seen as an important gesture, and it would save his life.”

The administration has also pushed hard both privately and publicly for precisely that, calling earlier this week for Manama “to urgently consider all available options to resolve his case humanely and expeditiously.”

“Many political activists remain in prison, some of them arrested for participation in non-violent demonstrations, and we encourage the speedy resolution of all of these cases, as recommended by the BICI report,” a State Department spokeperson told IPS. “We further urge the government of Bahrain to drop charges against all individuals who engaged in free speech and peaceable assembly.”

But whether the government is listening to Washington remains to be seen.

In another action this week, Bahraini authorities reversed a previous decision to grant visas to representatives of several U.S. and international mainstream organisations – including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Index on Censorship, and Reporters Without Borders – to travel to the kingdom next week to assess press and free-speech conditions there.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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