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Rights groups urge US to restrict arms sales to Bahrain, promote human rights

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 15 organisations say Bahrain's rulers have become 'emboldened' by international silence
Bahraini anti-government protesters hold signs calling for freedom and change as they gather at Pearl Square in Manama on 16 February 2011.
Bahraini anti-government protesters hold signs calling for freedom and change as they gather at Pearl Square in Manama on 16 February 2011 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

More than a dozen rights groups have urged the Biden administration to restrict arms sales to Bahrain and pressure the Gulf monarchy to introduce reforms and address the "severe deterioration of human rights" there.

In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, 15 groups urged Washington to pressure Manama over its ban on opposition political parties and independent media, and demand an "end [to] the use of torture and other ill-treatment".

"Last December, you noted that '[i]n too many countries, people are imprisoned and face torture or death for speaking their minds, reporting the news, or demanding their rights'," the letter said.

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"This statement sadly reflects the situation in Bahrain over the last four years, where human rights defenders and political activists have borne the full brunt of political repression.

"The Biden administration should urge Bahrain to rescind restrictions on civil society, take genuine steps towards justice reform and the restoration of civil rights and reinstate restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain pending an improvement in the country's rights record."

The letter was signed by 15 groups including the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD); Amnesty International; Freedom House; the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

"Until US policy in Bahrain focuses on resolving the consequences of 2011 and pushing for democratic reform, the political crisis in the country will remain unresolved," Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at BIRD, said in a statement.

The State Department did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment by the time of this article's publication.

Bahrain's crackdown

Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which saw pro-democracy demonstrators take to the streets of the Gulf nation, the Sunni monarchy has launched a comprehensive crackdown on opposition groups and human rights activists.

A recent report compiled by the London-based BIRD rights group said at least 51 people had been sentenced to death since 2011, with leaders of the protest movement languishing in prison despite promises from the country's leadership to enact reforms.

The letter notes that the crackdown reached new heights under former US President Donald Trump, with "Bahrain's rulers 'emboldened' by President Trump's public disdain for international human rights norms".

In 2017 Trump said, "there won't be strain with this administration" when it came to US-Bahrain ties. His administration reportedly sold $8.5bn worth of arms to Bahrain, the rights groups said in their letter, and abandoned human rights conditions on selling arms to Manama put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama.

With US President Joe Biden recently announcing that Washington would end support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the groups urged the administration to pressure Manama over its dismal human rights record.

"We hope that your administration will ensure that human rights are once again placed at the center of US foreign policy in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region," the letter said.

In January, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, a signatory to Wednesday's effort, sent a similar letter to Biden.

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