Hearing Session in Congress Criticizes Bahraini Government’s “Sectarian Policies” & Calls on US to Use Concrete Measures
2016-09-11 - 8:51 p
Bahrain Mirror- Exclusive: The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress (TLHRC) held a hearing on Friday (September 9, 2016) to examine the US government's response to the human rights crisis in Bahrain.
The session included testimonies to each of Brian Dooley, Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First (HRF); Matar Matar, a former MP of the Bahraini government; Sarah Margon, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Cole Bokenfeld, Deputy Director of Policy at Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). This was the fourth hearing held on the human rights situation in Bahrain since 2010.
Congressman James P. McGovern opened the hearing by expression his regret that no one from the US State Department was available to attend the hearing. He indicated that last year's efforts at reform in Bahrain have stalled, highlighting the government's suspension of attempts at national dialogue, the Bahraini government's failure to fully implement the recommendations from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, the dissolution of Al-Wefaq, and the revocation of citizenship for prominent Shia clerics. Rep. McGovern expressed concern over the recent deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain, arguing U.S. government to use its leverage to undertake concrete measures to help improve the human rights situation in Bahrain.
For his part, Brian Dooley of Human Rights First began his testimony by condemning the denial of entry for journalists and human rights organizations, in addition to Rep. McGovern. Dooley subsequently highlighted the discrimination against the Shia majority in Bahrain, including their exclusions from key areas of the government and security forces. Dooley then highlighted the case of Dr. Ali Al-Ekri, a medic arrested by the Bahraini Defense Forces during the 2011 uprising, beaten and forced to eat feces. "No senior military official has been held accountable for the torture or other human rights violations committed by the military," he added. Addressing the alleged Iranian interference in Bahrain, he argued that removing Iran from the equation does not solve Bahrain's problems of unrest and instability. Dooley ended his testimony by condemning the US government's decision to lift the restrictions on selling arms to the Bahrain military, deeming it a "significant mistake."
The former Bahraini MP Matar Matar stressed that statements issued by the US government are not enough and that the US government needs to tackle the deterioration in Bahrain more seriously. He also shed the light on the pro-democracy movement and the extraordinary roles played by people like Sheikh Isa Qassim and Nabeel Rajab in order to protect Bahrain from moving toward sectarianism and violence.
Matar further stated that the sectarianism witnessed in Bahrain today stems from sectarian policies carried out by the Bahraini government against the Shia majority and that members of the Sunni minority would face harsher treatment, adding that they should speak out against the Bahraini authorities.
The former MP stressed that Bahrain's stability is built on sectarian policies and persecution, policies against Shia, blackmailing of Sunnis and the human trafficking of Southeast Asian migrants. Matar summed up saying that the efforts should focus on how the Bahraini government can be prevented from making use of its relationship with the US against its own people.
Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch gave testimony focusing on the lack of space for civil society to function in Bahrain. She indicated that Nabeel Rajab is in prison over tweets he posted and that faces new charges based on the publication of an op-ed in the New York Times that he wrote while in prison. Many other political activists and human rights defenders continue to remain in prison over their pro-democracy initiatives. Margon called on the United States to evaluate the recent Parliamentary elections in Bahrain through numbers because the gerrymandering of many of districts gave Sunni votes more weight than Shia votes.
She stressed the Government of Bahrain uses sectarianism to divide the Bahraini community, which will lead to extremism. It is in the US government's best interest to urge the Bahraini government to allow that civil society space to open up and allow for political reform.
Margon urged the US to use its influence to pressure for human rights reform and to support a joint statement at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council. She also call on Bahrain to immediately cease all harassment of human rights defenders and political activists and to release those who have been imprisoned for exercising their basic human rights.
Cole Bockenfeld of POMED focused on the importance of the 26 recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which the King of Bahrain fully accepted in 2011. Mr. Bockenfeld demanded US to use the BICI recommendations as a launching point to hold the Bahraini government accountable.
Mr. Bockenfeld called on US to reinstate the ban on arms sales to Bahrain until it implements all 26 recommendations. He said that Bahraini officials who committed gross human rights violations should be denied visas. At the end of his testimony, Mr. Bockenfeld called on the State Department to issue an updated assessment of the 26 BICI recommendations by clearly outlining the status of each.
Rep. McGovern and all of the panelists agreed that a tangible next step would be to draft a list of Bahraini officials known to have committed human rights abuses who should be prevented from entering the United States.
All panelists agreed that in conjunction to the strong statements issued by the US State Department, the administration must be express its concerns regarding the escalating situation more publically.
Experts agreed that the situation in Bahrain is becoming increasingly dangerous, as the space for peaceful dissent has almost disappeared given the continuous crackdown on civil society.
Panelists agreed that the United States must hold the Bahraini government accountable because it is in the interests of both the United States and the people of Bahrain.
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