Why Bahraini prince must be sanctioned for human rights violations
By Brian Dooley and Suchita Uppal
Human Rights First has formally recommended to the U.S. Department of State that it impose visa sanctions against Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa under the Section 7031(c) sanctions program, in view of long-standing credible allegations of torture against him.
In 2011, large-scale public protests calling for democratic reform in Bahrain were met with a brutal government crackdown, leaving thousands jailed and detained. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, commissioned by Bahrain’s King Hamad, confirmed the Bahrain government’s use of torture and other forms of physical and psychological violence in the crackdown, attributing thirteen civilian deaths to excessive physical violence by security forces and five civilian deaths to torture.
During this time, King Hamad’s fourth-born son Nasser took the lead in identifying and punishing athletes who participated in demonstrations, publicly calling for “accountability” for anyone who opposed the regime. He is alleged to have directly subjected political prisoners to severe beatings, actions that constitute torture under U.S. and international law. Multiple survivors have in public statements and sworn testimony during judicial proceedings offered credible evidence of Nasser’s direct acts of torture, a “gross violation of human rights” sanctionable under Section 7031(c).
Under this provision of law, the U.S. government is required, not just allowed, to impose visa restrictions on government officials when presented with sufficient credible evidence of sanctionable acts by them. A waiver of sanctions is permitted only if it serves a “compelling national interest” or certain other limited criteria. There is no evidence to suggest that Nasser’s entry into the United States would serve such an interest.
Nonetheless, since 2011, Nasser has made several visits to the United States, including competing in a Florida triathlon in 2013 and meeting with the U.S. National Security Advisor in 2022. In September 2023, he participated in high-level government meetings alongside his brother, the Crown Prince, where he was publicly welcomed by name by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Continued visits by Nasser, in defiance of Section 7031(c), will suggest that the U.S. government is not taking the allegations of torture seriously.
In over a decade following the 2011 protests, Bahrain’s human rights record has not improved. Last year, Bahrain’s largest prison — which houses prominent opposition leaders and human rights defenders — saw a mass hunger strike that protested years of abuse and neglect. The U.S. government has acknowledged Bahrain’s “significant human rights issues,” including inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government, but done little to show that these issues have any weight in its policy toward Bahrain.
Since 2011, Bahrain has made concerted efforts to suppress the torture allegations against Nasser and reconstruct his public image. Not only has he escaped any form of accountability, he has ascended to prominent positions, currently serving as Bahrain’s National Security Advisor and Commander of the Royal Guard. Nasser has been a central figure in Bahrain’s well-known efforts to sportswash its human rights violations as founder and sponsor of various sporting events and national teams, including for cycling, triathlon, and equestrian.
The United States should take seriously the allegations of torture against Nasser and not give him a platform to rehabilitate his image. Human Rights First urges the U.S. government to follow its own law, stop welcoming Nasser to Washington, and deny him entry into the country.