15 January 2019 – On 8 January 2019, United States (US) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a week-long trip to the Middle East and Arab Gulf, where he met with various leaders and high-level officials to discuss critical regional issues. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is deeply disappointed with the lack of public attention given to the issue of human rights in Bahrain during the Secretary’s meetings with Bahraini officials. Additionally, ADHRB is concerned that Secretary Pompeo did not make an effort to meet with human rights defenders and members of the political opposition during his time in the kingdom.
On Friday, 11 January 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo arrived in Bahrain – the fourth stop in his Mideast tour. He met with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in Manama. According to the State Department’s Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino, the leaders discussed “critical priorities, including counterterrorism, Yemen, and countering the Iranian regime’s dangerous activities.” The Secretary also expressed his gratitude for “the role Bahrain plays, particularly through hosting the United States Fifth Fleet, and in supporting a variety of regional priorities.”
During Secretary Pompeo’s meetings with Bahraini leaders, he failed to address any human rights concerns, including the imprisonment of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab for tweets critical of the government or the life sentence handed to political leader Sheikh Ali Salman on the basis of arbitrary charges – both of which the State Department has previously condemned. Instead, Secretary Pompeo undeservingly praised the Bahraini Government for its support for religious coexistence and freedom of religion, and the conclusion of parliamentary elections.
Bahrain, which is run by a Sunni ruling family, systematically discriminates against its Shia majority population. The State Department’s own most recent Religious Freedom Report noted that the Bahraini government continues to “question, detain, and arrest clerics, community members, and opposition politicians associated with the Shia community.” This past Ashura, a prominent holy day for Muslims and particularly the Shia Muslim community, there were reports that at least 15 Shia religious figures were harassed, interrogated, or taken into custody in the span of one week. Additionally, since 2012 over 800 Bahrainis have had their citizenship revoked – the majority of them being Shia.
The parliamentary elections held in Bahrain this past November, which Secretary Pompeo praised during his visit, were neither free nor fair, and garnered a significant amount of international criticism. Prior to the elections, members of the US Congress, the European Parliament, and the UK, Irish and Italian Parliaments, raised concerns regarding the political environment in Bahrain ahead of elections. Following the elections, a German Green Party spokesman even called them a ‘farce.’ The opposition was effectively banned from fully participating in the elections. All of the major opposition societies remained forcibly dissolved and new legislation banned anyone who had belonged to one of these political groups from ever seeking elected office. Additionally, the elections had no independent election monitors or observers, and historically, the gerrymandering of electoral districts in Bahrain has diluted the influence of Bahrain’s Shia majority population.
“Secretary Pompeo wasted a very important opportunity to raise concerns surrounding the deteriorating situation of human rights in Bahrain during his visit to the kingdom. The US must stop turning a blind eye to the ongoing abuses,” says Executive Director of ADHRB, Husain Abdulla. “Secretary Pompeo has let down Bahraini civil society, who have been suffering under a repressive government, by not calling on high-level Bahraini officials and the Bahraini government to uphold their human rights obligations.”
It is concerning that Secretary Pompeo made no mention of human rights, and solely focused on discussions of security and cooperation, when meeting with Bahraini officials. Human rights should be considered a key pillar in establishing security and stability in the region. ADHRB calls on the US government, the State Department, and Secretary Pompeo to not let Bahrain’s human rights violations go unnoticed and to urge the kingdom of Bahrain to take concrete measured to improve the human rights situation in the country.