Bahrain may appear a relatively stable Western ally in a critically important region of the world there is a dark cloud hanging over the small island kingdom.
The peaceful protests in Bahrain that were once prevalent during the beginning of the country’s version of the “Arab Spring” have succumbed to a dangerous mix of arrests, flimsy prosecutions, indefinite detention, torture and violence. A significant part of this is fueled by the Bahraini monarchy’s refusal to enact political reforms, much to the chagrin of international human rights activists. Recommendations to enhance the power of the legislature and prosecute senior security officials who are suspected of abuse have been largely ignored.
Instead of more freedom to speak and a political order that is more accountable to Bahrain’s people, what the country’s residents have faced is a deeper and more systemic crackdown on their activities.
In October, all protest gatherings were decreed to be illegal. The government has since ramped up arrests and thrown ordinary citizens in prison for “hurting Bahraini unity and solidarity.” Some of the very civil rights activists that were released from prison have been arrested and convicted again.
The United States government, Bahrain’s biggest patron outside the Middle East, has been mostly quiet despite these abuses. Policymakers have spoken out publicly against the situation in the kingdom on occasion but only when high-profile figures were convicted on questionable grounds in Bahraini courts. The Obama Administration also condemned Bahrain when it banned all protests. “The decision to curb these rights is contrary to Bahrain’s professed commitment to reform and it will not help advance the national reconciliation nor build trust among all parties,” said a spokesman for the State Department.
Public remarks cannot be Washington’s only pressure valve. Criminalizing public demonstrations has the effect of silencing all peaceful avenues of dissent. With no way to voice their anger in a legitimate way, Bahrainis may take it upon themselves to exercise more confrontation toward their authorities. Police officers have already been killed from firebombs and homemade explosives. The casualties could get a lot worse if the order to block peaceful assembly remains in place over an indefinite period of time.