Constructive Dialogue with the Human Rights Community

June 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

I received a letter yesterday from Mr. Brian Dooley, of Human Rights First, inviting me to debate him in a public forum on the subject of the medical professionals in Bahrain who were prosecuted over events at Salmaniya Hospital during February and March 2011. I was preparing a private response to what I believed was a private letter when I saw that Human Rights First had made the letter public.

Throughout my time in Washington, I have always been happy to discuss the situation in Bahrain with concerned members of the human rights community. We all benefit from the frank exchange of views done in the spirit of seeking truth and fostering understanding. It has been my experience that private discussions offer the best venue for facilitating such discussions.

Last November, Bahrain’s government fully accepted the conclusions of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. In addition to highlighting significant wrongdoing by the government, the report also directly contradicted Mr. Dooley’s contention that the 20 medical professionals in question were arrested for “treating protestors.” My blog post reiterated these conclusions in an effort to highlight the facts of the case. The facts are clear and should not be discounted because they are inconvenient.

We need a serious effort to understand the situation in Bahrain and work constructively to resolve it. Human rights groups have an important role to play in this. I would like to extend an invitation to Mr. Dooley to contact my office to arrange a meeting so that we can discuss this matter further. I look forward to having a constructive dialogue with him.

Responding to Brian Dooley’s Article in Foreign Policy

June 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

Brian Dooley of Human Rights First recently blogged in Foreign Policy about what he called “Bahrain’s Sham Trials.” But Mr. Dooley’s account of his experience at the trial of the medical personnel in Bahrain is selective and misleading. In one short essay, he has taken it upon himself to define justice and then support his arguments with appeals to emotion. It is worth noting that he offers not one fact in this entire essay to support his view that all of the accused should have been acquitted.

Despite overwhelming and independent evidence to the contrary, Mr. Dooley continues to assert that these 20 medical professionals were arrested and prosecuted because they “treated protestors.” Some excerpts from the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which Human Rights First and other groups frequently cite when criticizing Bahrain might shed some light on the court’s judgment.

“[T]he involvement of some doctors and medical personnel in various political activities on and around the SMC (Salmaniya Medical Center) premises was clearly difficult to reconcile with the full exercise of their medical responsibilities and highly disruptive to the optimum operation of an important medical facility in time of crisis (para. 847).”

And the Commission provided some specifics, including:

  • Protesters and supportive medical personnel controlled some areas of the hospital (para. 847).
  • “Some Sunni patients seeking to gain access to [the hospital] were turned away (para. 847).”
  • Some medics intentionally spread false information about the events at SMC, and at least one person impersonated a doctor when he spoke to media (para. 835).
  • The “manner in which some of the doctors treated some injured expatriate persons rises to a level of human insensitivity and professional disregard for medical ethics (para. 838).

The court judged the defendants as individuals, clearly weighing the accusations and evidence against each person. Normally, human rights advocates rightly insist that people not be tried en masse, but in this case, Mr. Dooley prefers a mass trial as long as it achieves his preordained outcome, an acquittal. Bahrain has an independent judiciary. And like any other country with one, Bahrain’s judicial process must be respected.

Mr. Dooley’s investment in the story of these individuals–with whom he clearly sympathizes and whose accounts he believes wholeheartedly–has affected his objectivity. He insists on referring to the “pro-democracy” demonstrations even after many news organizations have dropped the term when faced with evidence that many participants and instigators of the demonstrations were not pro-democracy–anti-government, certainly; pro-democracy, no.

In the absence of facts, Mr. Dooley offers the laments of both the convicted and the acquitted. But the fact that these people are sad or angry has no bearing on guilt or innocence. People are always sad when they or their friends are convicted of crimes. As a propaganda tool, however, it seems to do nicely.

The Bahraini Government invited Dr. Bassiouni to carry out a fact-finding investigation in Bahrain, and we agreed to live with the facts it established. His Majesty King Hamad stood with Mr. Bassiouni and publicly accepted the report–all of it. But Mr. Dooley and many of his colleagues accepted the report selectively. I would highly recommend that everyone read the report for the complete truth about what happened.

Just as it is important for Bahrain to acknowledge past mistakes and continue with its reform process, which has been ongoing for the last 11 years, it is also important for human rights organizations to correct past statements in light of new evidence.

Five Years of the U.S.-Bahrain Business Council

June 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last month at the Embassy in Washington, I hosted a reception honoring the five year anniversary of the U.S.-Bahrain Business Council. Throughout its existence, the Council has served as a crucial conduit to build and enhance commercial ties between the United States and Bahrain.

Our two countries have shared an important commercial partnership over many decades. In 1932, an American company named SOCAL first discovered oil on the Arab side of the Arabian Gulf. Today, Bahrain is home to many American companies – including Occidental Petroleum and MetLife. In 2005, Bahrain became the first country in the Gulf to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Since then, trade between our two countries has grown considerably. Bahrain is now a major importer of American goods and services and Bahraini exports to the United States total nearly $500 million per year.

Over the next few months, the Council will continue to highlight the myriad opportunities available to American companies in Bahrain made possible by our FTA. From time to time, we will also highlight members of the Council and share their experiences in Bahrain. If you are interested in joining or learning more about the Council, please visit its website.

Q&A: Attacks on Bahrain’s Police

June 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an email, Walid Salman writes:

Bahrain’s police are attacked every day by protestors using Molotov cocktails and other lethal devices and there have been reports that police officers use unnecessarily lethal force to respond to them. Do you think Bahrain’s police force responds appropriately to the threat they face?

Thank you for your question Walid. Truthfully, I feel that attacks on Bahrain’s police force often go unnoticed in the Western press. Like in the United States, many Bahrainis look to our police force as heroes who help keep us safe. As such, it is very difficult to watch violent attacks against the police.

Although many protests in Bahrain are peaceful, some of them have become increasingly violent in the past few months. In January, Bahrain’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, ordered his followers to “crush the police” in one of his weekly Friday sermons. Following his announcement, attacks on police have intensified. Each night, protestors throw hundreds of Molotov cocktails at police patrols in well-coordinated attacks. These incidents have resulted in the serious injury of hundreds of police officers. Bahrain’s burn units have never been busier. Unlike in the United States where every police officer carries a hand gun, the vast majority of Bahrain’s police force is armed with only non-lethal forms of defense, such as tear gas. From time to time, mistakes do happen, but Bahrain’s police officers exhibit a great deal of restraint in the face of real threats to their safety.

It is always perilous to consider direct comparisons, but please indulge me for a moment. Last month, during the NATO Summit in Chicago, four people were arrested for planning to attack police and other high value targets with Molotov Cocktails. These individuals were charged with three crimes: conspiracy to commit terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and possession of an explosive or incendiary device. Bail was set at $1.5 million for each suspect.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report did find that Bahrain’s security forces had at times responded disproportionately and excessively. Acting on the BICI’s recommendations, Bahrain has begun prosecuting those responsible and has undertaken a comprehensive overhaul of the police force with the help of former Miami-Dade Police Chief John Timoney to ensure this never happens again. As Bahrain continues its path of reform, it is important that the international community understands the threat Bahrain’s police force faces every night and that its restraint in the face of such threats should be recognized and commended.

Q&A: The Human Rights Situation in Bahrain

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

In a blog comment, Jan Ryan asks:

Do you ever think the Human Rights situation in Bahrain will improve? It is a tragedy.

First off, I want to thank Jan for the question. The issue of human rights in Bahrain is important to me personally, as well as to the government. As you may know, I was instrumental in the founding of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society – an independent organization that aims to promote a culture of human rights in the Kingdom and promoting dialogue between the many cultures that call Bahrain home. This experience has made me keenly interested in making Bahrain a better country for all its people.

In February and March 2011, Bahrain faced a challenge unprecedented in its history. In responding to the unrest, Bahrain made many mistakes and did many things we are not proud of. I think what distinguishes Bahrain from other countries in the region is the way we responded to and learned from these mistakes. It is particularly worthwhile to note that His Majesty the King invited an independent panel of human rights experts – the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry – to examine what happened in Bahrain and to provide recommendations for how to address specific problems. The government has made substantial progress in implementing the Commission’s recommendations – so far, 18 have been fully implemented – and is committed to continuing work on those that remain. Earlier today, His Highness the Deputy Prime Minister announced his support for the establishment of a supreme committee to implement recommendations from the UN Human Rights Commission as well.

Bahrain has always been and still is widely considered to be the most progressive country in the Arabian Gulf. Over our history, we have set a strong human rights example for the region. Women first obtained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1934 and the government has repeatedly pushed to expand civil rights for women over the past several decades. The government supported progressive amendments to Bahrain’s family law that would provide women with additional rights. The opposition not only opposed the law, but mobilized its supporters in the streets against it. As a home to many people of many faiths, Bahrain also encourages freedom of religion. In addition to thousands of mosques, Bahrain is proud to be home to churches, Sikh and Hindu temples, and a synagogue. Like any other country, we are not perfect, but Bahrain is working hard to make the changes necessary to heal our society.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the reform process in Bahrain has been ongoing since it was initiated 11 years ago. The government recognizes that more work remains to be done. The only way forward is through an inclusive, multilateral, comprehensive dialogue that engages all segments of Bahraini society. Over the past 16 months, the government has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to engage in dialogue with all Bahrainis while the opposition has made excuse after excuse in order to absolve it of any responsibility for progress. During the unrest, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince called for dialogue without preconditions to address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis. The opposition rejected this offer out of hand. They also withdrew from the National Dialogue last July, boycotted parliamentary elections last September and refused to participate in the National Commission to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report. I would once again call upon the opposition to sit down in meaningful dialogue to resolve our issues peacefully.

Thank you again for your question and I am very much looking forward to answering more in the future.

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