ISTANBUL — The strategic Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, scene of continuing protests since early last year by the majority Shiite Muslims against the Sunni minority monarchy, is on the verge of severe disruption, the State Department warned Tuesday.
“We are worried that the society is moving apart,” a senior official told reporters on a background telephone briefing. “It is clear that if the society breaks apart, Iran will be the winner and the beneficiary,” he said, urging both sides to enter into an immediate dialogue.
Among the reasons for the disruption, he cited the monarchy’s failure to institute reforms it had agreed to one year ago, political opponents who are turning increasingly to violence and the police, who are routinely using excessive force.
“We have enormous security interests” in Bahrain, said a second senior official, referring to the U.S. 5th Fleet, which is home ported there. But he added that the United States has to balance its strategic interests with its interests in encouraging reform.
Bahrain, with a population of 1.2 million, is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, which sent forces in last spring to back up the government, over the loud protests of Iran, which has repeatedly expressed its concern for the well-being of the island’s Shiite majority.
One of the prime functions of the U.S. Navy in the Gulf is to maintain open shipping lanes and the flow of oil to the industrialized world. Sunni Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, has long vied for influence against Shiite Iran, which has three times its population and has been hostile to the United States since clerics took power in the 1979 revolution.
The State Department called the briefing in advance of the one-year anniversary Friday of a human rights review chaired by Egyptian-American legal scholar Cherif Bassiouni, which called for extensive political reforms and for accountability for the widespread human rights abuses in the 2011 protests.
Reporters were invited to join the news conference on condition that neither official be identified by name.
Not only has the government failed to deliver on the most critical reforms, but it has taken several major steps backward in the past month, stripping 31 Bahrainis of their citizenship and banning all political protests. “We have concerns about bans on demonstrations and taking away citizenship,” the first senior official said.
In addition, the most prominent human rights campaigner on the island, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced in August to three years in prison for organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations early in 2012.
The anniversary offered the government of Bahrain the opportunity to review the past year and to “narrow the gap between itself and the opposition,” the second senior official said. “We are quite worried about the fact that we’re not seeing any active efforts to try to bridge that gap in any meaningful way.”
The Bassiouni commission “gave people a sense of hope,” instituting a reform process and creating an environment that would outline a common future, the first senior official said.
In fact, prosecutions of state officials have lagged and victims of torture and unlawful incarceration have had little or no closure. “What’s unfortunately happened, on accountability, on the hardest issues, is the government has not followed through,” he said.
“We see people held in prison, prosecuted for demonstrating a year and a half ago, and there’s still not been meaningful police reform,” he said. Now tensions are rising on the streets of the island, and the combined developments “are making it harder for the two sides to come together.”
“We are urging both political opposition and government to find a way to negotiate,” he said. “We are worried that this society is moving apart rather than coming together in a way that would ensure both human rights and stability.”
Amnesty International, a leading human rights watchdog, assailed the government of Bahrain for effectively shelving the Bassiouni commission report, which is formally known as the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry, or BICI. “Bahrain has reneged on promised reforms made one year ago and has expanded repression instead of dismantling it,” Amnesty said in its report.
“The November 2011 BICI report found the Bahraini government responsible for gross human rights violations, and documented widespread abuses. It made a series of recommendations – which the government committed itself to implement – including calling on the authorities to bring those responsible for abuses to account and to carry out independent investigations into allegations of torture and other violations. The establishment of BICI, made up of international human rights and legal experts, was considered a groundbreaking initiative.”
The government of Bahrain called the Amnesty report “a gross distortion of fact” and said its title, “Reform Shelved, Repression Unleashed,” indicated “an agenda not conducive to encouraging reform and reconciliation.” It said 98 percent of workers who’d been fired after the protests had been reinstated, and Shiite mosques demolished by the government were being rebuilt. In addition, it said major reforms had been instituted in the security agencies.
The government statement, obtained from the Bahrain Embassy in Washington, omitted any mention of its latest crackdown.
Jawad Fairooz was a Shiite member of the Bahraini Parliament who resigned in protest over the government’s crackdown in February and March 2011, at the start of the Arab Spring. Security authorities arrested him in May 2011 and held him for 15 months, during which he said he was tortured.
“They took me to a military jail, where they hit me with boots and sticks, hit my head with a gun, subjected me to electrical shock,” he told McClatchy in a phone interview from London, where he is now living. “They threw me to the ground, they used sexual insults.” He said he’d written up a complete account of his mistreatment and sent it to every top government official, starting with King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa.
“I got no answer. I was punished in jail for 15 months. Those who tortured me are free, and maybe they will be honored,” he said.
Some observers who know Bahrain well say the problem with reforms is that the royal family is deeply divided, with Saudi Arabia throwing its considerable support behind the hard-line prime minister, Khalifa ibn Sulman Al Khalifa, with the king and the reformist crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, unable to mobilize the bureaucracy to carry out the king’s orders.
The senior State Department official declined to discuss the competence of the Bahraini government as such. Instead he spoke of the need for “an environment in Bahrain where people are able to express themselves freely, to assemble, to demonstrate, to speak, to engage in a real debate about the differences in the society.” And he urged the opposition to speak out forcefully against violence.