Bahrain, one of America’s more repressive allies, tries to keep many journalists and human rights monitors out. I recently tried to slip in anyway.
The jig was up at the Bahrain airport when an immigration officer typed my name into his computer and then snapped to attention. “Go back over there and sit down,” he said, looking at me in horror and keeping my passport. “We’ll call you.”
The Sunni monarchy in Bahrain doesn’t want witnesses as it tightens its chokehold over a largely Shiite population. Almost every evening, there are clashes between the police and protesters, with both sides growing more enraged and violent.
Around 100 people have been killed since Arab Spring protests began in Bahrain in February 2011. I was in Bahrain then as troops opened fire without warning on unarmed protesters who were chanting “peaceful, peaceful.”
The oppression has sometimes been nothing short of savage. Police clubbed a distinguished surgeon, Sadiq al-Ekri, into a coma — because he tried to provide medical aid to injured protesters. By all accounts, torture has been common.
In the larger scheme of things, Bahrain is a tiny country and maybe doesn’t matter much to the United States. What nags at me is that this is a close American ally — assaulting people in some cases with American equipment — yet the Obama administration mostly averts its eyes. This is a case not just of brutal repression, but also of American hypocrisy.
After that initial crackdown in 2011, the king commissioned a blunt outside report, and the Obama administration hoped that the country would ease up under the more open-minded crown prince. That hope is collapsing, and Bahrain is now clamping down more tightly.
“The human rights situation in Bahrain has markedly deteriorated over recent months, with repressive practices increasingly entrenched,” Amnesty International noted in a recent report on Bahrain. It concluded: “the reform process has been shelved and repression unleashed.”
The crackdown has, in turn, hardened the opposition, which increasingly turns to Molotov cocktails, rocks and other weapons to confront the authorities. Moderates on both sides are being marginalized.
This is a tragic turn for Bahrain, which traditionally was a lovely oasis of prosperity, moderation and toleration. Astonishingly, the country’s ambassador to Washington is actually a woman from Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community.
But the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, can blame himself for the escalation of violence. He has imprisoned leading advocates of peaceful resistance, like Nabeel Rajab, the globally respected president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. My take is that the regime intentionally jails peaceful moderates so as to leave the protest movement in the hands of young men who discredit it by throwing firebombs — and thus create a justification for repression.
On my last visit to Bahrain, I profiled Zainab al-Khawaja, a dynamic young woman with perfect English who studied Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tries to apply their methods. She is exactly the kind of opposition leader Bahrain needs, firing off Twitter messages rather than rocks, but in an e-mail to me a month ago she lamented: “It’s becoming very hard to even tweet about violations in Bahrain.”
She was prescient: Now she has been imprisoned as well.
“The reason the regime goes after them is because people like Zainab and Nabeel represent a force that they cannot deal with,” said Maryam al-Khawaja, Zainab’s sister, who is now in exile. “They stand firm despite the violence. They continue to protest, and they refuse to use violence. This encourages others to do the same. It’s easier for the regime when protesters use things like Molotov cocktails.”
The Obama administration initially spoke out against the crackdown but has since been “inconsistent and muted,” notes Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. “This has been horribly frustrating for human rights activists in Bahrain hoping that the U.S. would support their push for democracy,” he added.
President Obama pulls his punches partly because the United States bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and partly because Saudi Arabia insistently backs the repression in Bahrain. The security considerations are real, but, to me, this feels like an echo of Egypt: the United States curries favor with a dictator and ignores public yearning for change. The upshot is extremism, instability and anti-Americanism.
At the airport, an immigration officer eventually approached and told me: “Your name is on a list. You cannot be admitted.” There’s no negotiating with a blacklist, and early the next morning I was deported to Dubai.
Government officials treated me respectfully, and I never felt in danger. It’s different if you’re Bahraini. On the day I arrived, police arrested perhaps the last Bahraini human rights activist still at large, Said Yousif al-Muhafdah, after he posted a photo on Twitter of a protester whom police had shot with shotgun pellets. Muhafdah is charged with “disseminating false information through Twitter.” The downward spiral continues.
By Nicholas D. Kristof