In a time of rising tensions in the Middle East, barely a day goes by without fresh revelations of human rights abuses in the Gulf. From the Saudi-led war in Yemen, to public executions, to the detention of members of the Royal family in the UAE, the world is paying increasing attention to violations in the region. Amid this coverage, an often overlooked state is the small island nation of Bahrain. Yet the kingdom has no shortage of alleged abuses to its name. A recent conference on Capitol Hill sought to redress this imbalance. 

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), in a briefing on June 11, reviewed corruption and human rights abuses in the Gulf state, committed by the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior (MOI) with the alleged support of the US government. 

According to ADHRB’s website: “The event, moderated by ADHRB’s Executive Director Husain Abdulla, featured expert panelists including Seth Binder from Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Jodi Vittori from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Monica Zuraw from ADHRB. Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) both delivered opening remarks, thanking ADHRB for its work to address human rights concerns in Bahrain and calling upon Congress to give more attention to the issue.”

Rep. McGovern expressed that, following the repressive measures undertaken by the Bahraini government to quell the mass uprising in 2011, there was more vocal bipartisan support for pressuring Bahrain to uphold human rights standards. However, he lamented that, under the current administration in Washington, this support has diminished. 

McGovern called on the Bahraini regime to cease its discriminatory practices against the Shia, to allow for the operation of a free press, and to strip its national security officials of their arrest powers. Congressman McGovern is an advocate for prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who is currently serving prison time in Bahrain in relation to tweets. He also suggested utilising the Tom Lanton Defending Freedoms Project to support Bahraini prisoners of conscience. 

“When we support a government that violates human rights, we undermine our efforts and standing around the world.”

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) used her time to highlight the widespread tendency for activists to be jailed, raped, tortured, executed or disappeared in Bahrain, noting that Bahrain has the highest rate of mass incarceration in the Middle East. Omar also advocated ending US arms sales to Bahrain, stating: “When we support a government that violates human rights, we undermine our efforts and standing around the world.” Hasain Abdulla concurred, stressing that the US should place much more emphasis on human rights in its relationship with Bahrain. 

During most of the event, Monica Zuraw outlined ADHRB’s report, “Anatomy of a Police State: Systematic Repression, Brutality, and Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior.” According to ADHRB: “The report analyzed over 1,000 discrete incidences of abuse comprising more than 3,000 specific rights violations attributable to the Ministry of Interior between 2011 and 2018, and this pattern of police brutality and repression was apparent at every command level.” 

According to the ADHRB report: “1 in every 635 Bahrainis has been arbitrarily detained, disappeared, tortured, raped, killed, or otherwise abused” by the Ministry of Interior.

Zuraw accused the Bahraini government of creating a culture of impunity that rewards and incentivises abuses. According to the ADHRB report: “1 in every 635 Bahrainis has been arbitrarily detained, disappeared, tortured, raped, killed, or otherwise abused” by the Ministry of Interior. Zuraw said that Bahraini nationals accused of taking part in human rights violations should be barred from entering the US, as most are in violation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. 

ADHRB uses Interpol to publicly accuse such individuals online by issuing “ADHRB Red Notices.” Zuraw concluded her remarks by calling on the international community to impose sanctions for violations perpetrated by individuals throughout Bahrain’s Interior Ministry, up to and including Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla AlKhalifa himself. 

In response to a question from the audience, Zuraw said that ADHRB has recorded 46 cases of abuse by Bahrain’s Special Security Force Command (SSFC), including 25 extrajudicial killings. She also spoke of 77 further cases, of which 46 were extrajudicial killings, in which no perpetrator has been clearly identified but which match SSFC patterns of abuse.

In her statement, Jodi Vittori broadened the discussion by commenting on Bahrain’s Ministry of Defense (MOD). Vittori emphasized the role played by the US and other western powers in providing security apparatus to Bahrain; that apparatus that is often used to coerce and repress citizens. 

The US provides 85% of Bahrain’s military equipment and Vittori stressed that this support comes in many forms: arms, food, surveillance, housing, and so on. She went on to highlight the fact that, in a recent report, Bahrain received the lowest possible ranking of “F” in terms of the level of transparency of its state budget. The country has no independent audits and no parliamentary proceedings overseeing such matters—even the exact size of the security budget is not made public, making high levels of corruption extremely likely. 

Vittori also discussed sectarianism in Bahrain and the demonization of the Shia (actually a majority in the country) by the Sunni royal family. The Shia are often presented as loyal to Iran and are essentially excluded from holding government positions. This sectarian feeling is often called upon to justify the regular crackdowns on dissent, including extensive censoring of social media. Vittori suggested that the US should use its leverage as the Bahrain’s chief arms provider to insist that Bahrain publish reliable budgeting reports. 

The final speaker, Seth Binder, elaborated on the political relationship between the US and Bahrain, recognizing also the role played by close regional allies Saudi Arabia and UAE. Binder lamented the Trump administration’s preoccupation with Iran, which he claims is causing Washington to ignore human rights violations by countries in the Gulf. Binder reiterated the remarks of earlier speakers, calling on the US to use its leverage to help improve Bahrain’s human rights standards. 

All panelists stressed that Bahrain mirrors Saudi Arabia, although on a much smaller scale: The country is controlled by a small, Sunni, aristocratic class and is awash with severe economic inequality and human rights abuses. In focussing on an often overlooked state like Bahrain, ADHRB highlighted the importance of holding all abusers of human rights to account.