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Panel in US Congress on 6th Anniversary of Bahrainís Pro-Democracy Uprising: Trumpís Administration & Bahrainís Support

2017-03-03 - 10:59 p

Bahrain Mirror- Exclusive: The Office of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) hosted a panel at the Russell US Senate Office Building on the sixth anniversary of Bahrain's pro-democracy uprising.

The panel was held on 14 February 2017, under the title of "Recommendations for reform: How can the US diminish destabilization in Bahrain?" Panelists included Maryam al-Khawaja, Bahraini human rights defender and Advocacy Advisor with the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR); Matar Ebrahim Matar, former Bahraini Member of Parliament; and Erin Sigmon, Advocacy Associate at ADHRB. The event was moderated by Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

Bockenfeld began the event by introducing the panelists and contextualizing Bahrain's 2011 pro-democracy protests, reminding the audience that - while the country's uprising was certainly part of the broader Arab Spring movement - the underlying causes were local and longstanding, including economic, social, and political grievances. He noted that, unfortunately, the intervening years have seen a deterioration in the human rights situation in Bahrain, culminating this past year in a significant deviation away from any progress that had been made toward post-2011 reform commitments.

For her part, Maryam Al-Khawaja focused her remarks on the situation in the ground in Bahrain six years on from the pro-democracy protests in 2011, particularly in light of the country's 15 January execution of three torture victims. However, whereas the government's reaction in 2011 was largely a ‘knee-jerk' and messy one, Bahraini authorities in the years since have institutionalized their crackdown on dissent. The Government of Bahrain has in particular used the judicial system as a tool for this institutionalized repression, indicating that human rights defenders are in large part imprisoned, under surveillance, or in exile

In wrapping up her comments, Al-Khawaja encouraged the audience to look at the case of Bahrain within the context of the regional security situation as a whole. The worse the security situation is in any given Gulf State, she said, the more repressive they become.

She warned that this situation may worsen given that much of the international community remains focused on the goings-on in the Trump White House.

Matar Matar, a former member of parliament for the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, tackled the government's intensified suppression against the Shia leadership, through dissolving Al-Wefaq and closing its headquarters, imprisoning its Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman, targeting the highest Shiite religious authority in the country Sheikh Isa Qassim and harassing or ignoring Sayed Abdullah Al-Ghuraifi.

He added that the government does not seem to be pursuing reconciliation; rather, it is using increased repression and sectarianism to distract from or justify a corrupt system.

He said it appears that the ultimate goal of the ruling family is to control and exploit the country's wealth no matter the outcome for its people, so it has created a state structure that generates sectarian conflict where it had been negligible before.

Matar continued saying that the international community must understand that the human rights environment will not change without first addressing this core problem of government corruption at the expense of fair distribution and welfare for all Bahrainis, regardless of sect.

Erin Sigmon, Advocacy Associate at ADHRB, focused her comments on the relationship between the United States and Bahrain, and specifically on what the US can do to push for human rights reform. America has strong security ties with Bahrain: the US has made Bahrain a major non-NATO ally and the US Navy's 5th fleet is stationed in country. This, combined with the US' unique position as one of the world's most powerful countries, also entails a duty to the people of Bahrain to ensure that the remains peaceful and stable.

She indicated that the US lawmakers have, in the past, taken steps to try and fulfill that duty. As Ms. Sigmon explained, a bipartisan group of Representatives and Senators in 2015 introduced legislation in both houses of Congress that would have blocked the sale of certain weapons to Bahrain until the Department of State was able to certify that the Bahraini government had implemented all 26 recommendations of the BICI.

While these bills did not become law, Ms. Sigmon reminded the audience that the introduction of such measures is impactful in and of itself, in particular because it shows that there are members of the US government who value human rights and care about the situation in Bahrain.

Moreover, such efforts put pressure on Manama to change course before stronger actions are taken in Washington.

In concluding her remarks, Ms. Sigmon encouraged current Members of Congress to re-introduce and support the bill tying arms sales to BICI reforms, and to send a message to the Trump administration that it cannot support Bahrain until the Bahraini government makes a clear commitment to respecting and protecting human rights.

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