Bahraini human rights activists who went to Geneva to tell the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) about the kingdom's ongoing government crackdown are again being targeted, this time in the wake of last week's conclusion to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. In May, several activists were threatened on social media and criticized in government-friendly newspapers because they appeared in Geneva to participate in the UPR. At that time, Laura Dupuy Lasserre, president of the HRC, reminded the Bahraini government that "we are all duty bound to ensure that nobody is persecuted on his return to his country for having participated in meetings of the human rights council or other bodies." Bahrain clearly didn't understand her message.
Right now, Bahraini activists who gave their side of the story in Geneva as part of the UPR are being targeted by government-supporting media in Bahrain. The Al Watan newspaper has featured their names and also published a photo with the activists' faces ringed in red. In Bahrain, such a "ringing is red" is taken as a threat and has often been a precursor to arrest. Newspaper reports suggest the activists have "contributed to the distortion of Bahrain's reputation abroad." One human rights defender, Mohammed Al Maskati, said he received death threats by phone while in Geneva. Such developments signal a further escalation of suspicion about what's happening in Bahrain. The one thing that Bahraini officials, U.S. government leaders, the opposition, and international NGOs all seem to agree on is that things are bad and probably getting worse.
Earlier this month, the most prominent opposition leaders and dissidents in Bahrain were sentenced to long jail terms after the trumped up charges against them were affirmed by an appeals court. Leading human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al Khawaja have also recently been detained; Rajab was given a three-year sentence for his part in "illegal gatherings." And dozens of others are living in limbo. The verdicts for 28 medics detained and tortured last year were again delayed, this time from September 11 to October 2.
Last week, the ministry of the interior announced it will soon "tackle crimes related to defamation and abuse on social media networks" after "it was noticed that some people were using the communication technology to abuse national and public figures through the Internet." Bahrain is ruled by the Al Khalifa monarchy and its supporters. It's clear that we should all expect a crackdown on anyone ridiculing the Bahraini royals on Twitter or participating in other forms of non-violent political dissent. The prime minister, coincidentally the king's uncle, also declared last week that protests in the capita, Manama, would not be tolerated. He noted that opposition groups had "tried to turn Bahrain into a playground for subversion, anarchy and social divide."
Some protests have taken on a violent edge in recent months as police clash with a minority of demonstrators using petrol bombs and other missiles. Violence doesn't occur at every protest, but a common pattern is for a protest to deteriorate into missile throwing from a small number of demonstrators while police fire tear gas or rubber bullets or sometimes birdshot. Three weeks ago, a 16 year-old boy was shot dead by police.
Bahrain looks like an increasingly unreliable strategic regional partner for the United States. At the opening of the latest session of the U.N. HRC in Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cited Bahrain after Syria, noting concerns about the prison sentences given to the opposition leaders. "I am not satisfied that fair trial procedures were observed, especially the reliance on confessions extracted under torture," she said. The kingdom was then listed among 16 nations criticized for reprisals against critics.
The U.S. government, a dozen other governments, and many NGOs criticized the Bahraini government's lack of progress on key reforms it promised to implement last year, changes recommended in a report commissioned in 2011 by Bahraini King Hamad. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report was a central plank of U.S. government efforts to press for reform in Bahrain, but its recommendations on dealing with political prisoners and reforming the police have been largely ignored. Ominously, when Zainab Al Khawaja's lawyer cited the BICI report during a court hearing for her last week, the judge reportedly dismissed it as "history."
Aside from pressing the kingdom on implementing various reforms, the U.S. government's other tactic appeared to be bolstering the so-called "reformist' wing of the Bahrain monarchy in the hope that it would deliver enough reform to placate the crisis. Apparently, the crown prince and a handful of others in the Bahraini regime are more open to genuine reform but have been overruled by a larger, hardline element. The attempt to support and help empower the "reformers" has failed.
Washington must find a new way forward. As home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is currently a strategic U.S. partner. It's unclear what the Obama administration sees as its "Plan B" in Bahrain, but it can't afford to continue with the volatility and unpredictability of the present regime.
This administration's rather muted criticism of the Bahraini regime has included a reluctance to call for the release of political prisoners by name; a failure to publicly call out the sham trials it has observed firsthand as falling below international legal standards; and a willingness to arm the dictatorship. These shortcomings have left the impression among many democracy activists in Bahrain that the United States is happy to side with the monarchy, or at least tolerate its excesses.
It's not too late for the United States to change course on Bahrain. Obama could state publicly that the United States' relationship with Bahrain is not unconditional, but depends on a respect for human rights. He could also make clear that it's time for political dissidents to be freed. Back in May 2011, President Barack Obama as much as said these words when he told the Bahraini regime that "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." But those words came at the high point of U.S. criticism of Bahrain's crackdown, an era that quickly gave way to a softer approach of behind closed doors diplomacy. That tone shift has been so dramatic that by May, as U.S. Ambassador Thoman Krajeski participated in welcoming "America Week" in Bahrain. "What better way to celebrate the U.S.-Bahrain relationship," he asked "than an entire week dedicated to our mutual love of culture, art, education, security, business, film, cuisine and shopping?!"
Jalila al Salman, vice president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association (BTA), is one of the activists pictured in the Al Watan articles. She was detained and tortured last year, then sentenced to three years in prison after a show trial in a military court. She is out of detention now, waiting for an appellate verdict due October 21. Her colleague and president of the BTA, Mahdi Abu Deeb, was tried with her and sentenced to 10 years. He remains in prison throughout the appeals process. Jalila told Human Rights First "It's time the U.S. government put more pressure on our government and force it to obey international laws and conventions, to respect our rights of freedoms of expression and gathering and not to treat us as criminals."
But while the United States can't fix what's wrong in Bahrain, it can play its part in keeping the kingdom from backsliding on its promises for reform. Getting more specific and public about condemning continuing human rights violations and explicitly calling for the release of all political prisoners would be a start.
Brian Dooley is the Director of Human Rights First's Human Rights Defenders program.