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Obama Administration Quietly Selling Arms to Bahrain Despite Continuing Human Rights Abuses


As the Arab Spring unfolded last year, protesters in the streets saw something startling about the tools of repression being used on them. The Humvees, tanks, helicopters were from the US government; the canisters of chemical agents used to attack them said, "Made in the USA."

The Obama Administration wants to sell 44 of these M1152A1B2 Armored High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) and other weapons to the dictators of Bahrain. Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and close ally of Saudi Arabia, brutally suppressed the uprising among their citizens. More than 40 pro-democracy protesters were killed and thousands more were arrested and tortured. While speaking out loudly on Libya's brutality, the Obama administration remained largely silent on Bahrain.

Last fall the Obama administration announced plans to sell Bahrain $53 million worth of military weapons including bunker buster missiles, armored vehicles and wire-guided missiles. The Pentagon said at the time the sale "will improve Bahrain's capability to meet current and future armored threats. Bahrain will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense."

Congressional opposition to the sale forced Obama to delay the weapons transfer. Now, sources have leaked, the Obama administration is quietly moving forward with the arms sales to the Bahraini monarchy - despite their on-going human rights abuses.

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Foreign Policy magazine reported Friday:

President Barack Obama's administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales -- without any formal notification to the public.

"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse... Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors... the U.S. should not be rewarding them" The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles. [...]

"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable on Friday. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."

"Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States," Wyden said. "When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume."

That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.

"The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country," McGovern told The Cable. "Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales."

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Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service writes today:

The decision by the administration of President Barack Obama to approve limited transfers of military equipment to Bahrain is coming under renewed fire by human rights and pro-democracy groups here.

The groups, as well as a number of lawmakers who have opposed renewed arms transfers to Bahrain, are demanding that the administration publicly disclose precisely what it intends to provide the Gulf kingdom.

And they are warning that any military transfers at this time will almost certainly be seen by pro-democracy opposition forces as support for a repressive regime.

"Even a limited sale of military items to the Bahraini government sends the wrong message," said David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, a pro-democracy group that receives support from the Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

"Until the Bahraini government ends systemic human rights abuses, allows unfettered access to media and international organizations, and begins implementing meaningful political reform, the United States should not consider the sale of any military items," Kramer said Monday. [...]

Reinforced by some 1,500 troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the monarchy, which claimed that Shi'a-led Iran was trying to subvert the country, cracked down hard against the month-old pro-democracy movement beginning in mid-March.

Over the following months, more than 40 protesters were reported killed, thousands were arrested – many of them tortured while in detention – and hundreds more were dismissed from their jobs in a wide-ranging campaign of repression.

Although the administration initially denounced the crackdown, it remained relatively quiet through most of the rest of the year.[...]

"A little more transparency from the administration on what this transfer is would be very helpful. But you really have to question the timing of this. February looks extremely ominous. What will happen probably will be at least one and probably more attempts at large- scale protests, and the government shows no sign of being able to police those protests properly. Much smaller protests this month have been routinely attacked with excessive force." -- Brian Dooley, Human Rights FirstIn September, however, the administration quietly notified Congress that it intended to sell 53 million dollars worth of mainly anti-tank missiles and armored Humvees to Bahrain, drawing strong protests from rights groups and lawmakers who argued that the Humvees, in particular, could be used against protestors.

While Congress did not stop the sale, enough questions were raised to persuade the administration to promise to delay delivery until an international commission appointed by the king to investigate the spring's events issued its report in November. [...]

The administration notified a number of Congressional offices last week that it is going ahead with the transfer of some items, including "spare parts and maintenance equipment …needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations," according to the State Department.

It said that the value of these transfers "are not large enough to require Congressional notification".

"None of these items can be used against protestors," it said in a prepared statement.

But, amid concern that the administration may be breaking up the original package into smaller pieces so as to avoid formal Congressional notification requirements, the rights groups say they want to know what the items are.

"A little more transparency from the administration on what this transfer is would be very helpful," said Brian Dooley, a Gulf expert at Human Rights First who was one of those who was denied entry into Bahrain earlier this month.

"But you really have to question the timing of this," he added, noting that tensions are once again on the rise in the run-up to the one-year anniversary of the first big pro-democracy demonstrations on Feb. 14.

"February looks extremely ominous," he told IPS. "What will happen probably will be at least one and probably more attempts at large- scale protests, and the government shows no sign of being able to police those protests properly. Much smaller protests this month have been routinely attacked with excessive force."

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