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Trump is Enabling Brutal Repression in Bahrain

Republicans often criticized the Obama administration for “mistreating” our allies. Many of them seemed to believe that collecting allies was a bit like accumulating Facebook friends: the more the merrier—never mind whether they share Americans’ values. Some of President Donald Trump’s dearest foreign “friends” are authoritarian brutes at home, violating human rights that most Americans claim to hold dear.

The problem is not that Washington makes difficult accommodations with powerful and important nations. It is that U.S. officials look foolish when they ignore the chasm between rhetoric and practice that others so clearly see.

One of the worst cases is Bahrain, the Shia-majority kingdom that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet in its capital Manama. The monarchy there has long favored the minority Sunnis, establishing a system that some critics have compared to South African apartheid. In 2011, the Arab Spring yielded a vibrant Bahraini democracy movement led by the oppressed majority Shia that embarrassed the autocratic kingdom. The regime had to rely on Saudi troops to brutally crush all opposition. Observed the New York Times: “Bahrain’s royal family has used tanks, riot police officers, sweeping arrests and tight censorship to thwart demands for democracy among the Shiite Muslim majority.”

A supposed dialogue with critics proved to be but a façade, as criticism led to arrest and prison. Some 14 death sentences were handed down for alleged “terrorist” offenses. Scores of opponents were stripped of their citizenship. Some critics were banned from traveling abroad, while others disappeared, later to end up before military courts. No one was safe. McClatchy reported at the time:


Authorities have held secret trials where protesters have been sentenced to death, arrested prominent mainstream opposition politicians, jailed nurses and doctors who treated injured protesters, seized the health care system that had been run primarily by Shiites, fired 1,000 Shiite professionals and canceled their pensions, detained students and teachers who took part in the protests, beat and arrested journalists, and forced the closure of the only opposition newspaper.

The regime brought in Pakistani and Syrian Sunnis to staff its burgeoning security agencies. It also sought to attract Sunni immigrants, fast-tracking their citizenship applications to diminish the Shia population’s edge (70 to 75 percent of total Bahrainis). Manama even launched a campaign to destroy Shia mosques, calling them “illegal buildings.”

At least the Obama administration evidenced some discomfort at the vicious crackdown. Although the State Department still expresses concern from time to time, President Trump has ignored the repression. Indeed, last spring the president, while meeting Bahrain’s ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, said: “Our countries have a wonderful relationship together.” While there had been past tensions, he allowed, “there won’t be strain with this administration.”

The latest assault on human rights by the Bahraini regime is a five-year sentence imposed on Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. In 2012, he was sentenced to three years in jail for encouraging protests. He is currently serving a two-year sentence for criticizing the monarchy’s crimes in a television interview. The latest punishment is for “insulting national institutions” with tweets that reported the torture of prisoners. Rajab also faces additional charges because of the 2016 New York Times op-ed that he wrote while in jail complaining that the regime was the kind of American ally “that punishes its people for thinking, that prevents its citizens from exercising their basic rights.”

Last year the al-Khalifa government targeted the family of human rights activist Sayed al-Wadaei, who had been stripped of his citizenship and forced into exile. Manama arrested his cousin, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law, and in October sentenced all three to prison on dubious charges. Human Rights Watch cited “due process violations and allegations of ill-treatment and of coerced confessions.” The regime had previously threatened his wife, young son, and other relatives with arrest and torture.

Repression has been a constant of Bahraini policy. In the aftermath of the 2011 crackdown, King Hamad created the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights abuses. BICI reported that hundreds of people have been convicted for peacefully protesting and criticizing the government. It recommended that “all persons charged with offenses involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, have their convictions reviewed and sentences commuted or, as the case may be, outstanding charges against them dropped.” Alas, far from redressing past crimes, the regime has doubled down, attempting to extirpate dissent.

“Little has changed in the administration of criminal cases in Bahrain,” reported HRW in 2014. In many cases defendants are convicted “of ‘crimes’ based solely on the peaceful expression of political views or the exercise of the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.”

Abuses by security forces continue and remain generally immune from punishment. This situation is “impossible to reconcile with even minimal standards of justice,” noted HRW.

Moreover, torture is government policy. BICI reported that security agencies “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.”

Despite regime promises of reform, a 2015 HRW report found that “Bahraini authorities have failed to effectively implement the BICI recommendations for combating torture; that the new offices have failed to fulfill their mandate; and that Bahraini security forces continue to torture detainees.” Women are especially vulnerable: human rights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh was beaten and sexually assaulted after her arrest in 2017.

Large-scale repression has undermined what was once a growing if limited civil society. Facing special scrutiny have been political organizations and labor unions. Noted a 2013 HRW report, “authorities use the law to suppress civil society and restrict freedom of association in three main ways: by arbitrarily rejecting registration applications and intrusively supervising NGOs; taking over and dissolving—more or less at will—organizations whose leaders have criticized government officials or their policies; and severely limiting the ability of groups to fundraise and receive foreign funding.”

The repression continues, year in and out. Last month HRW reported that “Bahrain continued its downward spiral on human rights during 2017 as the government harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, and prosecuted human rights defenders and their relatives on charges that should never have been brought.” HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson said that “Bahrain’s tolerance for dissent is approaching a vanishing point, erasing whatever progress it made after promising to make reforms following the unrest in 2011.”

Indeed, earlier this year Freedom House rated Bahrain “Not Free,” near the bottom internationally for civil liberties and political rights. “Once a promising model for political reform and democratic transition, Bahrain has become one of the Middle East’s most repressive states,” reported FH, and the government has lately intensified its “drive to outlaw peaceful political opposition.” Unsurprisingly, Bahrain is rated unfree on separate indices for press and internet freedom as well.

Even the State Department cannot deny the obvious. Its latest 47-page human rights report cites “limitations on citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, including due to the government’s ability to close arbitrarily or create registration difficulties for organized political societies; restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association; and lack of due process in the legal system, including arrest without warrants or charges and lengthy pretrial detentions—used especially in case against opposition members and political or human rights activists.”

But that’s not all. “Other significant human rights problems included lack of judicial accountability for security officers accused…of committing human rights violations; defendants’ lack of access to attorneys and ability to challenge evidence; prison overcrowding; violations of privacy; and other restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of press and association.” State also cited social discrimination against Sunnis, “travel bans on political activists,” and revocation of citizenship.

No wonder Nabeel Rajab used his New York Times article to ask then-secretary of state John Kerry: “Is this the kind of ally America wants?” How would Kerry’s successor, Secretary Rex Tillerson, respond? And President Trump?

The world is a messy place, and sometimes tough, unpleasant decisions must be made. But backing repressive regimes is costly: the majority of Bahrainis cannot help but see America as aiding their oppressors. And Washington’s tolerance for brutal dictatorships undermines its criticism of Iran and other authoritarian governments.

At the very least the U.S. should eschew the close embrace and rhetoric of friendship. More fundamentally, Washington should rethink the interventionist policies that force it to rely upon such authoritarian regimes. The Middle East no longer maintains an energy stranglehold. Israel is a regional superpower capable of defending itself, and its emerging alliance with the Gulf States has created a strong balance of power against Iran. America can begin to step back.

In the meantime, Trump should call up his buddy the king and urge the release of Nabeel Rajab. If the president is going to pal around with assorted dictators, he might as well achieve something positive for his trouble. Freeing a human rights hero would be a good start.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Trump is Enabling Brutal Repression in Bahrain"

#1 Comment By furbo On February 27, 2018 @ 11:35 pm

Bahrain is certainly not free. Neither is it a Soviet Gulag, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or the Khumer Rouge. US vital interests are well served in Bahrain. We have no vital interests in who governs Syria (preferences, certainly, but not vital interests), and we should get out NOW. Leave Bahrain to be Bahrain.

#2 Comment By Karim Mansouri On February 27, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

Not at all an accurate description of the facts in Bahrain. There has been a war taking place for 1,400 years, as you know. This war has never ended. Come and live in Bahrain to get essence of life here.

#3 Comment By Lenny On February 27, 2018 @ 11:45 pm

Another ill informed , so called expert.
The same people who advocated a government by majority in Iraq instead of a quota between factions and handed the country over to Iran.
Bahrain is a majority Shia and Iran has infiltrated them. Whatever legitimate claim they have, will be looked over because of the Iranian influence

#4 Comment By Youknowho On February 28, 2018 @ 12:45 am

So the U.S. Government blasts those regimes it hates for human rights violations while winking at human right violations by those regimes it counts a friends.

And this is news how?

Do you remember Jeanne Kirkpatrick distinction between totalitarian and merely authoritarian? Did you scream bloody murder then? If not, why are you so worked up about one more instance of double standard?

#5 Comment By Clyde Schechter On February 28, 2018 @ 1:28 am

I am shocked, shocked to find human rights abuses going on in a Middle East country! How can this be?

Seriously? The leaders of all the Middle East countries, including Israel, are scum of the earth dictators. We shouldn’t be involved with any of them. We need to ramp up our own energy production and cut ties with all of them. If they want to trade with us on fair terms, fine. Other than that, we should have nothing to do with them. Certainly no alliances, and no even selling arms, nor providing aid of any kind.

We cannot solve these countries’ problems; we can only make them worse by trying. They pose no threat to us. We should just get out of there.

#6 Comment By Will Harrington On February 28, 2018 @ 10:58 am

When people complained about how the Obama administration was treating our allies, they were thinking of allies like the United Kingdom. They also complained that he actually bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia, a brutal regime if ever there was one. Our foreign policy has been consistently bad in the same ways over the past few administrations. The truth is, alliances with dictators was distasteful, but necessary when the USSR was our primary concern. That justification no longer exists. The only justification we currently have to meddle in the Middle East and support Bahrain and the Saudis is that stability in the middle east is vital to preserve peace in the world. >sarcasm onsarcasm off< The truth is simple. Both the Republicans and Democrats have blown it. Yemen became a nightmare under Obama's watch and Trump has continued Obama's policies there. Using foreign policy to criticize Trump when he mostly is continuing Obama, Bush, and Clinton's policies, is nothing but ignorant hypocrisy. In the words the Bard put in Mercutio's mouth "A pox on both your houses".

#7 Comment By Steve On February 28, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

Bandow leaves out the juiciest parts of the story: a missionary who was there from the 1960s on explained to me that Bahrain had a huge problem with socialists (who came from the Sunni middle class) in the late 60s and early 70s who tried to overthrow the government with Iraqi help, and to bring stability to the country, the then Emir contracted with the Shah to import and naturalise Iranian Shi’a peasants from the middle of nowhere in Iran who, at the time, were not remotely restive, but rather culturally basically completely apolitical.

Unlike its neighbors, Bahrain (now) has little oil, so it can’t afford a lavish welfare state like its neighbors, and the Iranian peasantry imported back then find themselves as a sort of underclass, having to compete with third world citizens for jobs. They don’t like it, and the Emir, now upgraded to a king is importing complacent Sunnis to even things out. What could possibly go wrong?

So yeah, you can say this is all about religion etc, or also – and this is how many Bahrainis apparently (partly) see it – as an underclass problem. Maybe the King should declare a war on drugs and use it to lock up his underclass the acceptable way.

#8 Comment By cka2nd On February 28, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

Some interesting facts from Steve; thank you, sir.

furbo’s words, to me, represent exactly that sort or foreign policy realist who justified invading Panama, continued to recognize the Pol Pot-wing of the Khmer Rouge as the “legitimate” government of Cambodia after the Vietnamese Communists kicked them out, and supported the murderous coups in Chile, Iran, Indonesia and, really, the list is almost endless.

And let’s not forget that the U.S. presence in Bahrain enables U.S. intervention throughout the Middle East. Imperialism is still imperialism, whether conducted or justified by the neo-con, the humanitarian interventionist, or the foreign policy realist.

#9 Comment By Laissez Fear On February 28, 2018 @ 8:49 pm

An interesting subject and good comments from all, particularly the sophisticated comment from Steve. Thanks.

#10 Comment By Jeeves On March 1, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

“Do you remember Jeanne Kirkpatrick distinction between totalitarian and merely authoritarian? Did you scream bloody murder then? If not, why are you so worked up about one more instance of double standard?”

“Dictatorships and Double Standards.” Yes, I remember it well and didn’t scream then, either.

#11 Comment By Ahmed Asgher On March 4, 2018 @ 5:33 am

Bahrain is my birthplace and where I spent my first 30 informative years. All the original/majority people of Bahrain wanted is a parliament with members elected by honest voting system. For that they promised to make the current ruler a king, like the British monarchy. So, Hamad made himself the king but deleted the parliament. That was when the uprising happened some 5 years ago and now the indigenous people are ruled through military courts and imprisoned/tortured by military tribunals and interrogators behind closed doors. They have taken 3 of my cousins by force, kept them in prison – one for 5 years – with no right of visit and no trial. This is the US ally and where the US 5th Fleet is stationed. And, I might add, a British ally too. Sad state of affairs indeed. We can only pray that they be guided to righteousness. Amen.

#12 Comment By MEexpert On March 5, 2018 @ 10:05 am

“State also cited social discrimination against Sunnis, “travel bans on political activists,” and revocation of citizenship.”

Social discrimination is not against Sunnis. The author is mistaken. He meant to say that the social discrimination is against Shias.