The Cable

Human rights groups press Obama on Bahrain

Several NGOs have written to U.S. President Barack Obama demanding he weigh in on the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the jailed Bahraini human rights activist who they say may die soon due to an ongoing hunger strike.

"We write to urge you to publicly call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release from prison Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights defender and democracy activist who may soon die, as he has been on a hunger strike for more than two months," reads an April 9 letter signed by Amnesty International, 3P Human Security, Physicians for Human Rights, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Just Foreign Policy, the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Foreign Policy Initiative, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, Citizens for Global Solutions, and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.

Khawaja has been a human rights and democracy activist in Bahrain for decades, having been exiled to Denmark during most of the 1980s and allowed to return to Bahrain with his family in 1991. His daughter Maryam, who lives in Bahrain, is one of the leaders of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has actively spoken out against the Bahrain government's actions against peaceful protesters since the current bout of unrest began in February 2011.

He was arrested in April 2011 and two months later sentenced to life in prison in a group trial with 20 other activists before a military court. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) later stated that the trials did not meet international standards of due process.

The human rights groups allege that Khawaja was tortured in prison and was subsequently admitted to a military hospital, where he has undergone multiple surgeries due to a broken jaw and a cracked skull. He began his hunger strike in February.

"The evidence is clear that Al-Khawaja and others were sentenced in violation of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, which are protected under international law," they wrote. "We are deeply concerned about the health of human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and respectfully request that the United States urge the Government of Bahrain to release Al-Khawaja immediately, and allow him to travel abroad, including for medical treatment, if he wishes to do so."

On April 10, Amnesty International issued a press release stating that Khawaja's health is rapidly deteriorating. They said that a planned review of his verdict on April 23 by Bahrain's Court of Cassation might come too late.

"In the case of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, this delay will have potentially disastrous consequences for his health, which continues to deteriorate as a result of his hunger strike. We hold the Bahraini authorities responsible for his situation," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy Middle East and North Africa program director.

At the April 9 State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and U.S. Embassy officials in Manama had raised the issue with the Bahrain government, but that no U.S. officials had visited the prison or hospital.

"We are very concerned about the case of Mr. al-Khawaja particularly with regard to his health. We are in touch with the Bahrainis and with our international partners, and we are urging a humanitarian solution," she said.

The Bahrain Defense Forces began hosting multinational military exercises April 8 that included participation from 10 countries, including the United States.

UPDATE: Late Wednesday afternoon, the White House issued the following statement:

The United States continues to be deeply concerned about the situation in Bahrain, and we urge all parties to reject violence in all its forms.  We condemn the violence directed against police and government institutions, including recent incidents that have resulted in serious injuries to police officers.  We also call on the police to exercise maximum restraint, and condemn the use of excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas against protestors, which has resulted in civilian casualties.

We continue to underscore, both to the government and citizens of Bahrain, the importance of working together to address the underlying causes of mistrust and to promote reconciliation.  In this respect, we note our continued concern for the well-being of jailed activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and call on the Government of Bahrain to consider urgently all available options to resolve his case.  More broadly, we urge the government to redouble its ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and renew our call for the government, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to engage in a genuine dialogue leading to meaningful reforms that address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.

The Cable

McCain and Lieberman meet with the Free Syria Army

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are on a surprise trip to the Turkish-Syrian border to meet with leaders of the Free Syria Army and visit Syrian refugees, who have been under attack by Syrian government forces.

The senators' trip was not associated with the efforts of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, whose cease-fire agreement seems to have failed to stop the violence. McCain and Lieberman said in a statement that Syrian President Bashar al Assad has violated the terms of Anann's cease-fire and that the only practical way forward is to arm the Syrian opposition.

"We respect Mr. Annan's desire to find an end to the killing in Syria. Unfortunately, Bashar al-Assad does not share this goal. That fact has been clear to many of us for months, but it should now be undeniable for everyone," the senators said. "Indeed, reports indicate that Assad has used the time provided by the recent diplomatic initiative to kill up to 1,000 additional men, women, and children in Syria. And just yesterday, Syrian forces fired across the border with Turkey, killing and wounding people in a refugee camp on Turkish territory."

McCain and Lieberman were in Hatay province Tuesday and met with the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, General Mustafa al-Sheikh and Colonel Riad al-Asaad. They also toured a refugee camp and met Syrians who had recently arrived from across the border. They are the first members of Congress to meet the FSA leaders and to visit the border, and the senior-most U.S. officials to do so.

"All of the Syrians we met with are grateful for the humanitarian assistance that many nations are providing, as are we. But this does not change the basic fact: The international community is failing the people of Syria," the senators said.

"Make no mistake: The situation in Syria is an armed conflict. This is a war. Diplomacy with Assad has failed, and it will continue to fail so long as Assad thinks he can defeat the opposition in Syria militarily. And right now, using tanks and artillery and even attack helicopters, Assad has the upper hand on the battlefield."

The senators acknowledged the Obama administration's decision to provide communications equipment to the Syrian opposition but said that would have little effect against the regime's tanks. They repeated their call for arming Syrian rebel fighters, as they called for in their congressional resolution earlier this month.

"Under these conditions, no one should think that Assad will stop killing and leave power anytime soon. Indeed, the unanimous opinion of everyone we have spoken with on our visit is that there is no end in sight to the horrific violence in Syria," they said. "The only way to reverse this dynamic is by helping the Syrian opposition to change the military balance of power on the ground. This means delivering all of the non-lethal assistance that has been pledged thus far. But it means doing a lot more."

The senators were in Istanbul Monday, where they met with Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council and other top opposition leaders. They also met with the recently defected Syrian deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameldin, with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and with the recently recalled Turkish ambassador to Syria Omer Onhon.

In their statement, they repeated their call for foreign air power to suppress Assad's military and called on the U.S. administration to increase its activities to protect the Syria people.

"If America still stands for the cause of oppressed people who are fighting for their freedom, and justice, and deliverance from tyranny, we cannot abandon the people of Syria," they said. "We cannot shirk our responsibility to lead. Our deepest values and interests compel us to act in Syria, and we must do so before it is too late."