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Is Bahrain a Model of an Ally?

20/10/2014 16:08 BST | Updated 19/12/2014 10:59 GMT

--Nabeel Rajab, September 28, 2014

Speaking at the United Nations general assembly in late September, Prime Minister David Cameron finished a rousing speech in defense of British policy by stating, "In the cause of freedom, democracy and justice, Britain will play its part."

Those who live in the region recognize that such statements amount to little more than empty words. The anti-ISIS military coalition has among its roster several prominent opponents of democracy in the Middle East. By enlisting the support of repressive countries, the U.K. and U.S. only empower such governments to engage in further crackdowns against human rights and those who advocate for their respect. Bahrain is one such country.

Prominent Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab will draw little comfort from Cameron's words as he goes another round through Bahrain's capricious legal system. Bahraini authorities arrested Rajab on 1 October for the tweet featured above, charging him with "denigrat[ing] government institutions." The tweet referenced the case of a former member of the Bahrain Defence Forces who joined ISIS and appeared in a propaganda video.

The Bahraini regime takes particular issue with citizens who freely express themselves via Twitter, as security forces have arrested a number of Bahrainis in recent years for various tweeting offenses.

Rajab is no stranger to the Bahrain's corrupt criminal justice system. He had only recently been released in May of this year after spending two years behind bars after being detained for his participation in "illegal gatherings." Rajab's arrest occurred immediately after he returned home from a months-long advocacy tour in Europe, during which he visited multiple capitals, addressed the European Parliament, and delivered an oral intervention in front of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Bahraini government will suffer no significant international sanctions for these injustices, as the world's ostensible defenders of democracy double as the Bahraini ruling elite's wealthy benefactors. From February 2011 through February 2014, the U.K. government supplied Bahrain with military and dual-use export licenses worth £69,726,115, dwarfing the £16 million that Bahrain had received during the three preceding years.

The rise of ISIS has led to a further tightening of bilateral ties, with talk of a potential new British base on Bahraini soil. These warm relations stand in stark contract with the frigid treatment Rajab received from the British government earlier this year, when U.K. officials detained him and his family at Heathrow and confiscated his passport. In those five hours, the British government applied more pressure to a lone human rights activist than it has to the Bahraini government in five years.

The benefits gained by the U.K. from this arrangement are unclear. U.K. and U.S. officials invited Bahrain to join the anti-ISIS coalition despite the latter's contributions to regional volatility. Through the consistent suppression of the nation's majority Shia population, Bahrain's government has played a role in exacerbating sectarian tensions in the wider Middle East. As ISIS made significant progress in Iraq over the summer, senior Bahraini officials chose to downplay the organization's significance, going so far as to publicly doubt its existence. It thus follows that the comment Rajab made while exercising his right to free speech was politically inconvenient for a government that is eager for the world to forget its contribution to the growing crisis.

Given the Bahraini government's ongoing human rights abuses, as well as its efforts to deepen the region's fault lines, Western governments must answer the question: is Bahrain's token military participation in current combat operations worth the long-term instability promoted by its government? If the world's most robust democracies are sincere in defending universal values, do they want to support a nation so antagonized by free expression that it can leave no critical tweet unpunished?

As long as it remains rhetorically committed to human rights, the British government should match its peers in the international community and denounce the detention of Mr. Rajab. On 14 October, Norwegian State Secretary Hans Brattskar personally urged the Bahraini government to end its case against Mr. Rajab. Two days later, a U.S. State Department representative publically called on Bahrain to "drop the charges," further stating that an embassy official would attend Mr. Rajab's trial on 19 October. Britain, however, has been silent.

Western nations fighting for "the cause of freedom, democracy and justice" have a duty to hold their allies to the same standards as their enemies, particularly when they have the leverage to push these governments toward meaningful reform. The British government should prioritize the release of dozens of prisoners of conscience in Bahrain over further weapons transfers and push for free and fair elections over the construction of a new military base. Prime Minister Cameron must understand that when his government supplies authoritarian regimes with the means for repression, he bears responsibility for the ends to which they are put to use. Rhetoric does not obviate this obligation.

By Husain Abdulla | Executive Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain

Sayed Alwadaei | Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

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