Journalism in the Public Interest

As Bahrain’s Abuses Grow, U.S. Stays on Sidelines


Iranian riot policemen stand guard outside the Bahraini embassy in Tehran. (File photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

At least 30 people have died in Bahrain, protesters and medical workers are being put on trial, and prominent opposition politicians are being arrested—but the United States has yet to toughen its talk or impose sanctions on its Gulf ally.

Bahrain, a predominantly Shiite country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, plays host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. McClatchy reports today that the government has bulldozed dozens of Shiite mosques. Shiite women and girls have also been detained and abused, according to McClatchy. The State Department has said little about these matters publicly, except to tell McClatchy it’s “concerned by the destruction of religious sites” and is “extremely troubled by reports of ongoing human rights abuses” in Bahrain.

The Bahraini government announced last week it would charge nearly 50 doctors and nurses for treating injured pro-democracy protesters. We’d previously noted the government’s detention of medical workers along with protesters, activists and journalists.

Last month Bahrain sentenced four protesters to death by firing squad—drawing protests from human rights groups and more statements of concern from the United States. The United States has repeatedly issued statements for months calling for the Bahraini government to engage in political dialogue rather than use force, but it has not threatened sanctions or signaled any changes in the close ties between the two countries.

As we noted last month, Zainab Alkhawaja, daughter of a missing Bahraini human rights activist, announced she was going on a hunger strike in early April in an open letter to President Barack Obama. The move by was intended to pressure the United States to stop backing the Bahraini government. By April 20, she ended the hunger strike because her health was deteriorating, her mother wrote in a blog post.

State Department Democracy Fellow gets little backing from State Department

In February, we noted that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first visit to Bahrain in December, she was asked a little-noticed question about Bahrain’s decline in the areas of democracy and human rights. The question, from then-Bahraini parliament member Matar Ibrahim Matar, was upstaged in the U.S. media by another question about whether Clinton would run again for president.

Matar was upstaged again last week when news of his arrest—by armed, masked men—was buried by news of Osama bin Laden’s death. In an opinion column in the Washington Post, freelance writer Michael Bronner and Rutgers Law School dean John Farmer Jr. noted that Matar in fact received training on how to organize and advance the cause of democracy as part of a State Department fellowship:

In 2008, he traveled here under the State Department’s Leaders for Democracy Fellowship Program, the flagship of President George W. Bush’s Middle East Partnership Initiative. The program seeks to impart practical organizing tools and a deeper understanding of democracy to emerging civic leaders.

In a meeting with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Matar raised his views about representative democracy in Bahrain and his concern that Washington has given the kingdom’s ruling family a pass in exchange for hosting the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet’s large base that supports the war in Afghanistan. After the program ended, Matar returned home and focused on getting elected to Bahrain’s parliament.

Matar—along with several other politicians from the moderate, mainly Shia opposition party—recently resigned from the Bahraini parliament in protest.

Muted State Department response

The State Department has "urged," "called on," and "remained deeply concerned and troubled" by the actions of the Bahraini government. Asked last week by a reporter whether the United States has done anything beyond give verbal criticism, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the department had dispatched an official to Bahrain several times in hopes of working “with both the government and the opposition to bridge some of these gaps.” His exact remarks:

QUESTION: They have done things that you’ve criticized other countries for doing. Has the U.S. done anything beyond verbally criticize them? Have you raised the prospect of sanctions, or – sorry –

MR. TONER: Well, again – I didn’t mean to cut you off, but Assistant Secretary Feltman’s made several trips out there, and –

QUESTION: I know. But, I mean, beyond saying we don’t like what you’re doing, have you taken any action? Have I missed something, I’m wondering.

MR. TONER: I mean, look – I mean, it’s important that our assistant secretary has spent a significant amount of time out there trying to work with both the government and the opposition to bridge some of these gaps, but also to make very clear to the government that there’s no – as we’ve said multiple times, there’s no security solution to this and that they need to take steps to address the legitimate concerns of their people.

The muted reaction from the United States hasn’t gone unnoticed in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Reuters that the West is “losing the hearts and minds of the democrats in Bahrain.”

The United States’ soft touch on Bahrain, meanwhile, has stood in sharp contrast with its tough talk against the government of Syria, which has also been arresting and shooting protesters. Last week, the White House issued a statement saying, “We strongly condemn and deplore the Syrian government’s use of violence and mass arrests." Secretary of State Clinton issued a similar statement, condeming "in the strongest terms" the actions of the Syrian government. In late April, President Obama signed an executive order imposing targeted sanctions against Syria.

The White House has said that unless Syria changes its approach, it will—along with its international partners—“take additional steps to make clear our strong opposition to the Syrian government’s treatment of its people.” No such promises have been made regarding Bahrain.

Plz save bahraini people !!

I firmly believe that much of the response to the shites is out of an unrealistis fear to iran. I find that the more the USA and europe impose biased sanctions on Iran the more out of control this irrational fear becomes. Quite frankly Iran is one of the calmest countries in the middle east. The only fault that anyone can find with Iran is its weapons and quite frankly with the violence the uSA is carrying out I would insist on my right to obtain weapons. I firmly believe that the eu is out of control with sanctions and this is creatibg irrational fears of iran and the shites

All of this is Hilary clintons doing. Because the population is shite is no reason to treat them brutally. This is going to lead to a civil war among the majority shia and the rulers sunnis. If the US is keeping the shia from having their rights, then the US is again guilty of what is politically expedient for them (keeping that base there), and to hell with the people. Hilary Clinton and her neo cons in the zionized State Dept. are picking and choosing what people, what religions to support. The State Dept is destablizing the middle east by sticking by Israel no matter what horror it delivers against the palestinans, and the State dept is guilty as charged for forcing the Egyptian military to close the Rafah Crossing. Hundreds of people are trying to get out of the largest prison camp in the world Gaza for medical treatment. People are dying in ambulances waiting to cross. The EMPIRE of America is now run by the zionists who have taken over Congress, Senate and advising Obama. Seymour Hirschs article in the New Yorker is a must read. Hirsch says Obama is in a bubble seeing only a few advisors…thats not good for democracy, and Clinton, Biden and Dennis Ross are 100% zionists, their words. How in the world can there be any peace anywhere if Israelie are in control of the United States?

The United States goverment is not going to listen to any accounts of abuses fron any country that allows them to operate bases nor will the country that have bases in listen to any account of USA government brutality that comes out of their bases. The USA will always have an obsession with countries that hate Iran. The USA Zionist position plays a decisive role in attacks in the middle east when you look at all of their allies they are zionist. S korea,turkey,Israel and others are zionist and while zionist may only be a small percentage they control who is desinated as an enemy and who is targeted for military action. I would like to see Israels bank account that come from USA funds

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