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Bahrain’s crackdown on free speech could inflame sectarian tensions

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On April 2, Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists, was arrested and detained for critical comments about the monarchy that he posted on Twitter. It was his second arrest in six months for the same offense. His latest tweet to his quarter of a million followers condemned the kingdom’s recent decree that warned citizens against criticizing Bahrain’s participation in the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen. It is the latest in a host of legal prohibitions against opposition to the monarchy and its policies, deterring meaningful public discourse in the kingdom.

Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is being held in solitary confinement. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison for posting what the authorities characterized as a message that could incite people and disrupt peace and for defaming a government agency. (In January he was sentenced to six months for similar charges. He was released on bail and awaiting an appeal.)

By attacking its critics and ratcheting up restrictions on free speech, Manama is undermining its commitments to democratic reform. Furthermore, these actions by the kingdom’s Sunni leadership risk radicalizing protesters from Bahrain’s majority Shia population, raising the prospect of sectarian strife that could spill beyond the country’s borders. This is an outcome that Bahrain’s Western allies must strive to prevent.

Fleeting international outcry

In 2011, Bahrain’s security forces cracked down on largely peaceful protesters who were calling for greater political freedoms and the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman al-Khalifa. At least two protesters werekilled, and many others were subsequently detained and tortured. Several opposition leaders were jailed. Manama’s response drew unprecedented condemnation from long-standing allies such as Britain and the Unites States. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that some of Bahrain’s actions could be in breach of international law. After an international outcry, Manama commissioned an independent investigation into the violence. The report found widespread use of torture against protesters and a pervasive lack of accountability for the country’s security system. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa vowed to implement the commission’s recommendations and pledged to introduce reforms to protect free speech. Rajab’s arrest caps a series of political maneuvers that suggest the kingdom has no intention to honor its promises.

In 2014, Manama passed a law imposing up to seven years in prison and a fine of $26,500 for publicly insulting the king. The law granted the government more authority to revoke the citizenship of anyone accused of harming the kingdom’s interests and further restricted the freedom of association for political parties, giving authorities the right to dissolve any political organization.

Over the past year, Manama has ramped up its war on dissent, increasing internal repression, breaking up protests by force and arresting high-profile critics of the government. In December authorities detained Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of Bahrain’s main opposition movement, on multiple charges, including inciting a change of government by force, spreading hatred among a segment of society and insulting the Interior Ministry. He remains in jail, and this week the court adjourned his trial until May 20.

Similarly, Hussain Jawad, who runs the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights, was arrested in a night raid on his home on February and is being held at the Dry Dock detention center, awaiting a trial. He is accused of soliciting and receiving funds from home and abroad to support and finance subversive groups — a charge that could see him sentenced to decades in prison. However, the case rests on confessions that he claims were extracted through torture.

The government’s strangling of democracy is increasingly radicalizing Shia dissidents in Bahrain.

In response to criticism, Bahraini officials emphasize the kingdom’s efforts to modernize its judicial and security services. In 2012 the government drafted a new police code of conduct and created an ombudsman position to investigate claims of abuse by the Ministry of the Interior. These are positive steps. The revised police code has broadened the measures available to help prevent police brutality. The ombudsman’s investigations into complaints of serious abuse by prison guards and police have, according to the office’s latest annual report, led to charges against 14 officers, majority of whom are now facing trial.

But these reforms are dwarfed by the slew of sweeping laws criminalizing dissent, and activists exercising their right to free speech face greater punishment than state officials involved in serious abuses. In 2013, for example, a policeman convicted of killing a protester at close range saw his sentence reduced to six months on appeal, while activists were sent to prison for a year for insulting the king on Twitter. In other cases, protesters detained for participating in an illegal gathering were sentenced to six months in jail. Even minors arrested for partaking in peaceful protests were sent to juvenile centers and were allegedly tortured while in detention.

“Despite the reform measures the government has introduced … and its often stated commitment to reform, the human rights situation in Bahrain today remains dire, and little has changed in practice,” Amnesty International said in a report released April 15. “The authorities have retained and intensified restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly that exceed those permissible under international law, in breach of Bahrain’s treaty obligations … and it has failed to genuinely reform the judicial system, where unfair trials of government critics and opponents persist.”

International human rights groups and Bahraini organizations continue to report on the use of torture to extract confessions. Rajab highlighted one such case at Jaw prison last month. (Some suspect that this played a role in his arrest, though the government denies any link.) Earlier this month, imprisoned opposition activist Khalil al-Halwachi concluded a three-week hunger strike protesting alleged abuses at the Dry Dock detention facility in Manama.

Bahrain’s international reputation, damaged by its response to the 2011 protests, has since been shored up through Western support for its reform efforts. Its allies have maintained a sedulous quiet regarding the regime’s increasingly brazen behavior. Even the expulsion last July of senior U.S. officials prompted little outcry. These diplomatic courtesies, along with Bahrain’s long-standing defense and security ties with the U.S. and the United Kingdom, have granted Manama a valuable sheen of legitimacy. This must change.

The government’s strangling of democracy is increasingly radicalizing Shia dissidents in Bahrain. Last year the Hezbollah-linked underground opposition group Saraya Al-Ashtar claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks on Bahraini authorities. Manama’s continued crackdown could precipitate a full-blown sectarian struggle, thereby benefiting Iran, which has long sought to extend its influence in the region through alliances with Shia political and military movements. In a region already hobbled by sectarian warfare, the prospect of yet another factional conflict is deeply concerning.

To their credit, Washington and Brussels have condemned Rajab’s arrest. But their failure to maintain pressure on Bahrain since 2011 suggests that these statements are unlikely to move Manama. The U.S. and the European Union, particularly Britain, must reconsider their relations with Bahrain if it does not make firm commitments to improving its rights record. This could include a reduction in tacit or explicit diplomatic support for Bahrain, a cutback in military interactions and limited sanctions. The U.S. wields significant leverage through its valued free trade agreement with Manama, which Washington could revise to apply pressure on the monarchy.

“The citizens of Bahrain and her neighbors have extraordinary potential,” Rajab wrote in an open letter to President Barack Obama earlier this month. “With unshackled voices, we can build stability and challenge extremism.”Among other things, unleashing that potential entails reconvening talks with the opposition, allowing civil rights to flourish and overhauling laws that stifle dissent. But if the events of the past four years are any guide, there is little chance of Manama’s doing this on its own. International pressure must now be applied — and this time, maintained — to nudge Bahrain in the right direction.

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on human rights and conflict.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.