It is welcome news that human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja was released from detention in Bahrain yesterday. She was arrested at the Bahrain International Airport on August 30, en route to see her ailing father, who is serving a life sentence in prison and is currently on a hunger strike. Despite her release, the charges against her of assaulting a female officer and a policewoman at the airport remain in place – charges the Bahraini government hopes will silence her voice and prevent further unwanted attention on the dire human rights situation in the country.
Maryam participated in the anti-government protests in 2011, which called for greater freedom and equality for the majority Shia population in the country. I had the honor of meeting Maryam a few months ago when she was in New York. Her passion for human rights and justice is ever-more present in person. Coming from a family of activists, Maryam has been the victim of harassment and death threats for her important work in promoting accountability and justice. Having stood up against oppression on the frontlines of protests, she serves as an inspiration to many of us working on human rights issues around the world.
The United States, a long-time ally of the al-Khalifa regime currently governing Bahrain, is in a unique position to pressure the country to change its policies. The United States must take concrete action to condemn the Bahraini regime for its ongoing human rights violations, such as the persecution of activists, and urge it to prioritize human rights and engage in a dialogue with the opposition. The United States has recently experienced some tension with its ally, with the expulsion of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski and the denial of entry to U.S. Representative James McGovern, but it has not yet taken any real steps against the government of Bahrain. Continued inaction by the U.S. government leaves the regime under the impression that the world will stand by and allow for impunity regardless of its egregious violations of human rights.
Unfortunately, the detention of and charges against Maryam are just the latest in a pattern of human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini government. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has been documenting widespread government abuses since 2011 when the anti-regime protests originally began. As illustrated in this PHR report, the government of Bahrain indiscriminately used tear gas as a weapon, resulting in the maiming, blinding, and, at times, killing of protesters.
As the stories from doctors who have been persecuted in Bahrain illustrate, the regime has also flagrantly violated the principle of medical neutrality – which allows medical workers to provide unbiased care – in its persecution of health care workers, who were simply abiding by their professional and ethical duties of providing health care without discrimination. The government has continually suppressed dissenting voices and anyone that assists those unaligned with the current regime. The government also militarized the health care system and obstructed access to medical care.
Maryam’s own father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has suffered immensely at the hands of the regime. Having taken part in anti-government protests, he received a life sentence after his arrest in April 2011. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights cites an unfair trial and says that he has been tortured during his detention.
In the lead up to Maryam’s trial next month, the U.S. government should take this opportunity to pressure the Bahraini regime to drop the charges against her and stop the targeting of human rights activists and health professionals. To facilitate concrete change in a country plagued by rights violations, the United States should urge Bahrain to engage in genuine negotiations with the opposition. Persistent oppression of Bahrain’s population will only lead to additional unrest and upheaval, and as we have seen in Syria and Iraq, repeated crackdowns on a population can be catastrophic.
If the United States wants to be taken seriously in the Middle East, it cannot continue to pick and choose which country leaders it urges to support human rights. The U.S. government must push for rights to be respected across the region, and not turn a blind eye when it is convenient and advantageous to its interests.