Protesters holding photos of Bahrain's main opposition leader Ali Salman march during an anti-government protest in the village of Diraz, west of Manama, Bahrain on June 12, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

(Washington) – The Obama administration’s announcement on June 29, 2015, that it will lift restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain is based on a seriously flawed assessment of Bahrain’s human rights situation.

The US decision comes less than two weeks after a Bahrain court sentenced the country’s highest-profile opposition figure, Sheikh Ali Salman, to four years in jail solely for public remarks criticizing the government. Salman is the secretary general of Al Wifaq, the country’s largest legally recognized opposition political society. On May 14, another court upheld the six-month prison sentence for a leading human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, for causing offense to national institutions in comments on social media. The administration had earlier called for the release of both Salman and Rajab. On June 30, authorities called in another Al Wifaq leader, Khalil al-Marzooq, for questioning about critical remarks he made at a public meeting a few days earlier. On July 1, authorities arrested another board member of Al Wifaq, Majeed Milad. At time of writing, it was not clear what charges Milad faces.

After making the right call to press for the release of high-profile prisoners, the Obama administration’s decision to resume arms sales will only encourage Bahraini authorities’ unrelenting repression. This is a clear case of wrong actions speaking louder than the right words. The Bahrainis needed to help resolve the country’s acute crisis are languishing in jail.

Sarah Margon

Washington director


“After making the right call to press for the release of high-profile prisoners, the Obama administration’s decision to resume arms sales will only encourage Bahraini authorities’ unrelenting repression,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director. “This is a clear case of wrong actions speaking louder than the right words. The Bahrainis needed to help resolve the country’s acute crisis are languishing in jail.”

In September 2011, the United States delayed a US$53 million arms sale to Bahrain after human rights groups and some members of Congress sharply criticized the sale following the Bahraini authorities’ fierce repression of mainly peaceful mass demonstrations earlier in the year. In January 2012, 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.”

In its June 29 announcement, the State Department acknowledged that the human rights situation in Bahrain is not “adequate,” but said Bahrain “has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms.” The statement also cited the release of some unnamed prisoners charged with crimes related to their political association and expression as evidence of steps that “contribute to an environment more conducive to reconciliation and progress.” The statement referred to Bahrain’s status as “an important and long-standing ally on regional security issues” and its support for the US campaign against the extremist armed group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The US maintains a large naval base in Bahrain, home port to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

The claim of “meaningful progress” contrasts markedly with the conclusions of the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report chapter on Bahrain, released on June 25. According to that report, “The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ limited ability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters (some of whom were violent) on vague charges, occasionally leading to their torture and mistreatment in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, students, and journalists, including harsh sentences.”

In its June 29 statement, the State Department also asserted that the Bahrain government has implemented many of the key recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which looked into unlawful killings, torture, and other serious abuses of protesters during the 2011 demonstrations. This ignores Bahrain’s refusal to address the commission’s two most important recommendations. In its own 2013 assessment of Bahrain’s implementation of the BICI report, the State Department concluded that the government had “not taken meaningful steps” to implement the recommendations to conduct effective investigations into deaths attributed to the security forces and to drop all charges relating to political expression.

But two years later, Bahrain has yet to hold any senior officials to account for the serious human rights violations of 2011 and it has released only one of 13 high-profile opposition political leaders jailed solely on account of their exercise of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression. Authorities released Ibrahim Sharif, the secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society, on June 19, but only after he had served four years and three months of a five-year sentence. He had been eligible for release in January under article 349 of Bahrain’s code of criminal procedure.

“Whatever the real reasons for reviving these arms sales, it’s clear that the decision has not been taken in the interest of the people of Bahrain,” Margon said. “The prospect of reform and human rights improvements are now further away than ever.”