Human Rights Groups Urge Incoming Biden Administration To Review U.S. Policy Towards Bahrain

In December, several human rights groups wrote a letter to the incoming Biden administration requesting changes in U.S. foreign policy to Bahrain. 18 organizations, including Americans for Democracy and Human Rights and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, provided a blueprint on how to mitigate violence in Bahrain. According to Al Jazeera, the letter references Bahrain’s peaceful 2011 Arab Spring uprising, where thousands of protestors demanded democratic reform. However, the movement was quickly suppressed by the oppressive Al Khalifa regime in a “barrage of human rights violations followed by the imposition of draconian measures.” Concluding the letter, the organizations detail specific foreign policy recommendations, which include the release of wrongly imprisoned political opposition figures, compensation for victims of government abuse, and punishment for officials who have committed human-rights related crimes. Additionally, it was reported that the signatories want a smooth restoration of “Obama-era human rights conditions on any arms sales or military support to Bahrain and make continued military support for Bahrain contingent on democratization.”

For many years, Bahrain has dealt with significant acts of violence and social injustice. A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the country’s continuous violations of individual freedoms. The government has banned all independent media, disbanded political opposition groups and thwarted online criticism of the Kingdom. Many of the report’s concerns tie into the requests made in the recent letter to the Biden transition team. According to HRW, “authorities continue to arrest, convict and harass prominent human rights defenders, journalists and opposition leaders.”

Between June 2018 and May 2019, at least 21 people were arrested for their online activity, and 39 more have been detained since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Authors of the letter also shed light on the increased use of the death penalty in Bahrain. Al Jazeera reports that 27 individuals are on death row, 25 of whom have imminent executions. Almost half of the convicts supposedly confessed after they were tortured. HRW’s Bahrain division also notes the Kingdom’s failures to investigate policer officers and prison guards who may have committed illegal acts of torture. In August of 2019, inmates at Juw Prison and Dry Dock Detention Center began a hunger strike to protest unethical living conditions, such as long stays in “isolation.” The letter to President-elect Biden also points out poor sanitation, religious discrimination and widespread medical negligence that occurs in Bahrain’s prisons.

The head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, received a five-year sentence in December 2018 for his tweets criticizing the government. The Court of Cassation condemned Rajab to imprisonment until 2023, and he is not the only activist who has been subject to discrimination for voicing their opinions. In 2019, Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Al-Wefaq (Bahrain’s former largest opposition political organization), was sentenced to life in prison for supposedly spying for Qatar. Not only have Bahraini courts been imprisoning political activists, but also stripping individuals of citizenship for minor infractions. The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy reported that 180 persons lost citizenship within a four-month period in 2019, due to offenses regarding “terrorism,” “national security,” and “offending the country.” Though Bahrain reformed harsh citizenship revocation laws and reinstated citizenship to many individuals, close to 300 people remain without their original Bahraini nationality.

The letter’s signatory organizations addressed several other human rights violations amidst the pandemic. For example, Al Jazeera refers to the “grave vulnerability” of older political leaders who fight the current oppressive regime. COVID-19 has made progressive activism particularly difficult among higher risk, older individuals.

The authors clearly emphasize necessary policy reforms which should be considered by the U.S. and the international community as a whole. Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain argues that “establishing democracy, rule of law, and the end of systematic human rights violations need to be at the top of the agenda when it comes to US-Bahrain relations. He makes clear that “business as usual” is no longer enough to preserve peace in Bahrain. With the coming transfer of power to President-elect Biden from the Trump administration, perhaps American foreign policy will adjust to address Bahrain’s human rights violations.