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.

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

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.

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.

He and 20 others were sentenced, eight of them to life in prison, for their roles in the peaceful pro-reform protests last spring. The trial, which took place in a military court, denied the defendants basic rights of due process, according to international rights organizations. Although that group of prisoners has been granted a retrial, they have remained in prison. 

An official spokeswoman for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said much progress had been made on implementing the BICI recommendations, including the reinstatement of all public sector workers and students who were wrongfully dismissed, a “major overhaul in legal and law enforcement systems,” and appointing officials in the National Security Agency and Ministry of Interior to investigate complaints against the agencies. A “special investigation unit” has also been established to “assess the responsibility of senior personnel in human rights violations and allegations of torture,” said the spokeswoman. 

The spokeswoman said that Mr. Rajab was not arrested for his political views, but that he incited violence against police through his statements on Twitter and in a speech at a public rally, and that his calls for protests not approved by the government were “detrimental to public security.”

Activist: 86 killed since uprising began

But Said Yousif AlMuhafda, an activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, says hundreds of others convicted in military courts on expression charges remain imprisoned. Among several thousand employees illegally dismissed from their jobs because of support for or participation in the protests, 1,000 employees have not returned to their jobs, he says.

About 35 Shia mosques destroyed by the government during the uprising have yet to be rebuilt, and protests are still violently dispersed. He says 39 people have died since the BICI began its work, most from tear gas inhalation. He lists the total death toll since February 2011 as 86 people, including at least 30 people from excessive use of tear gas by security forces.

“When it comes to torture, most of the torture has stopped in custody but it is continuing in secret detention,” he says. “The same people who are responsible for torture are still in their positions. All the people who were involved in and responsible for the violations are still in their positions.”

The resumption of US arms sales to Bahrain came after the kingdom’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, completed a week-long visit to the US, where he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Since the uprising, the prince, who has been open to dialogue and limited reform, has been marginalized by more hard-line members of the royal family, including the prime minister and defense minister.

Some saw the arms deal as a US attempt to boost the prince’s position within the royal family to increase the possibility of a political solution. But that strategy failed when the US attempted it last year, and is still flawed now, says Justin Gengler, a Doha-based Bahrain analyst who writes the blog Religion and Politics in Bahrain. “By using arms sales in an attempt to bolster the crown prince’s position, they're actually bolstering the counterpoint position to the crown prince,” he says – that of the defense and prime ministers, who see the uprising as a security problem, not a political one.

The move could also simply be an attempt by the US to be seen as doing something to solve the crisis, even if the administration recognizes that the move is unlikely to help the crown prince counter the hardliners, says Dr. Gengler.

* Editor's Note: This story was updated with comment from Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority.

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