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Human Rights in Bahrain, a Casualty of Obama's Double-Standard

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Both the president of Syria and the King of Bahrain have worked hard this past year to portray their respective countries as stable and safe, hoping to distract from the popular uprisings they have brutally crushed. Both regimes have systematically tortured members of the opposition, killed and detained children, and banned journalists from entering the country to report, all the while alleging these popular movements are driven by "foreign terrorists."

Obama has demanded that Bashar al-Assad step-down, slapped sanctions on Syria, and is funding opposition groups in the country. But when it comes to Bahrain, he has colluded in the King's efforts to downplay the civil unrest, distract from proposed reforms and failed to hold Bahrain accountable. This, from a president who promised to restore America's human rights reputation abroad.

Fourteen months after protests first erupted against the ruling Sunni monarchy on Feb. 14 2011, much has been promised, but little, if any tangible reforms have taken place.

Bahrain's monarchy has hired several American PR companies, including, Qorvis, which provides public-relations services to the Kingdom at a cost of $40,000 a month plus expenses, with the hopes of convincing the world there is no revolution in Bahrain and that, for example, it can provide security during the Formula One Grand Prix due to be held on April 22.

Last year, Bahrain's violent crackdown on protesters led to the government's cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in the country. While Bahrain's authorities want this year's race to be held, a number of Formula 1 teams expect it to be called off amid security concerns caused by civil unrest, and it should be.

A statement from the Formula 1 Teams' Association on Tuesday said it was down to the International Federation of Automobiles as to whether Bahrain's biggest sporting event, launched in 2004 by the crown prince, would be cancelled.

The potential cancellation of yet another Grand Prix points to a credibility problem and an aversion to transparency shared both by Bahrain's rulers and Qorvis, their mouthpiece.

Tom Squitieri, a Qorvis employee, who describes himself as an award-winning reporter and communications crafter, has written three times for The Huffington Post, and writes for the Foreign Policy Association on Bahrain without being clear about his affiliation with Qorvis.

Squitieri infamously characterized Bahrain's pro-democracy protesters as driven by "anger without a purpose" and called them "foot soldiers for puppet masters with a greater agenda," borrowing a veiled reference often used by Arab leaders to Iran and the perceived threat it poses to the status-quo.

Ironically, the government-commissioned Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found no evidence that Iran had anything to do with the protests, but did find the government guilty of the systematic abuse of prisoners, and yes, torture. King Hamad promised to institute reforms, while also making a point to reference the UK's and U.S.'s record of torture in the so-called War on Terrorism as a point of comparison.

Squitieri presents himself as a journalist and claims only to "work with the Bahrain government on media awareness and press freedom," a poorly worded attempt at masking his propaganda job. But the last time Squitieri worked for a media organization was in 2005 as a Pentagon correspondent, when he resigned from USA Today for plagiarism.

Since its early days, the revolution in Bahrain has been a thorn in the sides of the Gulf monarchies, and by extension a real inconvenience to the Obama administration's geo-political interests and military positioning.

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and coast off East Africa. The Obama administration has largely stood by Bahrain, and any criticism has been both soft and vague. Instead, arms sales continue to Bahrain, though a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain has been delayed due to Congressional opposition. Still, the administration has moved forward with new and altered packages of arms sales to Bahrain, using a loophole to quietly sell arms to Bahrain.

Details of these sales were not released, with the State Department arguing they did not meet the criteria threshold that would require formal notification.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of few voices of reason in the U.S. government weighed in: "The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," he told Foreign Policy magazine. "Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States."

This is a simple, but salient point that is all too often ignored when it comes to U.S. policy in the region.

On Tuesday, a second aircraft carrier arrived in the Gulf. The United States said it was part of a "routine, scheduled" deployment, after reports suggested it was in response to heightened tensions between Bahrain and Iran.

Wedged between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of global oil exports pass, Bahrain is of fundamental strategic importance to the U.S. in a rapidly evolving region. Sadly, despite calling for an end of violence by all sides in Bahrain, the U.S. commitment to Bahrain's rulers seems to trump Obama's trumpeted calls for supporting democratic reform and human rights in the region.

"The United States continues to be deeply concerned about the situation in Bahrain, and we urge all parties to reject violence in all its forms," Jay Carney, press secretary for U.S. President Barack Obama, said on Wednesday.

But this generalized statement is as insincere as it is effective.

Last year, troops from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries entered Bahrain to extinguish the uprising in a crackdown widely condemned by human rights groups the world over. Then, and again now, the Obama administration has largely muddled its message with a selective, and frankly convenient approach to supporting human rights and freedom.

Moreover, Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the BICI, recently said in an interview that the Obama administration is not doing enough to pressure the regime.

"There is merit in naming the shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice," he said.

Bahrain, like Syria, has prevented journalists from entering the country to report on the widespread protests. While working at Al Jazeera, several of my colleagues were banned from entering. Those who got in had to work undercover, including a team that produced the documentary Shouting in The Dark, a story of the Arab revolution that was abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West and forgotten by the world.

While working at Al Jazeera's The Stream, a social-media show that relies on citizen reports and submissions from the ground, I was responsible for updating the team on videos and photos that had been shared via social networks.

Each day, dozens and dozens of videos streamed in documenting daily protests in Shia villages, police abuses, the firing of tear-gas inside homes, and the arrest and killing of children; all contradicting the press releases Qorvis was distributing.

One notable report released by Qorvis suggested that the Doctors Without Borders office was somehow responsible for the government's violent raid on its offices because of incorrect permits for operating in the country.

But the reality on the ground painted a very different picture. The constant stream of videos and photos in real-time became impossible to ignore, even if difficult to fully confirm.

Several activists appeared on our show as guests, including both Maryam Al Khawaja and Zaynab Al Khawaja, the daughters of jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who also holds Danish citizenship. Denmark's prime minister urged Bahrain to release a jailed activist with dual citizenship on Tuesday, claiming he is in critical condition, a claim Bahrain's government refutes.

Al-Khawaja, whose torture was well-documented in the BICI and who has reached his 63rd day of a hunger strike, remind us that the manipulated mirage of stability and progress created by King Hamad is merely an illusion.

On the night of April 9 2011, security forces entered his home, beat him unconscious, and arrested him in front of his screaming family. Since then, human rights activists across the world have been demanding the release of Al Khawaja, who was sentenced to life for allegedly attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

If Al-Khawaja dies in custody, as his lawyer warns us may happen, then this forgotten revolution, despite its daily protests and confrontations between police and protesters, is likely to detonate. Then, Obama will really find himself in a real quagmire, as it is sure to reignite the flames of revolt in the country.

While many have characterized the uprising as spurred by sectarian divisions between the Shia majority and Sunni minority rulers, Sunni protesters were among the first to take to the streets last February. Today while some Sunnis still rally against their government, demanding reforms, others protest attacks against the police by Shias, armed with petrol bombs.

When compared to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and even Libya, the percentage of the total population who took to the streets in Bahrain demanding reform, and eventually regime change, was the highest, considering Bahrain's tiny population of just under 1.5 million.

The seriousness of the civil unrest still witnessed in Bahrain and the subsequent disregard by the west is particularly troubling, considering the significance of the protests, which were largely peaceful, until the King's brutal crackdown.

Even as much of the world chooses to look away from Bahrain, the resolve of the nation's revolutionaries remains in tact.

Obama is not alone in his convenient oversights of the continued civil unrest in Bahrain and the reneging of its rulers on proposed reforms.

The Queen of England invited the King of Bahrain to a Diamond Jubilee lunch hosted at Windsor Castle despite widespread criticism of his bloody and repressive regime. He is also thought to be among those invited to a champagne dinner given by Prince Charles that same evening at Buckingham Palace.

A palace source said to the press, "It was the Queen's decision to host the lunch and her decision to invite every world sovereign. It would have been very rude to have left anyone off the list and the queen would never want to offend anyone."

I find the Queen's invitation offensive, and I'm certain those tortured and suffocated with U.S.-manufactured tear gas at the hands of Bahrain's rulers share my sentiment, let alone the more than hundred thousand of citizens that have taken to the street to protest.

Obama promised to restore the United States' human rights reputation after it was tarnished by the war on terror, torture practices, rendition and Abu Ghraib prison photos.
He has yet to close Guantanamo Bay. Many see that as a fundamental failure in living up to his promise.

But what may be even worse, is the obvious obfuscation when Obama chooses to pursue short-term geo-political interests and in doing so ignores the flagrant violations of human rights in Bahrain, while continuing to arm and support the country's ruling minority.

This spring, we can continue to turn our back on our shameful support of Bahrain's continued crackdown on dissent, or we can capitalize on a historic moment and think creatively about ways in which we can pressure our Saudi, Bahraini and other allies in the region.

On Feb. 14, 2012, exactly one year after the uprisings first began in Bahrain, Maryam Al-Khawaja, the head of foreign relations for Bahrain's Center for Human Rights, appeared for a second time on my former show on Al Jazeera's The Stream. There is one sentence she said that still resonated loudly in my head.

"The protests never stopped in Bahrain," she told me. "The media just stopped covering them... to the Bahraini protesters, the U.S. is to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria."

In short, the U.S. is obstructing justice, perpetuating human rights violations and supporting a leader who, like Assad, has turned his back on his own people and lied to the world about it.