The United States Senate should not approve two proposed arms sales totaling nearly US$1 billion to Bahrain given its government’s dismal record on human rights and relentless persecution of dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch.
HRW said the proposed arms sales, already approved by the US State Department, come amid the continued downward spiral of human rights since anti-government demonstrations in 2011, and Bahrain’s continued participation in the Saudi-led Yemen conflict that has contributed to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. In the past year, Bahrain has sharpened its crackdown on activists, lawyers, and journalists. It has arbitrarily revoked a record number of citizenships of nationals, carried out unfair trials of civilians in military courts, and harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, and prosecuted rights defenders and their family members. This is in addition to widespread ill treatment and torture by security forces and deadly dispersal of peaceful protests, since anti-government protests erupted in 2011.
“These two weapons sales make clear that the Trump administration intends nothing short of a free pass on human rights for Bahrain” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “The US Senate should block all arms sales to Bahrain until, at a minimum, they release all unjustly imprisoned human rights defenders and dissidents, and make clear that a key US ally should not continue in such mass human rights abuses.”
On April 27, 2018, the State Department approved the sale of AH-1Z attack helicopters, missiles, and other military equipment to the kingdom, for an estimated cost of US$911.4 million. This deal comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s revised policies for conventional arms transfers and drone exports, signed on April 19, that place greater emphasis on US economic interests than human rights.
On May 17, the State Department approved a second weapons’ deal with Bahrain worth up to US$45 million, which included 3,200 bomb bodies to arm Bahrain’s F-16 fighters fleet. In both cases, the Senate was notified of the sales and, under the Arms Export Control Act, has 30 days from the notification date to oppose the deal.
There are significant human rights concerns in both Bahrain’s behavior domestically and its participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said. The US should hold off on all arms sales to Bahrain until authorities show they are serious about addressing human rights concerns. That should include releasing all human rights defenders and dissidents serving long jail terms for peaceful expression, and holding accountable officials and security officers who participating in or ordered the widespread torture during interrogations since 2011.
In an early demonstration of the Trump administration’s policy toward human rights and arms sales, in March 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lifted the human rights conditions that the Obama administration had attached to a sale to Bahrain of F-16 fighter jets worth US$2.8 billion.
In June 2017, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker announced that he would hold up all newly announced arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations until the council found a path to reunification in a dispute between Qatar and other countries. Corker lifted that hold eight months later, in February 2018, allowing for these two sales to Bahrain to proceed, and has said that he does not believe that human rights conditions should be attached to weapons sales as a matter of US policy.
The Saudi-led coalition and party to the conflict in Yemen, has since 2015 conducted thousands of airstrikes in Yemen – including scores that appear to violate the laws of war – contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The coalition has failed to credibly investigate potential war crimes, and coalition members, including Bahrain, have provided insufficient or no information about their role in alleged unlawful attacks.
Available information shows that Bahrain has participated in the military campaign. In March 2015, the Emirati State news agency reported that Bahrain had deployed 15 aircraft to take part in coalition operations and, in December 2015, a Bahraini F-16 jet carrying out coalition operations crashed in Saudi Arabia, the coalition said in a statement.
The human rights situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate as the government increased a crackdown on critics. The country’s preeminent human rights defenders were either jailed or exiled as the judicial authorities handed down long prison sentences to dissidents accused of speech crimes in trials that did not meet basic due process standards. The government failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed violations, including torture since 2011. Authorities also use excessive and deadly force to disperse peaceful protests, and forcibly disappear people, and hold them in incommunicado detention.
On May 25, 2017, security forces apparently violently raided a sit-in in the village of Diraz. Five demonstrators died and dozens more were injured.
Bahraini authorities have, since 2012, arbitrarily revoked the citizenship of at least 728 citizens, including human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars, and subjected some of them to arbitrary deportations, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a nongovernmental organization. The vast majority of Bahraini citizens stripped of their citizenship are left effectively stateless and are not given adequate opportunity to meaningfully appeal these rulings.
Authorities in 2017 shut down the country’s only independent newspaper and suspended the activities of the leading secular-left opposition political group Wa’ad. On May 13, 2018, Bahrain’s parliament approved a law barring members of dissolved opposition groups from running in general elections planned for the end of 2018.
The Bahraini government also reversed two of the few previously implemented substantive recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), was established after the 2011 anti-government demonstrations. Authorities in January 2017 restored arrest and investigation powers to the National Security Agency, despite its record of torture during interrogation. And in April 2017, Bahrain’s ruler signed legislation authorizing the trial of civilians before military courts, which contravenes international law.
“Bahrain’s backsliding on human rights should not be rewarded with arms sales that could further entrench repression in Bahrain,” Margon said.