The Cable

American human rights activists arrested in Bahrain

The Bahraini police briefly detained two American human rights activists Sunday along with about 20 Bahraini citizens who were protesting ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One race scheduled for next weekend.

Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski and Nadim Houry, the deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, were picked up along with the Bahrainis when police raided a demonstration, HRW's Joe Stork confirmed to The Cable Sunday evening. They were treated fine and were all released, including the Bahrainis, Stork said. The Americans arrived in Bahrain Saturday night to observe the protests surrounding the Grand Prix and to document the government's response.

"Out of our very short detention in #Bahrain. Treated well," Houry wrote on his Twitter feed Sunday evening Washington time. "Thank you to all those concerned. We came to monitor events, not to be the story."

According to an e-mail update distributed by the Al Wefaq political party, Bahrain's largest opposition group, Malinowsky and Houry were observing protests when they were detained.

"When some of the mothers and wives of those detained gathered around the police station to see their loves ones, they were attacked by riot police who shot up to 15 stun grenades at them," the e-mail said.

After being released, Malinowski told The Cable in an e-mail that the demonstration he was observing before being detained was non-violent but was dispersed with tear gas, noise grenades, and pepper spray.

"This is a nightly happening all over Bahrain now. The unresolved political tensions are being manifested on the streets, with increasing anger on both sides. The only solution is to give people a peaceful outlet for expressing their opposition to the government and, more important, a process that will address their legitimate political grievances," he said. 

"Most of the young Bahraini protesters were beaten a bit upon arrest. We have heard from many others with recent accounts of torture in the hours after their arrest. These are brutal tactics which make the situation worse for everyone, including the government."

The Bahraini embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 2011 Grand Prix was cancelled in March, 2011 due to the protests on the streets of Bahrain's capital Manama and the objections of several Formula One drivers.  In the lead up to the 2012 event, scheduled for April 22, the government has been cracking down on protests. On April 13, thousands of protesters defied the government and attended the funeral of activist Ahmed Ismaeel, who was killed in a protest last week.

Last week, Stork explained that Human Rights Watch was not officially urging Formula One to cancel the event, but he said the racing organization was choosing sides by going forward with the event and signaling its support for the Bahrain government and its actions.

"I think that they [F1] will have some explaining to do. I can easily imagine that the security will be such that you won't have the race disrupted on the track and I imagine that they can keep that under control," Stork told Autosport.com. "But if you have a situation where there are demonstrations on a nightly, if not daily basis, clashes with security forces who aren't known for the most sophisticated crowd control techniques is not going to be good."

"It's not going to be good for Bahrain, it's not going to be good for F1 either if it happens either during the race or when it's clear that the demonstrations are primarily aimed at stopping the race. That's what the story will be," Stork said.

The Grand Prix also comes as tensions heighten over the fate of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the jailed Bahraini human rights activist who human rights groups say may die soon due to an ongoing hunger strike.

Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said last week that the Bahrain government was ramping up arrests and detentions ahead of the race to try to ensure that protests would not disrupt the festivities.

"They have put profits and their interests before human rights. The situation [in Bahrain] has worsened. The number of people who were killed from the beginning of the year till now is more than people killed last year," Rajab told The Media Line.

Last week, the Guardian quoted an unnamed F1 team member who said there was widespread discomfort among race participants about the tensions surrounding the race.

"I feel very uncomfortable about going to Bahrain," the team member said. "If I'm brutally frank, the only way they can pull this race off without incident is to have a complete military lockdown there. And I think that would be unacceptable, both for F1 and for Bahrain. But I don't see any other way they can do it."

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

White House: Obama is tougher than Bush on North Korea

U.S. President Barack Obama's push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday's missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today.

"What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past," said Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on Air Force One Friday.

The Cable detailed yesterday the Obama team's extensive efforts over the past year to enter into a new round of negotiations with the North Korean regime, which included offering North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid and asking the North Koreans to refrain from enriching uranium and firing off any missiles. The deal fell through Thursday when North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached.

Rhodes argued that the Obama administration's stance was tougher than George W. Bush's, given that Bush's top negotiator Chris Hill held several rounds of protracted negotiations with North Korea and even got North Korea to sign an agreement in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic guarantees from the West.

"Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," Rhodes said.

He also seemed to abandon the administration's claim that the food aid was not "linked" to the nuclear and missile discussions, a claim most observers scoffed at because the two issues were negotiated at the same time by the same people and because the food aid was cancelled after North Korea announced the missile launch.

"When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong Il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance," Rhodes said. (Emphasis added.)

He also repeated the administration's contention that North Korea could not be trusted to deliver the food aid to its people because the regime in Pyongyang could not be trusted to uphold its international commitments.

Rhodes said the United States would discuss with its allies and partners "additional steps" that might be taken to punish North Korea for its latest provocation, but he couldn't name any specific steps that under consideration. He also said there was concern that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday condemning North Korea for the launch but no new punitive measures were announced. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was "premature ... to predict or characterize the form of the reaction."

Speaking to reporters, Rhodes also criticized North Korea for inviting journalists to visit, saying, "The North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch."

After three years of practicing "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, the Obama team took a political risk by engaging with the North Korean regime and then announcing an "agreement" even though there was no single set of items that the two sides actually agreed upon. Each side issued its own unilateral statements about what it thought the deal included.

Republicans are already pouncing on what they portray as a naïve mistake by the administration.

"Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in statement. "This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies."

The Obama administration requested $7.75 billion for missile defense in fiscal 2013, which is $810 million less than Congress appropriated for the program this year.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) piled on.

"Once again, Pyongyang has demonstrated its complete disregard for international sanctions and its proclivity for worthless commitments. Moreover, North Korea's actions and gathering of global media to witness the launch make a mockery of the recent ‘Leap Day agreement' with the Obama administration," he said in his own statement. "The administration should abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea (and Iran), and instead focus on fully funding missile defenses that can protect the United States from ballistic missile threats."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images