State Department Counterterrorism Priorities for Bahrain Miss the Mark

Sometimes what isn’t said speaks louder than what is, and that’s certainly true of the State Department’s 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism released this week. The section on Bahrain highlights the country’s prosecution of “dozens” of cases of terrorism-related crimes, but it fails to discuss any concerns regarding state-sponsored torture, coerced confessions, and due process violations. It also understates how fabricated charges are brought against opposition leaders and human rights defenders based on overbroad counterterrorism laws.

When attacks on police officers and other violent incidents occur, the Bahraini security forces often round up dozens of individuals and quickly produce numerous confessions through torture. The king committed to anti-torture measures in 2011, but they have not been adequately implemented, and survivors face serious obstacles in seeking accountability or rehabilitation.

Moreover, virtually all of Bahrain’s opposition leaders as well as several prominent human rights defenders have been jailed with lengthy sentences based on charges derived in some cases from very expansive and unjust interpretations of counterterrorism laws. In fact, a verdict is due on Monday following the unfair trial of peaceful opposition leader Khalil Al Halwachi. Al Halwachi, a founder of the opposition Amal group, was arrested in September 2014 and has been tried with 16 others. Like many in custody in Bahrain, he says he was tortured into making a false confession.

While the State Department’s report acknowledges that counterterrorism laws are “sometimes used” to “prosecute or harass individuals for their criticism of the government,” it understates a situation in which there is no space for peaceful dissent and debate. Political reforms and multiparty parliamentary elections look increasingly unlikely as there is little tolerance for civil society or political organizing.

If the U.S. government declines to acknowledge these human rights violations in its counterterrorism reporting, it is unlikely to prioritize these serious issues in its strategy for engaging with repressive allies such as Bahrain. This matters because a regime that tortures people, imprisons opposition figures and civil society leaders on terrorism-related pretexts, and suppresses freedom of expression in the name of national security, is on a dangerous path.

U.S. counterterrorism efforts in partnership with Bahrain are unlikely to change that trajectory, and may even exacerbate it. As Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell noted in a special briefing, this annual set of reports guides the State Department’s “efforts to build capacity and interact with” foreign governments. Tellingly, on Bahrain the report concludes that “the lack of interagency coordination and limited training opportunities to develop requisite law enforcement skills” are the major deterrents to more effective policing. These recommendations miss the mark.

Rather than celebrating Bahrain’s ability to produce results through overbroad legislation, torture, and frivolous prosecutions, the State Department should focus on helping Bahrain to eliminate its repressive counterterrorism tactics. These measures should include training Bahraini security forces to investigate and interrogate using methods that respect human rights; building the capacity of prosecutors and the independence of judges to administer justice in line with international due process standards; and assisting the security sector to diversify so that it is representative of the whole population.

At least in terms of its rhetoric, the State Department seems to be on board with this approach, but its actions in Bahrain haven’t lived up to its assertions. Siberell, when asked about security force abuses and clampdowns on civil society, responded that “there is a quite well understood linkage in some cases between repressive policies of governments, including in its security practices, as a contributing factor in some cases to radicalization.” If the State Department seeks to emphasize, as Siberell asserted, that there is “no conflict” between governments carrying out effective counterterrorism policies and at the same time protecting civil rights and human rights, its reporting and strategies should reflect this point.


Published on June 3, 2016


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