In Arab Spring, mercy is as mercy does

When Obama promises to support the Arab Spring, he can't then sell weapons to Bahrain, even as that dictatorship gives harsh sentences to doctors who treat wounded protesters.

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the winners will probably be one or more leaders of the Arab Spring who helped liberate Tunisia and Egypt – peacefully.

But the revolutions in most Arab states are still rumbling, often violently. And if there are active moral heroes to be honored, one group could be 20 doctors, nurses, and paramedics in Bahrain, a tiny Gulf kingdom that also happens to host the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Last Thursday, this selfless group was given prison sentences ranging from five to 10 years after treating wounded protesters – and there were many in need of such help. Ever since pro-democracy demonstrations began in Bahrain last February, an estimated 120 people have been killed. Hundreds more have been injured and thousands were arrested or lost their jobs.

The Bahrain 20 weren’t among the protesters. Like Red Cross medics on a battlefield who extend mercy to anyone, they may have even treated injured soldiers and police who shot or beat protesters. Their harsh sentences were handed down by a special “security” court, evoking strong criticism from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a mild rebuke about judicial fairness from the United States.

But here’s another big reason to honor the jailed medics: Even as their trials were under way, the Obama administration proposed to sell $53 billion of weapons and other military hardware to the country’s absolute monarch, King Hamad.

Yes, the president who told Arab protesters that the US “cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy” is selling the tools of suppression to an Arab tyrant. And that’s even as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warns other countries not to sell weapons to Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

The administration must not mix and match its moral stands in the Middle East, despite the fact that Bahrain is a strategic ally of Saudi Arabia and the US against regional encroachment by Iran. With little ability or willingness to use military force in the region, President Obama should at least keep America’s standing high among Arabs. He can do that by seeking to have the sentences of these medics overturned.

If human rights were at stake for Mr. Obama when Muammar Qaddafi was ready to massacre thousands in the Libyan city of Benghazi, they are also on the line when doctors and others in the healing profession are jailed for simply fulfilling their commitment to life.

The nonviolent start of the Arab Spring must be further encouraged, as a Nobel Peace Prize might do. And that includes the US warning Arab autocrats to let medical professionals do their job.

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