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If You're a Pro-Democracy Activist, Make Sure It's in the Right Country

Shooting at unarmed protestors isn't what U.S. government money is supposed to support, and so this week the U.S. announced it was freezing $350 million in aid to Malawi because of its violent crackdown on peaceful dissent.

Senior American official Sheila Herrling said they were "deeply disturbed" about how protests had been suppressed by the Malawian police. The UK government also suspended aid. Too right, and good for the British and Americans for standing up for human rights.

Now, a word about Bahrain. There too the police have been shooting at unarmed protestors and even at random civilians in the street (I know -- they shot at me on July 7). The U.S. and U.K. governments know all about these shootings, about the seizure and torture of hundreds of people since pro-democracy demonstrations began in February, about at least four deaths in custody, about the targeting of ambulances and medical personnel, about mass sackings of workers and mass expulsions of students. But their response has been very different.

Writing in the current edition of the Bahrain British Business Forum, UK Ambassador Jamie Bowden says, "It was a great relief to all of us when the [Bahraini] government was able to re-establish order on the streets in March." Probably a bit less of a relief to those hundreds of families whose loved ones were one of the hundreds tortured or dozens killed in the name of re-establishing order.

The U.S., meanwhile, has been busy supporting Bahrain's discredited 'National Dialogue,' set up by the Bahraini king to give the veneer of talking to the opposition. President Obama called it "an important moment of promise for the people of Bahrain. The United States commends King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for his leadership in initiating the dialogue." Which confused many Bahrainis I spoke to because only six weeks earlier he told the Bahraini government in a speech on the Middle East, "You can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."

A middle-aged Bahraini man told me, "Our family was watching Obama's speech on TV and we were whooping -- literally jumping off the sofa when he said that... but then no action. The Americans endorsed the phony dialogue anyway, even though our leaders are still in jail."

The National Dialogue flat-lined from the moment it opened, and the U.S. failed to disassociate itself from the farce even when the main opposition party, Al Wefaq, pulled out halfway through. When pro-democracy Bahrainis see the U.S. pick and choose when it stands up for democracy it baffles and angers them. They see strong rhetoric on Syria, they see action on Malawi, but America's 'strategic interests' seem to trump everything else in Bahrain. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the smallest country in the middle east sits uneasily between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It's hard to see how it's really in America's strategic interest to alienate democracy activists in Bahrain though, to be seen as the guys who arm the riot police who shoot at civilians. Human rights defenders in Bahrain complain that the U.S. invariably opens any statement on the country with the reminder that the countries are key allies or strong partners. "This sounds like whatever they do, whatever the government does to us, the U.S. will be its friend, unconditionally," said one.

If the U.S. wants to be on the side of the good guys, it could start by showing that relationship is conditional, like in Malawi.