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(Washington, DC) - The Obama administration’s decision to move forward on a $1 million arms sale to Bahrain sends the wrong signal to a country that is engaged in serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Bahrain has made many promises to cease abuses and hold officials accountable, but it hasn’t delivered,” said Maria McFarland, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Protesters remain jailed on criminal charges for peacefully speaking out and there has been little accountability for torture and killings – crimes in which the Bahrain Defense Force is implicated.”

In a January 27, 2012 statement, the State Department announced that it intended to go forward with the sale of approximately $1 million of equipment to Bahrain while maintaining “a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.” The State Department asserted that the equipment included spare parts and maintenance of equipment needed for Bahrain’s external defense and support of US Navy Fifth Fleet operations and that it did not include items that could be used against protesters. But the State Department has not made public a full list of the equipment to be sold.

In September 2011, the United States delayed a US$53 million arms sale to Bahrain after human rights groups and members of Congress sharply criticized the sale because of the ongoing abuses against protesters and others perceived as government opponents in Bahrain. The Bahrain Defense Force – the intended recipient of the arms sale – was in charge of the comprehensive crackdown on largely peaceful protests during 2011.

In December, Mark Toner, a State Department representative, stated that the United States would weigh human rights concerns as it made decisions on arms sales. He said the US would, in particular, monitor Bahrain’s response to a November 23 report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which found systematic abuses in Bahrain’s crackdown on protesters, including torture and widespread detention of activists and peaceful protesters.

More than two months since the BICI released its report, however, Bahrain has done little to seriously address accountability for the documented abuses. Low-level Pakistani prison guards are on trial for beating prisoners to death, and several policemen are facing trial in the shooting deaths of three protesters. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, though, only one Bahraini security official faces prosecution – for a horrific killing that Human Rights Watch documented at the time.

There have been no known investigations into the roles of officials in the Interior Ministry, the National Security Agency, or the Bahrain Defense Force for policies that led to the deaths of scores of people, widespread torture, and arbitrary detention of hundreds.

The human rights situation in Bahrain remains serious. At least a half dozen people have died since the BICI report was released in protest-related confrontations with authorities, in most cases apparently from excessive use of teargas. Protesters allege that the number of fatalities is 16. The government claims these deaths have been from natural causes.

Bahrain continues to hold hundreds of people convicted after unfair trials, most of them in connection with alleged “illegal gatherings” and “inciting hatred against the regime.” Bahraini authorities are refusing to allow international human rights organizations to visit the country.

The government says it has established a domestic committee to look into implementation of the recommendations of the BICI report that will complete its work by the end of February.

“Bahrain’s failure to take immediate steps to reform – for example, by releasing political prisoners and investigating ranking security officials – raises real doubts about its commitment to addressing the serious abuses documented in the BICI report,” McFarland said. “Washington should hold off on arms sales until Bahrain shows it is serious about addressing the country’s human rights crisis.” 

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