US Must Maintain Restrictions, Push for Reforms Following Bahrain Interior Minister Visit

14 July 2017 – Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, Lt. General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, visited Washington, DC this week to discuss security cooperation with a number of American officials, including the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Defense. While we encourage bilateral talks between American policymakers and the Government of Bahrain, and we acknowledge the importance of strategic cooperation on mutual security objectives, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) is directly responsible for the kingdom’s increasingly violent campaign against pro-democracy activism and is deeply implicated in severe human rights violations. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is very concerned by US commitments to deepen security ties with the MOI and strongly condemns the Ministry’s ongoing and intensifying abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing. We additionally call on the US Government to publicly condemn these violations and suspend any further security cooperation with the MOI until it has moved to implement substantive reforms.

According to the MOI, Lt. General Sheikh Rashid traveled to Washington to meet Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Andrew McCabe, among other unnamed “security officials in the US administration.” The Minister of Interior also met with several legislators, including House Speaker Representative Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Representative Ed Royce, and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Senator John McCain. Lt. General Sheikh Rashid reportedly discussed ways to “modernize” and “reinforce” bilateral security cooperation on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and transnational organized crime, as well as arms sales and the threat posed by Iran. Particularly, he emphasized the continued importance of the US Fifth Fleet, based in Manama, and the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the MOI and the Department of Homeland Security.

However, despite the Minister’s visit, the US security partnership with the MOI has long been strained by its record of severe human rights violations, which has only worsened in recent months. In the aftermath of the Bahraini government’s bloody suppression of the 2011 pro-democracy movement – led by Lt. General Sheikh Rashid and the MOI – the US imposed a de facto hold on security assistance to the Ministry over concerns that it would continue to target peaceful protesters and activists. The policy intended to both prevent US complicity in repressive measures and to encourage positive security sector reform. Yet, in the six years since, the MOI has entirely abandoned any commitment to reform.

Just this year, the police have taken several unprecedented moves away from its stated promise to reform. In January 2017, the authorities ended a de facto moratorium on capital punishment by executing three men tortured into providing false confessions, representing the first execution of Bahrainis since the 1990s. Later, in April, the government amended the constitution to allow military courts to try civilians in alleged terrorism cases, empowering the MOI and the Public Prosecution to refer detainees held under the kingdom’s broad anti-terror legislation to national security tribunals notorious for secrecy and due process violations. On May 23, 2017, just days after President Donald Trump met with Bahrain’s king in Riyadh, MOI personnel violently raided a peaceful demonstration in the village of Diraz, killing five and injuring hundreds. Among the dead was Mohamed Khadim Muhsin Zain Aldeen, a respected environmental activist, and Mohamed Ahmed Hassan Mohammed Hamdan, whose younger brother was shot and killed in an earlier raid on Diraz launched by unknown security forces in January 2017.

The MOI has also worked in tandem with the National Security Agency (NSA), Bahrain’s primary intelligence service, to undertake an intensified campaign of reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society activists. In the past two months alone, the authorities have twice detained and tortured woman human rights defender Ebtisam al-Saegh; forcibly disappeared activist Mohamed Khalil al-Shakhoori; and repeatedly summoned and tortured Mohamed Hasan Ali Mohamed Juma Sultan, the son of a former opposition parliamentarian. Security personnel explicitly told al-Saegh that they were targeting her in retaliation for her human rights work, and they attempted to force Sultan into informing on his father and other political figures.

It is additionally under Lt. General Sheikh Rashid’s authority that Bahrain has incarcerated nearly 4,000 political prisoners, giving the kingdom the highest per capita prison population in the Middle East. Just this past Monday, July 10, the government sentenced the country’s most prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, to two years in prison for providing interviews to media outlets. The decision explicitly contravenes the wishes of the US State Department, which has continually called for his release since his June 2016 arrest. Rajab faces another 15 years in prison in a separate trial concerning comments he made on social media.

Similarly, the MOI has used its enhanced authority under the expanded citizenship and anti-terror legislation to unilaterally denaturalize peaceful activists, journalists, religious leaders, and politicians along with violent extremists. Between court rulings and the Ministry’s un-appealable denaturalization orders, the Bahraini government has stripped more than 400 individuals of their citizenship, rendering many stateless before they are forcibly deported from the country. As many as a 103 people have already been denaturalized this year.

Though the MOI has attempted to position itself as a key counterterror partner for the US, there is also growing evidence that Bahrain’s police force is actually contributing to sectarian militancy and extremism. As noted by both the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)  and the US Government, Bahrain’s Shia Muslim majority is virtually excluded from the security services and it is “urgent” that the authorities make them more “reflective of society.” In 2011, Defense Secretary Mattis, then CENTCOM commander, reportedly voiced the same concern to the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) chief of staff, offering lessons learned from the American military’s own history of racial integration. Nevertheless, the BDF, MOI, NSA, and Bahrain’s other security services remain closed to recruits from the Shia community – it is estimated that Shia constitute 2-5 percent of all security personnel, compared with the country’s Shia population of between 58-70 percent.

Sectarian prejudice in Bahrain’s security institutions threatens to undermine the country’s long-term stability, and there is evidence that Bahraini officials have directly propagated anti-Shia and other extremist views within the security forces. The military published a religious pamphlet that denounces several non-Sunni sects of Islam as heretical, including Shiism, for example, providing purported justifications for violence. Hundreds of Bahrainis have left the country to join extremist groups like ISIS, including high-ranking MOI officials. MOI officers have appeared in ISIS propaganda films and have been formally designated as terrorists by the State Department.

“The Ministry of Interior is not a strong security partner for the US – it’s a liability,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “Bahrain’s police have used anti-terror and anti-cybercrime measures to justify an all-out assault on basic rights and peaceful civil society in the country, and yet these are the areas where the US wants to deepen cooperation? The US must make it abundantly clear that further security assistance – let alone lifting the arms embargo – is contingent on significant reform. Otherwise it risks serious complicity in the MOI’s violent campaign of repression.”

Six years ago, the US Government limited cooperation with the MOI over extensive evidence of severe human rights abuses. Though the current administration has reversed course on arms holds to the Bahraini military, the US has continued to restrict weapons sales to the MOI over the persistence of these same concerns. Now, uncritically expanding the US partnership with the Ministry will not further US interests – on the contrary, to ensure long-term stability and to combat extremism in the region, the US will be best served by conditioning any support for the Bahraini security forces on substantive improvements in the human rights situation. ADHRB calls on the US Government to publicly condemn the MOI’s intensified human rights violations and to suspend further cooperation with the Ministry until such time as it implements true reforms.