Washington is fed up with Bahrain’s flouting of international calls for progress on human rights and reform, particularly now that the kingdom has imprisoned a well-known female activist for “insulting the king” and other allegedly trumped-up charges.
The Aug. 30 arrest of human-rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja was just the latest in a string of what one senior administration official told The Daily Beast were “stupid and self-defeating moves” in recent months that are forcing even Bahrain’s allies to doubt the regime’s claims to care about calls for reform. Al-Khawaja is set to be charged Saturday with a litany of offenses, including assaulting a police officer during her detention at the capital’s airport.
“I can’t imagine any legitimate reason to arrest this person other than what it appears to be—just another self-inflicted wound by the Bahraini government,” the U.S. official said. “This just adds to the perception they are moving in the wrong direction when they ought to be desperately trying to convince people of the opposite. They keep making it difficult for their friends to help them.”
The State Department officially condemned Khawaja’s arrest on Sept. 2, and said that the Bahraini ruling family is not making good on its promises to stop abuses of human rights as it continues to stifle freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and suppress its political opposition.
“We are concerned about the arrest— the reports of the detention of Maryam al-Khawaja and are closely following developments,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “The government of Bahrain must abide by its obligations to respect freedom of expression and assembly, and we, again, urge the government to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society.”
Psaki also said Bahrain has failed to reschedule a time for a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowki, whom they unceremoniously threw out of the country for “interference in its internal affairs” in July after he met with members of the opposition al-Wafeq party—and without government minders. Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa promised Secretary of State John Kerry that Malinowski would be invited back, but hasn’t followed through, Psaki said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told The Daily Beast that the Bahrain government’s treatment of Malinowski was only the latest move to prevent international observers from witnessing and reporting on Bahrain’s treatment of its own citizens.
“Last year, the government of Bahrain canceled a planned visit by Juan Mendez, the UN’s top investigator on torture. Earlier this year, Bahrain refused to allow Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), co-chair of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, entry into the country,” Wyden said. “If the government of Bahrain wants to convince people that it is serious about dialogue and accountability, a good first step would to be stop blocking access to those critical of the regime’s policies.”
Since beginning its crackdown on protesters in 2011, the State Department has documented widespread abuses by the Bahraini regime.
“The most serious human-rights problems included citizens’ inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human-rights activists, medical personnel, teachers, and students, with some trials resulting in harsh sentences,” according to a 2013 State Department report on human rights in Bahrain. “Other significant human-rights problems included arbitrary deprivation of life; lack of consistent accountability for security officers accused of committing human-rights violations; arrest of individuals on charges relating to freedom of expression; reported violations of privacy; and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices.”
Maryam al-Khawaja’s case struck a particularly sensitive chord in Washington because she is well-respected and has met more than a dozen times with government officials, lawmakers, and other activists to educate and advocate on behalf of the aggrieved citizens of Bahrain, as co-director of the Gulf Center on Human Rights. But the Bahraini government, which carefully manages its image in Washington, ignored that completely.
“The Maryam story is bigger than her,” said Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “These activists that come here risk their lives to do so and there’s an implicit assumption that a high level of interaction with the West and the United States gives them some sort of protection. Maryam’s arrest is a challenge to that.”
The U.S. government has sought to put pressure on Bahrain to speed up reform and do better on human rights by holding back on some military sales. Washington refuses to sell the kingdom TOW missiles and Humvees— the type of equipment that had previously been used in crackdowns on protesters. But the Bahrain government doesn’t seem to care about the pressure anymore either.
“If they can get away with expelling a senior State Department official with no consequences, then they think they can get away with anything and they don’t have to respond to the pressure,” said Bockenfeld. “It emboldens them to take a tougher line internally and they don’t feel they really have to concede much in terms of real reform.”