Last month we told the unlikely story of how Eni Faleomavaega, the congressional delegate from American Samoa, had become one of Bahrain's most reliable friends on Capitol Hill. Faleomavaega had traveled to the Gulf Nation and made a series of statements in support of the government and criticizing popular protests that broke out there early last year. As we documented, he was turned on to the issue by the Bahrain American Council, a group created by a Washington lobby shop run by a close friend and campaign contributor of Faleomavaega's.
But something unexpected happened after the publication of our story: Faleomavaega's view of the situation in Bahrain shifted dramatically.
Since the protest movement began in February 2011, Faleomavaega had repeatedly criticized protesters as pawns or agents of Iran who were violently destabilizing an important U.S. ally. In comments submitted to the Congressional Record last March, for example, Faleomavaega argued that the monarchy that rules Bahrain had met all of the protesters' demands, and added, "I have to ask why the demonstrators returned to protesting again, even after all their demands were agreed to."
Human rights groups, meanwhile, have consistently criticized the government for suppressing protests with sometimes deadly force and for prosecuting activists and those that aided them.
Our story was published April 2, which happened to coincide with the start of a trip Faleomavaega and two other Democratic members of Congress took to Bahrain (paid for by the government there). On April 3, the group met with Bahrain's human rights minister. During that meeting, Faleomavaega called on the government to implement reforms that were recommended by a commission of inquiry last year. He also raised the case of Jaffar Salman, a man detained for allegedly participating in an illegal assembly who had complained he was not getting medical treatment after being shot in the face with birdshot.
Salman was subsequently brought to the hospital, according to a letter Faleomavaega received thanking him from opposition party Al-Wefaq published on his congressional website last week.
In a statement accompanying the letter, Faleomavaega called for reconciliation, adding that “after the government crackdown on government protestors, the situation in Bahrain is alarming.”
This kind of rhetoric is an about face for the congressional delegate. On his last trip to Bahrain in October, Faleomavaega delivered a speech vigorously defending the government's response to the protests. He worried about “the prospect of anarchy or the violent overthrow of a peaceful government by infiltrators from another country” — Iran.
Faleomavaega also met with Al-Wefaq officials on that October trip but they had expressed disappointment after the meeting, complaining that he did “not show enough understanding for the legitimate demands for reform.”
What caused Faleomavaega to change his view of the situation? He did not respond to requests for comment.