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Stop Aiding Human Rights Abusers in Bahrain

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While Congress has debated the merits and political legitimacy of the Obama administration's intervention in Libya, other Mideast democracy struggles have received far less scrutiny than they deserve.

One area that needs greater attention is Bahrain, which recently sentenced 21 people to prison -- including eight life sentences. These actions were part of a campaign against democracy supporters, including newspaper publishers, a former member of Parliament, and medical personnel whose only crime was to treat demonstrators wounded by the regime's security forces. There have been widespread reports of torture being inflicted on pro-democracy forces and human rights advocates, including medical professionals and even hospital patients.

Meanwhile, even as pro-democracy forces face trial on trumped up charges, the police and security forces involved in killing at least seven civilian protesters in February have yet to be held responsible for their actions. And according to a recent report by Human Rights First, security forces continue to repress civilians, as in a recent incident in which groups of women gathered in the street were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The regime has begun reconciliation talks with some elements of the democratic opposition, but, as noted by Human Rights First, only about 10 percent of the participants in the talks are from the opposition, and many of those involved have not even been able to have their statements heard as part of the process. Furthermore, the talks will have little meaning if they are not accompanied by actions to release regime opponents who have been unjustly imprisoned and to bring government personnel involved in violence against civilians to justice.

The Obama administration has denounced the repression in Bahrain, but it has taken few concrete actions to back up this rhetoric.

The reasons for the Obama administration's unwillingness to take strong measures against repression in Bahrain are clear. It is a close U.S. ally that provides everything from a base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet to a staging area for U.S. operations in Iraq. It is also a major U.S. arms recipient, a point of potential leverage that Washington has thus far failed to utilize in efforts to end Bahrain's crackdown on its own citizens.

But treading lightly regarding human rights abuses of allies like Bahrain is not only wrong on moral grounds; it also undermines long-term U.S. interests. As the "Arab spring" that started in Tunisia and Egypt continues to sweep through the Middle East and North Africa, the role played by the United States will have a significant impact on its relations with the governments that emerge from this process.

Over the years, the police and security forces of Bahrain have been well-stocked with U.S. weaponry, ranging from major systems like fighter planes and combat ships to tear gas and rubber bullets that were used against pro-democracy forces. Bahrain currently receives about $20 million per year in U.S. military assistance, and has received nearly $75 million since 2004. And it receives tens of millions of dollars more worth of transfers of everything from guns and bullets to armored vehicles through State Department-authorized private arms deals and the Pentagon's "excess defense articles" program.

Unlike allies in France and Britain, the United States has yet to limit new arms transfers to the regime. Doing so would make a strong statement against human right abuses in Bahrain while meeting the standards set by current U.S. law.

In particular, Bahrain may be in violation of the Leahy Amendment, a human rights provision named after its author, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The law prohibits assistance to military or security units "against whom exist credible allegations of gross violations of human rights." In a February 18th statement, Leahy asserted that "there is evidence to apply the law today" in Bahrain.
Leahy raised his concerns directly with the State Department, which took over three weeks to get back to him with a letter indicating that it would be "working with the U.S. embassy in Manama [Bahrain] to determine which units were involved in the government's response to the protests . . . [and] to determine if these units received assistance, and what specific equipment or training this assistance entailed."

Over three months later, the State Department has yet to publicly disclose the findings -- if any -- of its inquiry.

Ideally, the Obama administration should suspend all U.S. military assistance and arms transfers to Bahrain until such time as the regime ends its repressive practices and takes concrete steps towards democracy. At a minimum, it should enforce existing law by vigorously pursuing the question of whether U.S.-supplied units killed or wounded demonstrators there. If it proves to be the case, U.S. assistance to those units should be stopped immediately.

Among the many recommendations made to the U.S. government in a recent Human Rights First report on the situation in Bahrain was the following:

Ensure that U.S. arms transfers are not facilitating repression and gross human rights violations in Bahrain by investigating which specific units of the Bahraini military and other security forces are implicated in gross violations of human rights and, if applicable, suspend all equipment, money, and training to such units.

As President Obama has said in a number of contexts, our words must have meaning. Cutting off military assistance would begin to give meaning to his administration's words of opposition to human rights abuses in Bahrain.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. He would like to thank Esha Mufti of the center for her help in gathering data on U.S. military assistance to Bahrain.

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