Don’t Profit From Abuses by Bahrain

Clashes in March after the death of a young Bahraini shot at a protest in January. Credit Sayed Baqer AlKamel/NurPhoto, via Getty Images
Clashes in March after the death of a young Bahraini shot at a protest in January. Credit Sayed Baqer AlKamel/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

Yemen has entered its third year of war, and war crimes are being committed at an escalating rate. For Yemen’s children, facing a man-made famine, this conflict between Houthi rebels and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia has begun a new phase of horrors.

Despite that, President Trump is planning to make Saudi Arabia the destination of his first state visit this week. Meanwhile, his administration already decided to lift all human rights restrictions on arms sales to my country, Bahrain, which is a partner in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. This reckless pursuit of profit without any strings attached — including a lucrative deal for 19 F-16 fighter jets worth $2.8 billion — will aid and abet the destruction of Yemen, intensifying the country’s humanitarian disaster.

It fills me with shame that my country, Bahrain, is bombing Yemen, with United States support. And while the Saudi-led coalition continues its air assault on Yemen, Bahrain is also trying to crush civil society back home. This other, domestic campaign is aimed at people who, like me, cannot abide injustice and are willing to speak out.

Even so, we look to our friends in United States for strength and a united vision for a better future. Americans expect to have a government that is accountable, and that respects and protects its people’s rights. That is our great ambition, also, in the Gulf.

We know we risk much in calling for this. Some of my fellow activists have been tortured, sentenced to life imprisonment, even killed. But I believe that respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is the way to attain peace, stability and prosperity in any nation; I have devoted my life to that ideal.

Criticizing war crimes and torture on Twitter, speaking to journalists about our dire situation in Bahrain and the Gulf, and writing this newspaper: For these actions, I now face a total of 18 years’ imprisonment. I’ve already spent more than 10 months in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. One of the charges against me derives from my taking a stand against the war in Yemen — not only because it causes misery and tragic loss of life, but also because it fosters violence and terrorism across the region.

Does the Trump administration know that former Bahraini soldiers have left the country to join the Islamic State? Does Washington know that Bahrain allows no Shiite citizens in its military even though Shiites are a majority of the population? Does the White House know that the Bahraini Army is a sectarian force that publishes books endorsing the murder of Shiites who do not “repent”?

When I criticized the fostering of extremism in the Bahraini Army, I was tossed into prison for six months. Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has just approved a constitutional amendment allowing military courts to try civilians on unspecified charges of “terrorism.” It is a law so vague and sweeping that my act of criticism could now result in a military prosecution.

This same Bahraini military, newly empowered, will soon be awarded its new American-made jets to fly over Yemen.

Bahraini citizens recognize that the United States is a superpower, but that status should not depend solely on its military capacity. American power should also be built on respect for justice, equality and human rights — the core principles upon which the United States was founded. It is these values that should dictate American foreign policy, not the profit margin of Lockheed Martin, maker of those F-16s destined for Bahrain.

The Trump administration must review its relations with authoritarian regimes like Bahrain’s. These problematic alliances cost the United States far more in the long term than any gain it makes from arms deals. Human rights and justice should be a consistent priority in American foreign policy, not applied in one case, ignored in another.

All our destinies are tied together. What will happen to Bahrain if everyone who supports peace, democracy and the rule of law is in jail? To whom will Bahrain’s disenfranchised youth turn to for support and guidance? These are the questions the Trump administration must ask itself before it sends my jailers another batch of fighter jets.

I am realistic about what to expect. After all, President Trump recently played host in Washington to Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and Egypt’s president for life without bringing up human rights. But I have faith in the American people and civil society, as well as the lawmakers who continue to challenge these shortsighted, morally unsound policies.

Meanwhile, my trial date kept being moved. First, it was set for April 16. But this was the day of Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix, the biggest sports event in the country, so that was embarrassing for the government. Then, my trial was rescheduled for May 3. But that happened to be World Press Freedom Day, so the authorities pushed the date back again, to this week.

My detention has entered its 11th month. My health has declined. I’m recovering from a painful surgical procedure, yet the authorities have made every part of my detention as difficult as possible. My lawyers have been obstructed from providing me the best possible defense. But what I have endured is a small fraction of what the people of Yemen have suffered, largely because of the military intervention of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and their allies.

For my part, I will not stand idly by. I urge Americans not to do so, either. They must all call for an end to the Trump administration’s unconditional support for my country’s misdeeds at home and abroad.

Nabeel Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and an advisory committee member for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

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