With delicious irony, the Government of Bahrain sent out a press release last week declaring that it "welcomes visits by all human rights organizations," and that its "open-door policy remains in place" on the same day it sent me a letter saying it wouldn't let me into the country.
I had been planning to go to Bahrain on January 19 to meet human rights activists and Bahraini government officials, as I have on three previous visits in the last nine months. I told the Bahraini government on December 20 I'd be coming, but it wasn't until January 11 that it responded, saying my trip must wait until March, when a committee set up to implement reforms will have done its work. I said I'd be happy to go now and in March. No good.
Last week, Rick Sollom from Physicians for Human Rights was turned away when he landed in Bahrain. Authorities told him that "all government officials are under tremendous work pressure" and that he should come back after the end of February when a trip would be "more beneficial."
These are stiff reminders that the Bahraini government should be judged on its actions, not its words. Denying (rather, "delaying") access to human rights organizations is a hallmark of repressive regimes. Bahrain already ticked many of those boxes in 2011. Mass arrests? Check. Torture? Check? Deaths in custody? Check. Shootings of civilians? Unfair trials? Attacks on places of worship? Targeting of peaceful dissidents? Check check check check.
Bahrain is ruled by the Al Khalifa family. The king has the power to change the constitution and his family usually has at least half of the cabinet seats. None are elected.
Now the government is telling human rights organizations they can't come in until March. Not coincidentally, February 14 is the anniversary of the arrival of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, when thousands of people took to the streets. February 14 is likely to see widespread protests and calls for reform. The fear is that the Bahraini regime will respond as it did last year when it launched an astonishingly violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. Thousands were arrested, there was widespread torture, and several people died in custody. Doctors and others perceived to be on the side of the protestors were given long prison sentences after unfair trials.
Human Rights First and other leading international human rights organizations reported on these violations regularly throughout 2011, and the regime commissioned a team of outside experts to report on what had happened. This Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released its findings in November along with a list of recommendations to the government. Inevitably, the regime set up yet another committee to look at these recommendations. The committee is supposed to wrap up its work at the end of February--when they say we'll be allowed in again.
By shutting out those who report on human rights, the regime confirms that its alleged commitment to reform and transparency doesn't go any deeper than words.