Trump Administration Approves new Arms Sales to Bahrain Despite Military Abuses

1 May 2018 – On 27 April 2018, the United States (US) Department of State approved a potential new sale of attack helicopters and munitions to Bahrain’s military worth approximately $911.4 million. The decision came just two days after a Bahraini military court upheld death sentences for civilian detainees after an unfair trial marred by reports of torture, enforced disappearance, and other due process violations.  If the sale goes through, it will add to the nearly $4 billion arms package notified for Bahrain in 2017, following the Trump Administration’s move to strip human rights conditions from existing deals with the kingdom. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) deplores the Trump Administration’s decision to authorize another unconditional arms deal to the Bahraini military amid these blatant rights abuses, and we call on Congress to urgently block the sale before the kingdom becomes further empowered to intensify ongoing repressive measures.

As indicated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) at the Department of Defense, the State Department has notified Congress of its intent to sell the Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) 12 AH-1Z attack helicopters; 26 engines; 14 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles; 56 Advance Precision Kill Weapon System II WGU-59Bs; and 12 M197 20mm gun systems, among other equipment and services. The Texas-based Bell Helicopter, which served as a “Platinum Sponsor” of Bahrain’s first annual defense expo last year, will be the primary contractor for the new sale along with General Electric Company. Congress now has 30 days to review the sale before the administration can move to conclude the deal.

The DSCA claims that the sale “will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major Non-NATO ally which is an important security partner in the region,” and that “Bahrain will use this capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense.” However, since 2015, when the RBAF carried out limited strikes against ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or Daesh) targets in Iraq, the only conflict it has been actively involved in is the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in Yemen. Rather than positively “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States,” the Saudi coalition’s air campaign has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, empowered extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida, and directly implicated the US in war crimes. American support for the war has become so counterproductive that Congress has nearly voted to withdraw US assistance to the coalition altogether.

Domestically, the Bahraini military – known collectively as the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) – has resumed an active role in domestic repression. In April 2017, the government amended the constitution and the Military Judiciary Law to allow military courts to try civilians accused of national security offenses, which include charges that violate free expression and criminalize criticism of the authorities. By the end of the year, the BDF convicted 13 men in the first military trial of civilians since 2011, when temporary National Safety Courts were used to imprison demonstrators, human rights defenders, and pro-democracy activists leading Bahrain’s Arab Spring protest movement. Individuals prosecuted by the military are held in BDF facilities like the Al-Qurain Military Prison, and defendants have reported being subjected to enforced disappearance, incommunicado detention, and torture in military custody. Despite evidence of abuse, the highest military court confirmed the ruling on 25 April 2018 and, while the king chose to commute four of the six death sentences issued by the BDF to life imprisonment, he ultimately ratified the outcome of the trial.

Eighty-five percent of the BDF’s armaments are of American origin, and when it decided to use these weapons to violently suppress Bahrain’s 2011 protest movement, the US government rightly suspended further arms sales. In 2015, former President Barack Obama lifted most of these restrictions, citing nominal reforms that the Bahraini authorities would soon reverse. More broadly, the lifting of military arms holds suggested that it had become less problematic to support the BDF because it was removed from domestic policing, unlike the Ministry of Interior security forces which remain subject to informal arms holds. Still, the Obama Administration sought to limit US liability for abuses and continued to use individual arms packages as leverage to encourage reform, ultimately imposing human rights restrictions on a multi-billion-dollar sale of F-16 combat aircraft to the RBAF. But by September 2017 – as the BDF was returning to a direct role in domestic repression for the first time since 2011 – the new Trump Administration abandoned even these limitations. It has declined to offer any new justification reconciling this dangerous departure from an established human rights and security policy position on Bahrain.

It is also deeply disappointing to see the State Department approve a major new sale to the BDF days after documenting the worsening situation in Bahrain with its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The State Department found evidence of systematic abuses in Bahrain, ranging from widespread arbitrary detention to religious discrimination, and it expressed specific concern about the culture of impunity for security officials responsible for human rights violations. Yet its decision to follow this reporting with a new weapons deal for the BDF directly contributes to the problem of impunity, underscoring a glaring incongruity between American rhetoric and action on the kingdom that undermines US interests in a secure and stable Bahrain.

It is simply absurd that the Trump Administration has decided to effectively reward the Bahraini military for violating international law – right after the State Department itself reported on a widespread human rights crisis in Bahrain, said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. Such blatant contradictions in US policy would almost be laughable if they weren’t so damaging. It is extremely worrying to hear the US government say that new weapons will contribute to Bahrain’s ‘homeland defense,’ because last week the Bahraini military demonstrated that this means locking up victims of gross human rights violations.

New unconditional arms deals send a signal that the US approves of military trials, torture, enforced disappearance, and other due process violations in Bahrain. They directly implicate the US in further abuses committed by the BDF, and they encourage the Bahraini government to continue down the repressive path just criticized by the State Department’s country report. ADHRB unequivocally condemns the Trump Administration’s decision and urges Congress to immediately step in to restrict the sale and push for reform in Bahrain.