On 9 September 2016, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress (TLHRC) held a hearing to examine the US government’s response to the human rights crisis in Bahrain. Key experts who were asked to testify before TLHRC included Brian Dooley, Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First (HRF); Matar Matar, a former MP of the Bahraini government; Sarah Margon, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW); and Cole Bokenfeld, Deputy Director of Policy at Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). This was the fourth hearing held on the human rights situation in Bahrain since 2010.
Congressman James P. McGovern of Massachusetts opened the hearing by noting regrettably that no one from the US State Department was available to attend the hearing. Representative McGovern noted that while there have been moments of progress since 2011, last year’s efforts at reform have stalled. He highlighted the government’s suspension of attempts at national dialogue, the Bahraini government’s failure to fully implement the recommendations from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, the dissolution of the opposition party, Al-Wefaq, and the revocation of citizenship for prominent Shia clerics. Rep. McGovern expressed concern over the recent deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain, arguing that the U.S. government must use its leverage to undertake concrete measures to help improve the human rights situation in Bahrain.
Brian Dooley of Human Rights First began his testimony by condemning the denial of entry for journalists and NGOs, in addition to Rep. McGovern. Dooley subsequently highlighted the discrimination against the Shia majority in Bahrain, including their exclusions from key areas of the government and security forces. Dooley then highlighted the case of Dr. Ali Al-Ekri, a medic arrested by the Bahraini Defense Forces during the 2011 uprising, and was beaten and forced to eat feces. “No senior military official has been held to account for the torture or other human rights violations committed by the military,” he added. Addressing the alleged Iranian influence in Bahrain, Dooley argued that removing Iran from the equation does not solve Bahrain’s problems of unrest and instability. Dooley ended his testimony by condemning the US government’s decision to lift the restrictions on selling arms to the Bahrain military, deeming it a “significant mistake.”
During his testimony, Matar Matar stressed that statements issued by the US government are not enough and that the US government needs to take the deterioration in Bahrain more seriously. Matar highlighted the pro-democracy movement and the extraordinary roles that people like Sheikh Isa Qassim and Nabeel Rajab have undertaken to protect Bahrain from moving toward sectarianism and violence. Matar argued that the sectarianism seen in Bahrain today stems from sectarian policies carried out by the Bahraini government against the Shia majority and that members of the Sunni minority would face much harsher treatment should they speak out against the Bahraini authorities. Matar argued that the stability of Bahrain is built on sectarian politics and persecution, policies against Shia, the blackmailing of Sunnis, and the human trafficking of Southeast Asian migrants. Matar closed by stressing that efforts should be centered on how the Bahraini government can be prevented from using the relationship with the US against its own people.
Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch gave testimony focusing on the lack of space for civil society to function in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, already in prison for tweets, has now been sentenced with additional charges since the publication of an op-ed in the New York Times that he wrote while in prison. Many other political activists and human rights defenders continue to remain in prison for their pro-democracy initiatives as well. Margon noted that if governments like the United States were to look to recent Parliamentary elections in Bahrain, they would see a decent voter turnout. However, one must look further than the percentages and numbers. For example, the Government of Bahrain gerrymandered many of the districts to give Sunni votes more weight than Shia votes. This tactic of the government’s utilization of sectarianism to divide the Bahraini population is a point that Margon and other panelists made in their testimony. By dividing the population, the Bahraini government can feed into radicalization. Margon noted that if the Bahraini government creates such an environment that fosters extremism, and then pairs that environment with the systematic incarceration of human rights defenders and political activists, violence can and will occur. It is in the US government’s best interest to urge the Bahraini government to allow that civil society space to open up and allow for political reform. The US government has influence in Bahrain because of the security relationship and should utilize that influence when pushing for human rights reform. The US should support a joint statement at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council and call on Bahrain to immediately cease all harassment of human rights defenders and political activists, as well as release those who have been imprisoned for exercising their basic human rights.
Cole Bockenfeld of POMED focused on the importance of the 26 recommendations by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which the King of Bahrain fully accepted in 2011. Mr. Bockenfeld stated the US should use the BICI recommendations as a launching point to hold the Bahraini government accountable. He stated that the bar for the need for reform in Bahrain has lowered due to weak and inconsistent reactions of the US administration and the international community for the past five years. Mr Bockenfeld rightfully noted that the US State Department has itself only found only 7 of the 26 recommendations to be fully implemented, which itself does not fulfill the legal requirement made by Congress. Mr. Bockenfeld stated the next steps for the US to take include passing bill HR-3445, which calls for a reinstating the hold on arms sales until the Bahraini authorities have implemented all 26 recommendations. Additionally, another step can be to deny visas to Bahraini officials who committed gross human rights violations. Lastly, Mr. Bockenfeld called on the State Department to issue an updated assessment of the 26 BICI recommendations by clearly outlining the status of each.
Rep. McGovern and all of the panelists agreed that a tangible next step would be to draft a list of Bahraini officials known to have committed human rights abuses who should be prevented from entering the United States. All panelists agreed that in conjunction to the strong statements issued by the US State Department, the administration must be more vocal in expressing its concerns regarding the escalating situation. Experts agreed that the situation in Bahrain is becoming increasingly dangerous, as the space for peaceful dissent has almost disappeared given the continuous crackdown on civil society. Panelists agreed that the United States must hold the Bahraini government accountable because it is in the interests of both the United States and the people of Bahrain.