This year marks the 8th anniversary of the beginning of the Pearl Uprising in Bahrain.
Eight years ago, thousands of Bahrainis gathered in peaceful protests to demand greater political freedom, and political and constitutional reform.
Their demands were not new — the roots went back to the 1970s.
They were not radical: Bahrainis wanted greater popular participation in governance, equal access to socio-economic opportunities and development, action against corruption and an end to the practice of political naturalization.
And they were not sectarian — even though Bahrain is a majority Shi’a country ruled by a minority Sunni monarchy.
But by the end of March 2011, what started as a moment of hope had been met with massive repression by the Bahraini government and security forces sent by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As protests grew and spread, at least 35 people died, some 3,000 people were injured, thousands were detained or lost their jobs, and many were brutally tortured, including medical doctors.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain did take some steps to address the people’s demands. His appointment of the 5-member Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to examine the government’s response to the protests was an important gesture. And the 26 recommendations contained in the BICI report, which the monarch promised to implement, did inspire some new hope that change was possible.
Many of us in Congress urged the government to fully implement the BICI recommendations and to cease the repression of human rights defenders and peaceful opposition leaders.
But in the years since, hope has been completely dashed. Some initial important reforms have been rolled back, opposition political societies are banned, peaceful human rights defenders and popular opposition leaders are spending their lives in jail, sectarian divisions have hardened, hundreds have been stripped of their citizenship, no independent press remains, the most recent elections were a sham — and to top it all off, the Bahraini government has supported the Saudis in the brutal war in Yemen and the senseless embargo of Qatar.
Some observers turn a blind eye to Bahrain’s increasingly authoritarian rule because they accept Bahrain’s argument that Iran is to blame for encouraging the Shi’a population to rebel.
These days, any mention of Iran is often enough to silence legitimate criticism.
But what I see is a Bahraini government whose own policies deepen sectarian divisions and create the conditions for unrest.
In spite of their majority status, Bahraini Shiites are less likely to hold jobs in the all-important public sector. They are almost entirely disqualified from serving in the police or military. They live in highly segregated neighborhoods with inferior public services compared to Sunni areas. They are systematically underrepresented in the lower house of parliament.
No one should be surprised that this stark political and economic inequality causes grievance. Add to that Bahrain’s crushing of political expression and channels of participation, and you have a recipe for fostering extremism.
No government that does this can be considered a true United States ally in the war against terrorism. You cannot claim to be fighting extremism when your own policies foster it.
On this anniversary, I renew my call to the government of Bahrain to free Nabeel Rajab, Sheikh Ali Salman, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Abduljalil Al-Singace, Ahmed Humaidan, Naji Fateel and all other prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising their most fundamental human rights.
And I call on the government to end the prohibition on political societies, decriminalize all speech, allow national and international press to operate without state intervention, stop rendering its citizens stateless, strip the National Security Agency of its power to arrest, bring its anti-terrorism legislation into line with international human rights standards, integrate its security forces and end discrimination against the Shi’a population everywhere it exists.
Only if these steps are taken will the rights of all the Bahraini people, the country’s long-term stability and America’s national interests be assured.
Congressman James P. McGovern (D-MA) is Chair of the House Rules Committee and Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which is charged with promoting, defending and advocating for international human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.