President Trump Ignores Bahrain’s Abuses, Extends Military Cooperation

30 November 2017 – Bahrain’s Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, has arrived in Washington, DC for meetings with President Donald Trump and other administration officials. The prince’s trip comes amid an extreme deterioration of Bahrain’s human rights situation following an earlier meeting between King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and President Trump in May 2017, wherein the latter stressed that there would be no more “strain” in the US-Bahrain relationship. Though that meeting was immediately followed by Bahrain’s deadliest day in years, President Trump has continued to ignore the government’s violent crackdown on fundamental freedoms. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns President Trump’s failure to publicly address these mounting abuses in today’s press availability with the crown prince, as his uncritical commitment to improving a “great [business] relationship” will only embolden the Bahraini authorities to further intensify their suppression of peaceful dissent – with apparent American indifference. We additionally regret the administration’s decision to extend the bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with Bahrain in the absence of any clear reform conditions to address ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the Bahraini security forces, which ultimately undermine American interests in combatting extremism and securing regional stability.

Crown Prince Salman, who also serves as First Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Bahraini military, is accompanied by more than a dozen other Bahraini officials, including police and military leaders like Major-General Tariq Al Hassan, Chief of Public Security at the Ministry of Interior (MOI), and Brigadier Sheikh Mohamed bin Salman Al Khalifa, Head of Operations at the Royal Bahraini Air Force. Though the MOI remains largely under an informal arms ban due to concerns over rights abuses, the Royal Bahraini Air Force is the recipient of the $3.8 billion F-16 deal authorized by the Trump administration in September, which was stripped of human rights conditions imposed by the previous administration.

The attendance of these security officials suggested that the prince’s visit would be focused on further deepening US-Bahrain defense cooperation under the current administration, and it has culminated in a formal extension of the DCA during a meeting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Dating back to 1991, details of the pact remain classified, with the US Government rejecting related requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and secretly extending it in the past. It is suspected to contain terms of US basing access, training for Bahraini personnel, joint operations between both countries, and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for American troops, which renders US soldiers stationed in Bahrain subject to American law. Like the $3.8 billion arms transfer, the US Government does not appear to have attached any human rights conditions or reform incentives to the extension of the agreement, despite the fact that the decision comes at a time when the Bahraini military has become even more complicit in human rights abuses domestically. The increase in Bahrain’s military and security sector repression is exemplified by this year’s constitutional amendment to allow civilians to be tried in military courts, and the government’s re-empowerment of the kingdom’s effective secret police force—the National Security Agency (NSA).

In addition to Secretary Mattis, Crown Prince Salman has so far met with a number of other American officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Speaker of the House of Representatives Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), and President Trump himself. In a brief press availability at the White House, the president failed to address any human rights issues. Instead, echoing his earlier meeting with the king, the president focused solely on trade, praising the “great relationship” and indicating that it will only continue to improve. President Trump said it was a “great honor” to welcome Crown Prince Salman because “we’re doing a lot of business, they’re buying a lot of things – I heard nine billion dollars is thrown about?” He concluded: “That’s a very nice trip and we appreciate it. We’ve had a long relationship and a great relationship, and it will only get better. They’ve been – and you have been – a great friend and we appreciate it very much.”

The White House appears to have ignored the recent public criticism of the kingdom from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who named Bahrain as one of the world’s leading violators of religious liberty in August 2017 when he launched the department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016. Specifically, Secretary Tillerson asserted that “Bahrain must stop discrimination against the Shia communities,” referring the kingdom’s systematically marginalized Shia Muslim majority population.

Just this week, the State Department’s concerns were further confirmed when it was widely reported that the Bahraini authorities are interfering in the provision of medical care to Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, whose health has deteriorated to dangerous levels while under house arrest on unfounded charges. Moreover, the government has continued its campaign against independent civil society and political activists in recent weeks, confirming a prison sentence for prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, dissolving the last major opposition group, Wa’ad, and bringing new spurious charges against Sheikh Ali Salman, the imprisoned leader of the other major, already-dissolved opposition group.

 “The last time President Trump met with a Bahraini leader, the police proceeded to kill five protesters and injure hundreds more in the country’s bloodiest day in over a decade,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s executive director. “Now, in that same village of Diraz, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia community is under house arrest in extremely poor health, fearing forced deportation because the government arbitrarily revoked his citizenship. Yet President Trump appears to be accepting the billions Bahrain is ‘throwing about’ as a down-payment on US acquiescence, taking the US down a dark path of even deeper unconditional US-Bahrain security cooperation. If President Trump doesn’t impress upon the Crown Prince that the US will not stand for such blatant religious discrimination and human rights abuse, his administration will be complicit in whatever brutal repression comes next.”

This is the second high-profile Bahraini delegation to Washington this year, following a July visit from the Minister of Interior, Lt. General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, where he met with then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain, among other officials. Lt. General Sheikh Rashid’s son, Sheikh Abdullah, became the new Bahraini ambassador to the US earlier this year. Both are implicated in human rights violations, with Lt. General Sheikh Rashid leading the government’s crackdown as head of the MOI police forces.

Human rights are inseparable from America’s core interest in a secure and stable Bahrain, and President Trump is publicly abandoning these goals. In the absence of human rights issues raised during strategic high level dialogue, it is likely the Bahraini authorities will continue to view their domestic repression as being carried out with US support – if not directly with American arms and equipment. If the president is incapable or unwilling, Congress must persistently make clear its concerns over Bahrain’s human rights crisis, starting with an immediate arms hold pending reforms, in the interest of stability and security of this major US ally.