Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the main Shiite opposition group al-Wefaq, explains why his and other opposition groups are refusing to participate in upcoming elections at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. Salman, a Shiite cleric who was a central figure in Bahrain’s 2011 Arab Spring protests, was sentenced to life in prison Nov. 4 on spying charges. (Hasan Jamali/AP)
By Sayed Ahmed Al-Wadaei, Husain Abdulla
November 22, 2018 at 6:12 PM
The gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul opened the eyes of many to just how far the kingdom would go to silence dissent. Finally, the international community is starting to scrutinize Saudi Arabia’s repressive actions — a reaction previously unthinkable due to the kingdom’s widespread influence.
But Khashoggi’s killing is not a mishap. Rather, it is indicative of a broader theme of suppression in the Gulf that has been going on for years. Bahrain, Saudi’s little brother, is not above killing journalists. In 2011, Bahraini authorities tortured to death Karim Fakhrawi, the co-founder of the country’s only independent newspaper, al-Wasat. The only reason Fakhrawi’s case never received the same attention as Khashoggi’s is his name never appeared in a byline of The Post.
In addition, unlike what is happening in Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder, where someone is at least being prosecuted, seven years later in Bahrain, it is unclear if anyone has been held accountable for Fakhrawi’s torture.
What is glaringly similar in the two cases is that no officials from the ruling family were ever questioned. In Bahrain’s case, Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifa, the minister of interior and relative of the king, was not questioned about his security forces despite their role in the systematic torture and killings of individuals in the past. I, Sayed, endured torture at the hands of his security forces and, as a result, three of my family members have been subjected to torture and other reprisals in an effort to silence me. Torture continues unabated in a culture of impunity, from the most high-profile cases like Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia, to the less public cases, such as Fakhrawi’s and my family’s.
Despite newly directed attention to the region thanks to Khashoggi, a climate of abuse continues to flourish, and Bahrain is a prime example.
On Nov. 24, the country will be hosting sham elections for its lower house of parliament in an environment of deep repression and harsh restrictions on press and free expression that have already seen political activists and human rights defenders arrested and jailed — sometimes for little more than tweets. This is personal for us as members of our own families have been targeted with reprisals in Bahrain, merely to punish us for taking a public stance on the ongoing human rights issues.
Indeed, ahead of the elections, the Bahraini government made it clear how it planned to treat the political opposition. Earlier this month, a life sentence was handed down to political leader Sheikh Ali Salman on the basis of fabricated espionage charges. The sentence came a day after King Hamad traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman.
In that meeting, instead of discussing ways to ease tensions with the international community in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, which to many might seem like the logical reaction, both leaders doubled down on “slanderous media statements,” demonstrating an arrogance born from knowing they could continue their abuses with little to no fear of consequences.
This arrogance is, unfortunately, not entirely unfounded, as their violations have received all-but-full-throated support from President Trump and his administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently spoke with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, but there was no public indication that human rights concerns were raised — a disappointing waste of an opportunity that we have become all too familiar with.
What Secretary Pompeo and Prince Salman did discuss was reaching a political solution in Yemen. Ironically, prominent Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is unlawfully imprisoned for raising similar concerns years earlier — calling for an end to the war in Yemen and criticizing Bahrain’s role in the Saudi-led coalition on Twitter.
The U.S. Congress also missed an opportunity this week to take a stance on Bahrain, dismissing legislation that would have halted an arms sale to the kingdom. With such a move, Congress is sending a chilling message that they are on board and endorsing the administration’s problematic position that a friendly (often too friendly) relationship with ally Bahrain must be protected at all costs — human rights aside.
Trump’s administration, combined with a lack of congressional scrutiny, emboldened the repressive regime and has given Bahrain the green light to suppress civilians and jail political leaders during an election cycle that should have been an opportunity for the Al Khalifa family to ease tensions, make overtures to political opposition societies and release political prisoners.
Instead, the Bahraini government has moved to close all political and civil space. Officials closed al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent newspaper; the kingdom’s nonindependent judiciary dissolved all major opposition societies; a new law was passed that indefinitely bans members of the dissolved opposition societies from running for office; and critics of the government continue to face charges of “terrorism” for tweets against the elections. As if that is not enough, Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the largest opposition society, al-Wefaq — which once represented the majority of Bahrain’s lower house of parliament — is now serving life in prison on bogus charges. It should thus come as no surprise that Bahrain’s upcoming elections have no chance of being free or fair.
But in a moment of potential karma, during the U.S. midterm election this month, Democratic House candidate Tom Malinowski beat Republican incumbent Leonard Lance, who served as representative for New Jersey’s 7th District since 2009. In the new Congress, Malinowski may become a key player in shaping policies toward Bahrain and the Gulf. He has firsthand experience with Bahrain’s tight grip on civil and political society: In 2014, when Malinowski was working for the State Department, he was ordered to leave Bahrain after he met with members of al-Wefaq, including Sheikh Ali Salman, during a visit to the country.
While upsetting, it is important to remember that the killing of Khashoggi is not an exception but part of the rule. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, Bahrain among them, are repressive regimes used to silencing dissent. While the world turns its attention to Saudi Arabia, it must not continue to turn a blind eye to Bahrain — a country that has killed journalists and continues to arrest and imprison with impunity.
Bahrain is entering its parliamentary elections with around 4,000 political prisoners, no political opposition, no independent media, no freedom and no fairness. It’s time for the United States policy to shift dramatically in Bahrain.