“No leniency.” That was the warning from Bahrain’s crown prince last week as government forces continued cracking down on protesters, activists, journalists and doctors. It was issued alongside yet another promise of reform by the Bahraini government.
The warning was also met with silence from the United States. The U.S., which has long considered Bahrain a key ally in the region, condemned the violence in mid-March, and two weeks later noted that arresting bloggers “doesn’t help” promote an inclusive national dialogue.
But so far this month—as reports of increasing intimidation, censorship and brutality emerge—the U.S. doesn’t seem to have had a public response. In one of the State Department's last statements, spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on March 22, “Our position towards Bahrain is crystal clear. We’re going to continue to work with the Bahraini Government.”
We called the State Department to ask why the violence in Bahrain hadn't been broached in recent press briefings. "We respond to reporters' questions," a State Department spokesman told me, noting that "there's a lot going on throughout the entire Middle East."
Human rights groups have reported that at least 26 people have been killed since the Bahraini government declared martial law in mid-March. At least three activists have also died in police custody. More than 400 have been detained and dozens are missing.
One of those missing people is a human rights activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. His daughter, Zainab Alkhawaja, witnessed her father being dragged down a flight of stairs and “beaten unconscious in front of me” by masked men. She described the incident yesterday in an open letter to President Obama, posted to her blog. “Tyrants, with US support, can live happily ever after,” she wrote on Twitter.
In the annual human rights report released on Friday, the State Department noted that Bahrain's government had previously been accused of torture and the arbitrary arrest and abduction of Shia men, particularly around the elections last fall. In recent days, however, the U.S. has focused its condemnation on events in Yemen, Syria, and the Ivory Coast while continuing its military involvement in Libya. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is currently traveling to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain’s Gulf neighbors.
Journalists in Bahrain, meanwhile, have been deported and questioned by prosecutors. Accused of torture, the government has said that photos of the body of one dead activist—bearing bruises and multiple cuts—was fabricated. (CNN reported that most of the activists and bloggers it had arranged to interview for a documentary had disappeared, and CNN crew was also detained and questioned by masked gunmen and released after six hours.)
Police and security forces have also entered hospitals and beaten patients and Shiite doctors, according to Reuters. Doctors Without Borders has alleged that the Bahraini government is using hospitals as “bait to identify and arrest” protesters seeking treatment. Several doctors have disappeared.
Similar reports have been coming out of Egypt as well. Egypt's military leadership announced over the weekend that they were prepared to use force to end the continuing protests, and they made good on those threats. When a core group of protesters reoccupied Cairo’s central square to protest the rule of leaders who they see as being no different than Mubarak, the army cracked down, attacking protesters with live ammunition and electric batons. An Egyptian military court also sentenced a blogger to three years in prison for criticizing the military—“a dangerous precedent,” according to Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement acknowledging “the disturbing reports of the use of excessive force” and said it was “looking into the situation.” It urged Egypt’s military leaders to conduct an investigation, presumably to hold its own soldiers accountable.