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Doing the Right Thing in Bahrain

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by Sarah Trister and Husain Abdullah

In November an international commission organized and paid for by the Bahraini government found that there has been widespread and systematic abuses committed against protesters in the small gulf nation since uprisings began in February, 2011.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was commissioned by Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to examine alleged abuses that occurred in February and March of 2011. Made up of highly-renowned international legal experts, the commission's scope overlapped with investigations by numerous international and local NGOs into the widespread, and ongoing, crackdown that included torture of political prisoners, extra-judicial killings and detentions, military trials of civilians, the intentional demolition of religious sites, and the use of excessive force against unarmed civilians. The report corroborated these widespread abuses.

After an undoubtedly awkward public reading of the report findings, to which the government had invited numerous NGOs, foreign dignitaries, and members of the media, the King said he was dismayed by the findings and would create a commission to implement recommended reforms. The reforms outlined in the report are a positive step in the right direction, although the commission neglected to tackle the core issue causing the unrest: the lack of a representative, free, and fair political system. Moreover, leaving the reform effort solely in the hands of the very people responsible for committing the abuses seems contrary to the spirit of the commission.

The Bahraini government, meanwhile, has done little to demonstrate it is serious about implementing reform. On the day of the report's release at least one protester was killed in further crackdowns. Peaceful protesters continue to face violence, harassment, and arrest while prosecutions and trials of political prisoners continue. And though the report cites the release of political prisoners and the dropping of charges against others as a sign of goodwill on the part of the government, it neglects to mention that simultaneously, more were being arrested and charged, creating a revolving door of trumped-up charges and false imprisonment. Such behavior does not inspire confidence in the government's commitment to change.

If the government of Bahrain is serious about moving toward reconciliation it should immediately release all political prisoners, dismiss trumped-up charges against civilians including medical professionals who treated injured protesters, reinstate workers who lost their jobs for political reasons, immediately end the use of torture, stop extra-judicial killings and detentions, and proceed with reparations to those harmed. High level officials responsible for ordering or condoning abuses must be investigated and prosecuted. Peaceful protests should be allowed to take place and censorship of media and harassment of journalists should cease. Most importantly, the royal family must facilitate a serious dialogue with the opposition and steps should be taken to have free and fair parliamentary elections in order to write a new constitutional framework.

Merely creating yet another commission (comprised entirely of pro-government actors, it should be noted) to examine the recommendations of the BICI report -- as proposed by the King -- is not enough. The international community, and the United States, one of Bahrain's closest allies, must show the Bahraini government that empty-gestures and half-measures will not be acceptable. The United States in particular is in a position to pressure this close ally to make real moves toward reform.

The State Department should publicly outline a clear set of expectations for reform to the Bahraini government and make their swift implementation the number one issue in the bilateral relationship.

The currently on-hold $53 million arms sale to the Bahraini government should not go forward until substantial and widespread reforms are underway. The administration should take seriously violations of the free trade agreement and make clear that it will be under review if Bahrain does not uphold its obligations. Only when those actions are taken, and the government has begun a process of open and inclusive political reconciliation that includes steps toward a democratic parliamentary system, should the U.S. reopen the potential for an arms sale.

In Washington people often talk about leverage. The United States has an incredible amount of leverage in a small country that is home to a U.S. naval base, and is flanked by Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. Strong democratic partners make the best U.S. allies and promote stability abroad. The United States must seize this opportunity to support the Bahraini people's aspiration for a free, fair, and representative system.

Husain Abdulla is the director of Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain. Sarah Trister is manager for congressional affairs at Freedom House.