Will Bahrain Get Away with It Again?

As the Bahraini authorities continue to violate human rights and target rights defenders, the United States should leverage the re-admission of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski to Bahrain as an opportunity to ask the Bahraini government to fulfill their international human rights obligations.

Earlier this week, human rights advocate, Maryam al-Khawaja, was tried in absentia and sentenced to one year in prison. The government’s targeting of al-Khawaja appears to have started in response to her participation in pro-democracy protests in 2011. This past August, she was arrested at the airport – on charges of insulting the king and assaulting a police officer – while trying to enter Bahrain to visit her ailing father in prison. During the prosecutor’s interrogation, she was not allowed to speak to her lawyer. She was also denied access to medical care, despite requesting it.

Al-Khawaja’s sentencing is just one example of many, demonstrating how the Bahraini government targets and continues to violate the rights of activists and other individuals.

There is a long list of human rights defenders under attack by the government – many of whom participated in pro-democracy protests that began in 2011, during which the Bahraini government violently suppressed demonstrations, indiscriminately used tear gas as a weapon, and injured (and even killed) protesters. Maryam’s own sister, Zainab, has been detained numerous times, and was only just released in mid-November; she is due to be sentenced this week for “insulting Bahrain’s king by tearing up his picture.” Their father, Abdulhadi, is serving a life sentence on terrorism charges related to the same 2011 protests. Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was jailed in 2012 for two years and is again on trial for “tweets posted on his Twitter account that denigrated government institutions.”

And the list goes on. Even medical professionals have not been spared. Doctors who were fulfilling their professional and ethical duties of providing unbiased care to protesters during pro-democracy demonstrations were persecuted and punished. This is in direct contradiction to the principle of medical neutrality – an international standard that requires governments to not interfere with the functioning of health services during times of conflict or unrest.

Unfortunately, the Bahraini government remains unmoved, indifferent to the outcry of its own citizens, and under little to no pressure from the international community to end these ongoing violations. The United States, for example, has a long history of giving Bahrain a free pass on human rights violations, since the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet operates – and wants to maintain – a base in the country’s capital of Manama. Apart from suspending some arms sales and assistance after Secretary Malinowski was expelled from Bahrain in July 2014, the U.S. government has not taken enough concrete steps to stop the abuse of protesters, the targeting of medical professionals treating demonstrators, or the persecution and detention of top human rights defenders.

Perhaps this is not surprising, with the recent police response to the Ferguson protests in the United States itself. However, if the U.S. government wants its citizens and the international community to take seriously the U.S. commitment to so-called American values of freedom and liberty, it cannot continually turn a blind eye to oppression at home or abroad – especially in countries considered close allies.

With Secretary Malinowski having regained access to Bahrain, the U.S. government should take the opportunity to promote human rights by asking its ally to: respect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the rights of protesters and human rights defenders; safeguard the ethical and professional responsibilities of medical professionals to provide unbiased care; ensure that medical facilities are not militarized and that all patients receive appropriate treatment regardless of political affiliation; and to have independent investigations when any of these rights are violated and ensure that perpetrators are held to account.

Will U.S. representatives seize this opportunity? We sure hope so.

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