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.