The U.S. is again selling arms to Bahrain, the gulf kingdom that has been roiled by massive anti-government protests since February of 2011, says the Los Angeles Times. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta all met with Bahraini crown prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in Washington, D.C., this week. While State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Humvees, antitank missiles and “certain additional items for the Bahrain Defense Force” would still not be sold, Bloomberg reports that the equipment will include air-to-air missiles, ammunition, F-16 jet engines and a frigate.
The U.S. had frozen the sale of $53 million in weapons to Bahrain in October over human rights concerns.
In a statement, Nuland said that Bahrain, which houses the U.S. Navy’s Fifth fleet and is a U.S. ally, “is an important security partner and ally in a region facing enormous challenges.”
Indeed: Friday also saw police using tear gas and stun grenades on protesters after a rally calling for the release of detained activists, says Al Jazeera.
Human rights activists immediately criticized the U.S.’s decision, pointing out the continued suppression, jailing and abuse of protesters and to U.S. support of other pro-democracy Arab Spring protesters. Said Brian Dooley, human rights director of the non-profit Human Rights First,
Where is the progress that warrants the reward of arms? This new sale will only damage U.S. credibility among those working for democracy in Bahrain and across the Middle East.
Supporters of the government claim that protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails and that Iran has been behind the protest effort.
Most of the protesters in Bahrain are Shi’ite Muslims, who comprise a majority in Bahrain but describe long-term discrimination for government and other positions under the country’s Sunni monarchy.
BBC Journalists Visit Hunger Striker Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja
One prominent dissident, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, has been on a hunger strike for over 80 days, since February 8th. Sentenced to a life sentence for seeking to overthrow the monarchy and consorting with terrorists by a military court in June, he began the hunger strike to protest his sentence and the abuse he had been subjected to. In early May, BBC journalists were allowed to visit with him for five minutes in a “well guarded and ultra modern military hospital run by the BDF, the Bahrain Defence Forces.” No TV cameras or recording equipment were allowed and only a few photographs could be taken.
Noting that he had been beaten so badly last year while in custody that he had to have titanium plates inserted in his head, the BBC‘s Frank Gardner reports that Al-Khawaja said that he was “happy to meet” them (the journalists were concerned that their interview with him was forced and “under duress”). While he has lost 25% of his body weight, Gardner says that Al-Khawaja takes fluids and cans of nutritional supplements routinely, and that he appears to be on a “managed hunger strike.” Policemen and hospital staff “milled around” outside Al-Khawaja’s room while the reporters were present.
Gardner describes Al-Khawaja’s case as a “microcosm of the divisions” that split Bahrain:
To his supporters, who are many in the seething Shia villages where protest marches morph all too often into violent clashes with police, Mr Khawaja is a hero, a human rights defender who has worked tirelessly all his life for democracy and human rights across the region.
But many in the mainstream Shia political opposition do not share his radical views. They want to reform the way Bahrain is ruled but not get rid of the monarchy altogether, a move they know risks leading the country into civil war.
Al-Khawaja belongs to the Shirazi sect of Shia Islam, notes Gardner. His immense popularity has meant that mainstream opposition figures are hesitant to criticize him publicly, even while seeing him as a “threat to their whole way of life, and to Bahrain’s prosperity, believing that he and his associates would usher in an Iranian-style Islamic republic.” Al-Khawaja’s wife Khadija has “categorically” denied any such link.
Bahrain’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, has ruled that Al-Khawaja’s case and that of 19 other dissidents should be reviewed by a civilian court. Al-Khawaja holds dual citizenship with Denmark, which is pressing for him to be transferred there to receive medical treatment. His daughter, activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, has been detained and remains in custody after participating in an April 21 rally to protest Bahrain holding a Formula 1 Grand Prix race.
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Photo of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy meeting the Crown Prince of Bahrain in April of 2012 by