April 11, 2011

The United States has struggled to balance human rights principles and strategic concerns in responding to protests across the Middle East, from Tunisia to Iran. Too often, it has been behind the curve.

Principles have been given short shrift in Bahrain, home port of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Its Sunni-led monarchy, backed by Saudi tanks, has cracked down on largely peaceful protests by the country's Shiite majority - to a muted U.S. response.

President Barack Obama calls Syria's response to its protesters "abhorrent," but he loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain. He is apparently conceding to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers seem determined to stamp out any uncontrollable democracy -one perhaps under Iranian influence - in the neighborhood.

The Obama administration must do all it can so that the people protesting for freedom do not view Washington as the monarchy's enabler, particularly because the monarchy is losing legitimacy with a majority of its people.

Washington should speak out, making clear that U.S. military and other cooperation can't continue in the face of Bahrain's brutal police-state tactics.

Bahrain has marketed itself as a "constitutional monarchy" for the past decade. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa instituted important reforms after assuming power in 1999. In recent years, however, his government has imposed increasing restrictions on civil society - and revived use of torture.

The Shiite population complains, justifiably, about pervasive discrimination. For example, Shiites are barred from the military and the security services, while the government relies on foreign recruits.

The king has also gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure that candidates representing Shiite areas can never achieve a majority in Bahrain's advisory parliament.

In August 2010, the government arrested many prominent dissidents and hundreds of others on trumped-up terrorism charges. Allegations of torture emerged, and some defendants displayed wounds in court they said resulted from abuse while in custody. The government also dissolved a human-rights group and blocked opposition party websites.

I have interviewed many of those arrested. They regularly asked why Washington had not taken a public stand against these repressive tactics. Their questions did not reflect anti-Americanism - rather a sense of abandonment. "No one will help us now," one activist said. "We're alone."

This February, against the backdrop of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrainis took to the streets, peacefully demanding meaningful political participation. Security forces killed at least seven protesters and wounded hundreds more.

After Washington expressed public concern - and Obama contacted Hamad directly - the government withdrew its forces. The king called for a "national dialogue."

Though back-channel discussions ensued, there were no formal meetings. Authorities allowed demonstrations to continue for a time, but on March 15, after Saudi intervention, martial law was declared and continues.

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer in private practice in New York, is a consultant for Human Rights Watch.

More reporting on: