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."

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Colombia

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Friday's briefing by spokeswoman Victoria Nuland:

  • The State Department "categorically condemns" the suicide bombing Friday in Damascus which killed 25 people and was reportedly directed at a police bus. The Syrian government has blamed terrorists, al-Qaeda, and even the United States. Nuland noted that the Free Syria Army denied responsibility and she took the opportunity to reiterate U.S. support for non-violent opposition to the Syrian regime. "At the present time, we can't say one way or the other how this happened, but what we can say is that obviously we condemn the attacks. We do not think violence of any kind, at anybody's hands, is the right answer to the problems in Syria," Nuland said. "The right answer is for a democratic transition of power, for Assad to step aside and for a national dialogue to begin." The blast took place about 3 kilometers from the U.S. embassy.
  • The Arab League meets Sunday to evaluate their observation mission in Syria and Nuland said the State Department still believes in the mission and will depend on the Arab League's report to evaluate its success. "Look, we really do believe that the monitors are doing their very best. I think the question here is whether the Syrian regime is cooperating fully with the monitors across the broad spectrum of commitments that it made," she said. The U.N. Security Council meets on Jan. 10 but no public progress on the Syria issue is expected to be announced.
  • Nuland gave new details on the rescue of 13 Iranian sailors from pirates Friday by U.S. Naval Forces. "This is an incredible story. This is a great story," Nuland said. "The very same ships and set of vessels that the Iranians protested on its last voyage through Hormuz, the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, just rescued this Iranian (fishing boat) from pirates." Sailors from the USS Kidd boarded the boat and rescued the Iranians, who said they had been held hostage by the pirates for 40-45 days. You can see a video of the rescue here. The U.S. sailors released the Iranians but are still holding pirates, and thinking about where and how to hand them over for prosecution, Nuland said. "We have not been in direct contact with the Iranian government on this. These are private citizens."
  • State does not think much of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to several countries in Latin America this week, including Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala and Nicaragua. "Well, as the regime feels increasing pressure, it is desperate for friends and flailing around in interesting places to find new friends," Nuland said. "We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran."
  • The EU is expected to make a decision on further Iran sanctions this month, Nuland said. State is trying to convince other allies and partners to stop doing business with Iran, especially India. Meanwhile, Iran and Turkey plan to double their trade and Nuland said there was no official word from Iran that they are ready to come back to negotiations, despite some Iranian statements to that effect. "We haven't seen the commitment in writing, so until we see the commitment in writing we don't have the next round of discussions," she said.
  • The new Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman is arriving in DC this weekend, just as the Parliamentary Committee on National Security in Pakistan is getting ready to finalize its recommendations on new rules of the road for U.S-Pakistan relations. "She does indeed come at an important time. We're looking forward to having her here in the United States. You know, we will obviously make clear to her that we consider this relationship extremely important," Nuland said.
  • Nuland also made the Obama administration's strongest statements to date that it cares about the treatment of former Ambassador Husain Haqqani, who recently said he fears for his life after being called back to Pakistan due to the memogate scandal. She also said that State Department officials have been in regular contact with his wife, Farahnaz Ispahani, who was in DC this week. "We expect that any process for resolving the matter of Ambassador Haqqani will proceed in a way that is fair, that's transparent, that is as expeditious as possible. We also expect that Ambassador Haqqani will be accorded all due consideration under Pakistani law and in conformity with international legal standards," Nuland said. "And we will be watching and monitoring the situation closely."
  • Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman is wrapping up a long trip to Egypt, following the Egyptian military's raid on several U.S. funded non-governmental organizations. Feltman said during the trip that said that there is no partner in the Mideast more important than Egypt to the U.S. He also made some comments on Syria and Iran in a video you can view here. Nuland said he didn't meet with any political party representatives, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • The State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Bogota was heavily involved in the return to the U.S. of 15 year old Jakadien Turner, a Texas runaway who was mistakenly deported to Colombia last April and has been living there under an assumed name ever since. But State only got involved last month and had no role in the accidental deportation. "My understanding was that we didn't have any involvement at all in this case until it came to light that there may be a problem with an American minor in Colombia, and then we became involved both with Colombian authorities and with folks in Dallas," Nuland said, directing all questions about the error to the Department of Homeland Security.