With the world watching other Middle East hotspots, the country's monarchy has continued suppressing anti-authoritarian dissidents -- and the White House has let it happen.
Of the half dozen Arab states that were shaken by popular demands for democracy when the Arab Spring erupted two years ago, Bahrain is the easiest to forget. In sharp contrast to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen -- where dictators were toppled -- (or even Syria, with its ongoing civil war), Bahrain's authoritarian monarchy has crushed the democratic opposition. Of the six countries gripped by revolutionary fervor, Bahrain is the smallest in size and population, with most of its 1.3 million people (nearly half of them non-citizens) crowded onto an arid, largely barren island about a third the size of Rhode Island. It is not nearly as rich as its small Gulf neighbors, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and its oil exports now rank a paltry 48th in the world. Among the states of the Arab Middle East, Bahrain may be the most dependent on a powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia -- which intervened militarily in March 2011 to rescue the besieged and deeply unpopular al-Khalifa monarchy.
But along with its mounting problems, Bahrain has a geostrategic trump card: location. Jutting out in the center of the Persian Gulf, less than 100 miles from Iran, it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the pillar of naval security in the region and an indispensable counterweight to Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony.
Thus, Bahrain is a major strategic ally of the United States. And so, the active mobilization into the streets of more than a quarter of Bahrain's entire citizenry became what Al Jazeera called "the Arab revolution that was abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West, and forgotten by the world."
Since Bahrainis first took to the streets on February 14, 2011 to demand revision of the constitution and a transition to democracy, the United States has faced an acute and painful instance of the classic tension between security interests and moral concerns. Deeply insecure over its minority status as a Sunni Muslim monarchy reigning over a Shia Muslim majority, the Al Khalifa regime responded to the peaceful protests at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama, with force. On "Bloody Thursday," February 17, King Hamad's security forces raided the protestors in the dead of night, killing four and injuring some 300.
Initially, the protestors had demanded "merely" freedom, democracy, and equality (which could have preserved the monarchy on a new constitutional basis, with limited powers). Even many Bahraini Sunnis (from outside the privileged royal elite) rallied to this campaign for accountability and justice. In particular, Bahrain's Shia majority was tired of living as second-class citizens, utterly marginalized in the distribution of power and wealth. The contrast between their hard-scrabble, high-density housing settlements and the extravagant grounds and palaces of the royal family had already been vividly documented. Five years earlier, Bahraini activists used Google Earth to display dozens of satellite images of royal properties, many of them private islands, replete with palaces, lavish swimming pools, lush gardens, yachts, and even a private golf course, race track, and hunting ground. Nevertheless, a power-sharing deal could probably have been worked out if the regime had responded to the 2011 protests with negotiations rather than repression. After all, King Hamad had assumed the throne in 1999 as something of a political reformer; he and his Crown Prince were said to remain inclined toward flexibility; and the formal architecture of an elected parliament had allowed the moderate Shia political society, Al Wefaq, to win 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house as recently as 2010.
If political reform and a negotiated settlement were an option when the protests broke out in February 2011, they were not so in the mind of the Saudi monarchy -- or its hardline Bahraini allies like the prime minister and the chief of the royal court. The Saudi regime is deeply anxious about stability in its own oil-rich Eastern Province, where most of its roughly three and half million Saudi Shia are located, and where the Shia form a population majority. For the House of Saud, the prospect of a Shia-dominated government in Bahrain must have raised the specter of escalating demands for equality and dignity from Saudi Arabia's own Shia minority.
Bahrain's Bloody Thursday cleared the Pearl Roundabout but only inflamed popular anger. Five days later, over 100,000 Bahrainis (nearly 15 percent of the indigenous population) took part in a march to honor the protestors who had been killed. As the protests escalated in size and intensity, King Hamad offered modest concessions, but too modest and too late. By then, Bahrain's aroused majority would settle for nothing less than a purely constitutional monarchy, and militants were calling for an end to the monarchy altogether. As protests escalated further in March 2011, the monarchy called upon the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council for assistance. In the early morning of March 17, 5,000 troops, backed up by tanks and helicopters, routed the demonstrators who had returned to the Pearl Roundabout. More than a thousand were arrested, including several leaders of the Haq Movement, which had split off from Wefaq in protest against the 2002 constitution and the latter's decision to participate in elections. Among the arrested Haq leaders were its head, Hassan Mushaima, and a mild-mannered engineering professor and human rights activist, Abduljalil al-Singace.
The March 17 crackdown dealt a devastating blow to popular aspirations for democracy in Bahrain, and marked a descent into new depths of repression. There followed a state of emergency, beatings of hospital patients, large-scale arrests of health workers, denial of medical care to the injured, new waves of arrests of peaceful dissenters, economic retribution, censorship of newspapers and social media, and police brutality so rampant that the BBC dubbed the country "an island of fear."
The above is the context in which Bahrain's highest appeal court confirmed on Monday the life sentences of seven Bahrainis accused of plotting against the government, including Mushaima, al-Singace, and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (and a dual Danish citizen), who staged a 110-day hunger strike after his arrest and torture in February of 2012.
The use of torture by Bahraini security services against detainees has been widespread and systematic, aimed at punishing, humiliating, and breaking the spirit of the protest leaders. On May 19, 2012, Abduljalil al-Singace released a harrowing 22-page statement detailing his mistreatment. To summarize: In the early morning of March 17, 2011, a group of masked men broke into his home, beat and blindfolded him, and took him forcibly to an unknown location without a warrant for his arrest. There, AJ (as he is known to his Western friends), along with thirteen fellow Shiite activists, was beaten, interrogated, and sexually abused while being held in a windowless 2-by-3 meter cell for roughly fifty days. During this period he was interrogated without legal representation or knowledge of his alleged crime. While he was being tortured with electric shocks and deprivation of food, water, and sleep, his oldest son was also imprisoned and interrogated. Partially paralyzed since birth, the elder al-Singace was denied basic health needs and forced to stand on his one working leg for hours without his crutches. Repeatedly, the authorities refused to let him carry out his Shiite prayer rituals and threatened to rape him, his daughters, and his wife. From my close personal knowledge of AJ (a modest and generous man who was a Draper Hills Summer Fellow at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law), I have no doubt that his allegations are true.
Human rights organizations have documented many other cases of this kind. So did the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established by the King on June 29, 2011 and composed of distinguished international figures. It found "systematic practice" of "torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse," as well as a "culture of impunity" for the perpetrators. While some of its recommendations for structural reform were formally adopted most remain to be implemented, despite continual appeals from U.S. and European officials for "dialogue, reconciliation and concrete reforms" (as Secretary of State Clinton put it two weeks before the BICI report was released on November 23, 2011).
Unfortunately, even after Monday's latest cynical charade of justice, Bahrain remains "forsaken by the West." The United States -- which has yet to react to Monday's final confirmation of the life sentences -- has from time to time issued statements of concern about arrests and convictions, but always couched in the politesse of a big power with bigger issues to address. The State Department's "Fact Sheet on U.S. Relations with Bahrain," last updated in August, trumpets Bahrain as "a vital U.S. partner in defense initiatives" and "a Major Non-NATO Ally" (formally so designated in 2002). Barely visible in this effusion is some gentle continuing language on the need for "reform and reconciliation."
It is an old story in the foreign policy of this, the world's most powerful democracy. We need a substantial security presence in the Persian Gulf now, as much as ever. But we do not need to buy in to the regime's false framing of this as a sectarian conflict pitting a loyal American ally against an Iranian fifth column. Neither should we underestimate the cards we hold. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are more directly threatened by Iran than we are, and they need the stabilizing presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet at least as much as we, the United States, perceive a national security interest in being there. As has so often been the case when interests collide with principles on the world stage, we retreat too quickly into cynicism, failing to exercise the full extent of our leverage.
The situation in Bahrain is not only deeply unjust; it is also unsustainable. Sooner or later a deeply aggrieved and enraged majority will erupt again, and when they do, their anger and profound disappointment will be directed at the United States as well. The AJ's of Bahrain were our natural partners in the quest for freedom in the Arab world, and we have failed them. We expected something better of Barack Obama after he declared in Cairo in June 2009 that freedom, democracy and the rule of law "are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere." In Bahrain, and in too much of the Arab world, those remain mere words.