Bahraini activist and political prisoner, Najah Yusuf, was pardoned on August 10, 2019, and released after three years behind bars for criticizing the Formula One car race in Bahrain on Facebook in 2017 for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the country. 

Every year since 2011, when a series of anti-government uprisings broke out in Bahrain following the wave of the so-called “Arab Spring” that started in Tunisia in December 2010, Bahraini civil society activists have been criticizing and protesting this globally prestigious motorsports activity for standing by the country’s regime despite its gross human rights violations. 

Meanwhile, the Bahraini government has been systematically and violently cracking down on political protests, opposition figures, and any form of dissent since 2011 under the pretext of preserving national security. It shut down all opposition political parties. As the only Arabian Gulf country with strong anti-government protests during the 2011 Arab Spring movements, Bahrain managed to subdue them with the help of Saudi Arabia. Western democracies either ignored or vaguely criticized the repressive actions of the Bahraini government. 

Anti government protesters against Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix in 2016 APphoto Hassan Jamali

Anti-government protesters against Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix in 2016 (AP photo Hassan Jamali)

Yusuf’s imprisonment and her subsequent allegations of torture and sexual assault by Bahraini prison officers became a rallying cry for human rights and freedom of speech activists. Yusuf claimed that they forced her to sign a prepared confession five days after her imprisonment. Her story is similar to many other Bahraini activists, but she is the first political prisoner who has been freed since 2011. Many more local activists, human rights defenders, opposition figures, and journalists remain in jail for merely expressing their political views. And there are no signs that they will be released any time soon. 

With a population of only 1.5 million, Bahrain has the largest prison population in the Middle East. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other organizations regularly report about methodical and extensive abuses of political prisoners in Bahrain.

With a population of only 1.5 million, Bahrain has the largest prison population in the Middle East. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other organizations regularly report about methodical and extensive abuses of political prisoners in Bahrain. Detainees complained about beatings, sexual assaults, forced standing for long periods of time, electric shocks, and other abuses. HRW has long complained about unjustified imprisonments, made up charges, and use of force against peaceful protesters and dissidents in Bahrain. According to HRW, the Bahraini criminal justice system is broken given the harsh persecutions and deaths of dissidents and critics in the hands of the state security apparatus, while security forces get away with or face minimal punishment for official and actual crimes, such as torture and murder of innocent people. 

To make matters worse, the kingdom reinstated executions in 2017 after a seven-year break. This summer, Bahrain executed three men, including two Shia activists charged with alleged terrorism crimes. Two of them were convicted for shooting an officer in 2017. A third man was executed for killing an imam. Outraged by these executions, human rights organizations claimed that confessions of two executed men were allegedly elicited under torture. More people are reportedly on death row in Bahrain for political reasons. 

Bahrain’s human rights record has actually significantly worsened since 2011.

In 2011, the ruler of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, vowed to reform the criminal justice system. He created the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which includes five international lawyers, in July 2011 to investigate human rights abuses related to the violent crackdown on political demonstrations in February 2011. King Hamad accepted BICI’s blistering reports on the state’s mistreatment, physical abuses, and killings of protesters and made the case for changing his country’s laws consistent with international standards. But Bahrain’s human rights record has actually significantly worsened since 2011. 

The country’s authorities stepped up political repression and violence against dissidents. Independent media were virtually absent in 2018 before Bahrain’s November parliamentary elections. And parliament prohibited opposition figures from running. Human rights activists claim that the regime has now nearly wiped out all opposition. Repression has extended even to the point of stripping dissidents of citizenship: in total 810 people  have lost their citizenship since 2012. These people are left stateless without Bahraini citizenship. With no external criticism and pressure on the Bahraini government, there will likely be no end to the abuses.

Bahrain’s appalling human rights situation has not received much attention in Western media. Nor has its pro-democracy movement received much support in the West. For years, rights groups have been trying to make the leaders of Western countries call Bahrain out for its abuses. At best, calls for change in Bahrain by Western leaders have been weak and vague. For example, during a recent meeting with the Bahraini King in Paris to discuss bilateral relations on April 30, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly exhorted the Bahraini authorities “to continue their efforts to re-establish a political dialogue that includes all components of the Bahraini society.” But the Bahraini foreign minister, Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, denied through Twitter that the two leaders had discussed any political dialogue related to Bahrain’s domestic affairs. 

US Senator Marco Rubio and several colleagues sent a letter to President Trump on September 13 expressing grave concern about the monarchy’s “systematic elimination of avenues for peaceful dissent.” The letter noted that the government had suspended Bahrain’s “last independent newspaper in 2017, effectively silencing the press.”

The Senators urged Trump in advance of the meeting to raise “Bahrain’s worsening human rights record” and to press for release of prisoners of conscience, such as Nabeel Rajab sentenced to five-years for tweeting. 

However, at the press conference on September 16, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman made clear he and Trump would be meeting to strengthen the US-Bahrain relationship based on “shared values, where they overlap—ideals.” He said, “We primarily . . . will focus on security enhancement and trade enhancement.” Trump then announced that Bahrain will purchase its first patriot missile system from the US.

Showing just how inconvenient dissent is, the day after the crown prince met with President Trump, a Bahraini court rejected Nabeel Rajab’s latest appeal of his five-year prison sentence, according to his lawyer, Mohammed Al Jishi. 

Not only has the Bahraini government got away with numerous human rights violations, it has also been receiving material and technical support from the West since 2011.

Not only has the Bahraini government got away with numerous human rights violations, it has also been receiving material and technical support from the West since 2011. The U.S. continues to sell arms to Bahrain, being fully aware of the country’s poor human rights record and its participation in the atrocities committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Bankrolled by the Bahraini government, lobbying groups in Washington and London have been helping soften the image of the regime in the West. The U.S. is unlikely to hold the Bahraini government accountable or pressure it to carry out any political reforms as long as the kingdom continues to host the U.S. naval base on its territory and remains a key regional ally while the U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate. 

Fully aware of the U.S. position and strategic interests in Bahrain, the regime will continue to run its repressive machine. The losers are an increasing number of ordinary people seeking dignity, freedom, and democracy.