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U.S. quiet as Bahrain abuses increase

Protesters, opposition leaders and medical workers facing trial, but State Department stands on sidelines

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At least 30 people have died in Bahrain, protesters and medical workers are being put on trial, and prominent opposition politicians are being arrested — but the United States has yet to toughen its talk or impose sanctions on its Gulf ally.

Bahrain, a predominantly Shiite country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, plays host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. McClatchy reported Monday that the government has bulldozed dozens of Shiite mosques. Shiite women and girls also have been detained and abused, according to McClatchy. The State Department has said little about these matters publicly, except to tell McClatchy it’s “concerned by the destruction of religious sites” and is “extremely troubled by reports of ongoing human rights abuses” in Bahrain.

The Bahraini government announced last week it would charge nearly 50 doctors and nurses for treating injured pro-democracy protesters. We’d previously noted the government’s detention of medical workers along with protesters, activists and journalists.

Last month Bahrain sentenced four protesters to death by firing squad — drawing protests from human rights groups and more statements of concern from the United States. The United States has repeatedly issued statements for months calling for the Bahraini government to engage in political dialogue rather than use force, but it has not threatened sanctions or signaled any changes in the close ties between the two countries.

As we noted last month, Zainab Alkhawaja, daughter of a missing Bahraini human rights activist, announced she was going on a hunger strike in early April in an open letter to President Barack Obama. The move by was intended to pressure the United States to stop backing the Bahraini government. By April 20, she ended the hunger strike because her health was deteriorating, her mother wrote in a blog post.

Little backing from State Department

In February, we noted that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first visit to Bahrain in December, she was asked a little-noticed question about Bahrain’s decline in the areas of democracy and human rights. The question, from then-Bahraini parliament member Matar Ibrahim Matar, was upstaged in the U.S. media by another question about whether Clinton would run again for president.

Matar was upstaged again last week when news of his arrest—by armed, masked men—was buried by news of Osama bin Laden’s death. In an opinion column in the Washington Post, freelance writer Michael Bronner and Rutgers Law School dean John Farmer Jr. noted that Matar in fact received training on how to organize and advance the cause of democracy as part of a State Department fellowship:

In 2008, he traveled here under the State Department’s Leaders for Democracy Fellowship Program, the flagship of President George W. Bush’s Middle East Partnership Initiative. The program seeks to impart practical organizing tools and a deeper understanding of democracy to emerging civic leaders.

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In a meeting with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Matar raised his views about representative democracy in Bahrain and his concern that Washington has given the kingdom’s ruling family a pass in exchange for hosting the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet’s large base that supports the war in Afghanistan. After the program ended, Matar returned home and focused on getting elected to Bahrain’s parliament.

Matar—along with several other politicians from the moderate, mainly Shia opposition party—recently resigned from the Bahraini parliament in protest.

Muted response

The State Department has "urged," "called on," and "remained deeply concerned and troubled" by the actions of the Bahraini government. Asked last week by a reporter whether the United States has done anything beyond give verbal criticism, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the department had dispatched an official to Bahrain several times in hopes of working “with both the government and the opposition to bridge some of these gaps.” His exact remarks:

QUESTION: They have done things that you’ve criticized other countries for doing. Has the U.S. done anything beyond verbally criticize them? Have you raised the prospect of sanctions, or –  sorry  –

MR. TONER:Well, again  –  I didn’t mean to cut you off, but Assistant Secretary Feltman’s made several trips out there, and –

QUESTION: I know. But, I mean, beyond saying we don’t like what you’re doing, have you taken any action? Have I missed something, I’m wondering.

MR. TONER: I mean, look  –  I mean, it’s important that our assistant secretary has spent a significant amount of time out there trying to work with both the government and the opposition to bridge some of these gaps, but also to make very clear to the government that there’s no – as we’ve said multiple times, there’s no security solution to this and that they need to take steps to address the legitimate concerns of their people.

The muted reaction from the United States hasn’t gone unnoticed in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Reuters that the West is “losing the hearts and minds of the democrats in Bahrain.”

The United States’ soft touch on Bahrain, meanwhile, has stood in sharp contrast with its tough talk against the government of Syria, which also has been arresting and shooting protesters. Last week, the White House issued a statement saying, “We strongly condemn and deplore the Syrian government’s use of violence and mass arrests." Secretary of State Clinton issued a similar statement, condemning "in the strongest terms" the actions of the Syrian government. In late April, President Obama signed an executive order imposing targeted sanctions against Syria.

The White House has said that unless Syria changes its approach, it will — along with its international partners — “take additional steps to make clear our strong opposition to the Syrian government’s treatment of its people.” No such promises have been made regarding Bahrain.

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Kuwait-Ra'ed Qutena/Flickr

A Kuwaiti Shiite woman protests against abuses in Bahrain on March 16 outside the Bahrain Embassy in Kuwait City.

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