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White House Makes Nice With Bahrain as Detentions and Prosecutions Continue

As the Bahraini government continued its crackdown on largely Shiite pro-democracy groups, the Obama administration reaffirmed its friendship with Bahrain this week. 

More Shiites were arrested and about 50 medical workers were charged by the Bahraini government this week. The government has accused the doctors and nurses of supporting the pro-democracy protests that the government has been trying for months to stop. Reuters reported yesterday that the medics have been denied access to their attorneys.

The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, paid a visit to the White House yesterday and met with State Department officials as well as President Obama. There, the Obama administration’s soft touch on Bahrain continued, with Obama urging the Sunni monarch to “hold accountable” those responsible for human rights abuses without specifying who be held accountable, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Bahrain, of course, has long been a close ally of the United States, which has in turn benefitted from the Persian Gulf country’s willingness to host the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. As we’ve noted, the U.S. has kept its criticism muted in the face of a slew of alleged abuses—mass arrests of protesters, activists and medical workers; torture; abuse of Shiite women and girls and the destruction of at least 47 Shiite mosques.

The strongest condemnation came in President Obama's Middle East speech last month, when he cited Bahrain’s “mass arrests and brute force,” calling them “at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.” But words of partnership and friendship have remained at the forefront. (Read the White House’s account of the Crown Prince's visit with the president.)

“Bahrain is a partner, and a very important one, to the United States,” Hillary Clinton said in remarks yesterday. “We are supportive of a national dialogue and the kinds of important work that the Crown Prince has been doing in his nation, and we look forward to it continuing.”

Bahrain’s state news agency reported today that Crown Prince Al-Khalifa said the country “remains steadfast” in its commitment to reform. “Bahrain’s continued democratic development should be underpinned by stability and driven by consensus,” Al-Khalifa said.

In a move lauded by the U.S., the government recently lifted martial law, eager to signal a return to normalcy to get the Formula One race it was scheduled to hold in October reinstated. In doing so, authorities warned protesters privately that emergency law or no, there would still be consequences if they did anything to offend the government. 

It's not clear what the impact of lifting the emergency law really will mean. Syria lifted its emergency law in April but thousands of protesters have been arrested or killed since.

Bahrain's announcement seemed to pay off, briefly. The race was put back on the schedule—until today, when the Formula One governing body announced it would not hold the race in Bahrain because participants had security concerns and human rights objections.

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