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US resumes arms sales to Bahrain. Activists feel abandoned

In major setbacks for Bahrain's opposition, the US has decided to resume arms sales to the kingdom and Gulf Arab leaders are meeting to discuss greater regional integration.

By Correspondent / May 14, 2012

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (2nd R) arrives for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh May 13.

Fahad Shaeed/REUTERS

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Cairo

A decision by the Obama administration to resume a large arms deal to Bahrain has incensed opposition activists in the tiny Gulf kingdom who see the deal as a signal that the US supports Bahrain’s repression of opposition protests.

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In another blow to the opposition, Gulf Arab leaders are meeting in Saudi Arabia today to discuss greater integration of their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a move that could solidify the security cooperation between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Last year, Saudi Arabia sent 1,500 Gulf troops into Bahrain to help quell the uprising that began in February 2011.

The US froze the $53 million deal to sell military equipment to Bahrain in September, months after security forces there violently suppressed protests calling for reform in a crackdown that has killed more than 50 people. The move to resume the sale – minus some equipment that could be used against protesters – is read by the opposition as the US ending any pressure for reform.

“It's a direct message [from the US] that we support the authorities and we don't support democracy in Bahrain, we don't support protesters in Bahrain,” says Mohammed Al Maskati, a Bahraini rights activist, of the arms sale. He said opposition activists called for a week of protests against the US after the announcement on May 11. “Now protesters are starting to be more angry against the USA and this is not good for the USA,” he says by phone from Bahrain.

Activists are also protesting the proposed GCC union today.

Bahrain, a tiny island in the Persian Gulf connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, considered a vital bulwark against Iran. The US response to Bahrain’s repression has been muted compared to other regional uprisings.

But when it halted the arms deal last year, State Department officials promised to monitor Bahrain’s response to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which investigated the crackdown, when deciding whether to resume the deal. The BICI found evidence of systematic abuse by Bahraini security forces, including torture of protesters, and called for those responsible to be held accountable.

US officials said the decision to resume arms sales was made in light of US national security interests. According to a transcript of a conference call with reporters, an unidentified senior administration official said, in a reference to Iran, that the sale would "help Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities."

The official also said: "We’ve made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."

Arrests of activists

The resumption comes despite Bahrain doing little to sufficiently address the issues mentioned in the report, say rights activists. Security forces have continued to use birdshot to break up protests, and wounded protesters are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested there. 

Most recently, authorities arrested well-known human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, charging him with participating in illegal protests, calling for protests on Twitter, and for “insulting” the Interior Ministry. Mr. Rajab’s arrest a little over a week ago comes after the arrest of Zainab Al Khawaja, another well-known activist, for protesting her father’s detainment. Imprisoned activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is on a hunger strike to protest his abuse in detention and his life sentence last year.

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