Bahrain: US must ensure military patrol boat transfer does not facilitate abuse

19 April 2017 – The United States Government has disclosed that Bahrain will receive five American-made Mark V military patrol boats by 1 August 2017. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is deeply concerned by the recent increase in unrestricted US weapons transfers to Bahrain, and we urge the US Government to ensure that American-made arms are not used in the commission of further human rights abuses in the country.

According to two US Federal Business Opportunities notices posted earlier this month, US Military Sealift Command is in the process of transporting the patrol craft to Bahrain from naval facilities in Virginia and California. It appears that these shipments correspond to two previous Bahraini requests for Mark V craft as US Excess Defense Articles (EDA), which the US government approved in 2015 and 2016. The US designated Bahrain a major non-NATO ally (MNNA) in 2002, a status that grants the country a variety of unique military benefits including increased defense cooperation, access to Department of Defense (DOD) research, authorization to purchase depleted uranium munitions, and approval for the country’s corporations to bid on DOD contracts. MNNA status also allows priority access to EDA, which is surplus equipment provided via a grant or at a substantially reduced price. MNNA are prioritized “to the maximum extent feasible over…other countries.” Bahrain has received millions of dollars’ worth of EDA, including armored personnel carriers, missiles, and other armaments.

The US-manufactured Mark V Special Operations Craft has been described by the US Navy as a “versatile, high performance combatant craft” and its variants have been used predominantly by the US Navy Seals as well as the US Coast Guard for insertion, coastal patrol, and interdiction missions. Mark V patrol boats have at least five gun mounts and are typically outfitted with machine guns or grenade launchers. According to the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the total acquisition value of the five EDA craft is approximately $27 million, while the total current value is approximately $2.7 million. It is unclear if the Bahraini government is paying a reduced price for these transfers or if they are receiving them as a grant. It is additionally unknown if the current Mark V shipment is meant for the Coast Guard or the Royal Bahrain Naval Force (RBNF), which already possesses Mark V craft.

In the aftermath of the Bahraini government’s violent suppression of the 2011 pro-democracy movement, the US restricted arms sales to the kingdom due to concerns that security forces would use such weaponry in the commission of human rights violations. Though the US later lifted some of these restrictions, including on arms sales to the Bahraini military and National Guard, it has maintained a prohibition on transfers to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) police forces, with the notable exception of the MOI’s Coast Guard, on the grounds that it does not participate in standard policing. Bahrain’s Coast Guard has previously received US patrol boats as EDA and it is the country’s chief recipient of US Foreign Military Financing (FMF).

However the Coast Guard has also been implicated in possible human rights abuses and has conducted operations with security force units subject to US arms restrictions. On 9 February 2017, the MOI announced that a joint operation involving the Coast Guard, the General Directorate for Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science, the Special Security Force, and the National Security Agency (NSA) – Bahrain’s intelligence service that was recently re-empowered despite its responsibility for severe abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killing in 2011 – intercepted a boat containing ten “escapees from Jau prison [attempting] to flee to Iranian waters.” According to the MOI, Coast Guard personnel exchanged gun fire with the vessel in question, killing three suspects, but independent observers have reported significant inconsistencies in the government’s account of the incident. Though the MOI did not release photos of the deceased or allow for independent autopsies, leaked photos reportedly indicated that at least one body lacked a bullet wound and appeared to show signs of torture. The burial was restricted and the MOI reportedly threatened and prevented family members of the deceased from attending. Additionally, in the days after the shooting, an Instagram account that allegedly belonged to an MOI officer posted messages claiming that the deceased had been physically abused and threatening to retaliate against activists for reporting on possible human rights violations. Notably, US-manufactured patrol boats were used to carry out the MOI’s joint operation (in the government’s official video of the incident, the English logo of Fountain Patrol, a defense division of a US recreational boat company, is visible on the authorities’ patrol boats). These were possibly the same patrol boats provided to the Bahraini Coast Guard as EDA.

Moreover, the Mark V EDA transfer comes just weeks after it was revealed that the US Department of State was removing human rights conditions from a multibillion-dollar F-16 sale to Bahrain. The conditions were originally imposed by the previous administration due to a severe deterioration in the kingdom’s human rights situation, including the Bahraini government’s move to dissolve the Al-Wefaq political opposition society.

“Though these requests may have been approved under the Obama administration, it sends a terrible message for the US to conduct major EDA transfers on the heels of the State Department decision to lift reform incentives from the F-16 sale. This new Trump doctrine of opening the floodgates for unrestricted weapons transfers will only do the same for human rights abuses,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB Executive Director. “These boats are weapons, and the US State Department must guarantee that they are not used in Bahraini security force operations that violate human rights or contravene international law.”

The US government’s unrestricted delivery of Mark V patrol boats to the Coast Guard or the RBNF increases the risk of US complicity in Bahraini security force abuses. Specifically, the use of these craft in nontransparent MOI-directed joint operations that include police units or the NSA – the same forces banned from receiving the type of small caliber armaments that Mark V patrol boats are equipped with – is deeply problematic and could violate the US State Department’s current policy on arms transfers to the MOI. The US Government must ensure that any weaponry transferred to the Bahraini security forces, including Mark V craft and their armaments, are not utilized by these prohibited units or in the commission of human rights violations. We additionally call on the US Government to reinstate human rights conditions on the F-16 sale to Bahrain, and to urge that the Bahraini authorities facilitate an independent investigation into the MOI joint operation that appeared to utilize American-made military equipment and led to the death of three suspects.