(Washington, DC) – The United States should delay a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful critics of the ruling family and takes meaningful steps toward accountability for serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today.
The US Defense Department notified Congress on September 14, 2011, of a proposed sale of armored Humvees and missiles to Bahrain worth US$53 million. The sale would appear to be the first since the start of Bahrain’s crackdown on protests earlier this year.
“This is exactly the wrong move after Bahrain brutally suppressed protests and is carrying out a relentless campaign of retribution against its critics,” said Maria McFarland, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “It will be hard for people to take US statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons.”
The proposed arms sale would, according to the notification from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, include 44 “Armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs),” wire-guided and other missiles and launchers, as well as related equipment and training.
In mid-February, on the tenth anniversary of King Hamad Al Khalifa’s major political reform proposal and following uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrainis took to the streets in massive numbers demanding democratic reform. The government initially responded by opening fire on peaceful protesters, killing seven and wounding hundreds. In mid-March, after several weeks of continuing protests, the government declared a “state of national safety.”
In the ensuing fierce crackdown, more than 20 people were killed by security forces, who arrested thousands. Authorities then initiated a large-scale campaign of retribution in which more than 2,500 people were dismissed from their jobs, including teachers, medics, and other professionals. The special military court established under the decree has convicted more than 100 people, most of them for patently political offenses such as criticizing the ruling Al Khalifa family. Many of those detained have alleged that they were subjected to torture, and four people died in custody, apparently from torture and medical neglect. Leading political opposition figures have been sentenced to long prison terms, in some cases for life, solely for their role in organizing the large street protests; their trial record does not link them in any way to acts of violence or any other recognizable criminal offense.
In recent months, the government has agreed to an independent international commission of inquiry that is now looking into the abuses and has allowed some rallies by the main opposition party, but it continues to use the special military courts to try and convict suspected critics.
The government has prevented Human Rights Watch from visiting the country since mid-April, and tightly restricts access for journalists and other rights groups.
The Defense Department notification states the sale will contribute to US foreign policy and national security “by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”
The United States has a close military relationship with Bahrain, where the US Navy’s 5th Fleet is based, and its criticism of human rights abuses there has been more muted than in the cases of Syria, Libya, and Egypt.
US officials have called for dialogue in Bahrain and stated that violence was “not the answer,” and in May, President Barack Obama condemned “mass arrests and brute force” by the Bahraini government. In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, however, Obama stopped noticeably short of criticizing the extensive and serious Bahraini human rights violations, claiming that Bahrain had taken steps toward reform and accountability, and noting only that “more are required.”
“In fact Bahrain has taken no meaningful steps toward accountability,” McFarland said. “And Bahrain’s rulers will have little reason to really reform so long as their main international ally resumes arms sales as if the situation were back to normal.”