The Cable

State Department stands up for Bahraini human rights activist

The State Department issued a statement over the weekend on behalf of Nabeel Rajab, a leading Bahraini human rights activist who was beaten by government forces in the capital of Manama last week.

Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was hospitalized on Jan. 6 after police attacked a group of peaceful protesters, a video of which can be seen here. Bahrain's Interior Ministry released its own video which it claims shows police helping Rajab into an ambulance after being tear-gassed. Photos of Rajab in the hospital showed injuries to his head, neck, and chest.

"The United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence in Bahrain between police and demonstrators," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement on Jan. 7, explaining that U.S. Embassy officials met with Rajab and spoke with government officials about the incident.

"While the facts surrounding the violence that transpired remain in dispute, we strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to undertake a full investigation to determine if excessive force was employed by police. In general we urge all demonstrators to refrain from acts of violence and for police and security forces also to avoid excessive use of force," she said.

The Obama administration has been walking a tightrope with respect to its stance on the persistent protests in Bahrain. The country, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, is a U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, near Iran. The United States is planning to sell a new $53 million arms package to Bahrain, including armored Humvees -- which activists claim have been used in crackdowns on civilians. The sale is delayed pending government action to implement the recommendations of a Bahraini commission that recently reported several human rights violations by the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

"The Government of Bahrain has taken significant steps to implement recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and we urge it to complete this important undertaking without delay and continue the work of comprehensive reform," said Nuland. "We encourage all the citizens of Bahrain to join in this effort, which can be the foundation for genuine reconciliation and a renewed spirit of national unity."

The State Department's willingness to openly support Rajab is new. When Rajab came to Washington last month to receive the Woodrow Wilson Center's 2011 Ion Ratiu Democracy Award for his work documenting human rights abuses conducted by the Bahraini government, he was not invited to the State Department for any meetings at all. He did have an official visit with the National Security Council and met with one staffer there. We're also told that one low-ranking State Department official met Rajab at a local diner on their own time. But that was all the government contact he had on his trip.

Rajab sat down for an interview with The Cable on that trip, during which he said that though he is the constant subject of government harassment, he is relatively lucky compared with some of his fellow activists.

"My house is targeted, my mother's house is targeted, all because of my work," he said. "But I am better off than the others because I am free and not dead, because there are people who have been killed and who are behind bars now."

The Cable also interviewed Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa when he came to Washington in October and met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others. He said that the security relationship between the United States and Bahrain would prevail over any short-term disagreements over the treatment of protesters.

"What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that," he said. "That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."

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