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Obama Administration Selling Arms to Bahrain Despite Brutal Crackdown

Pro-democracy protesters in Sitra. (Photo: Al Jazeera)

Pro-democracy protesters in Sitra, Bahrain. (Photo: Al Jazeera/Flickr Creative Commons)

The United States is continuing to sell weapons to Bahrain despite that country’s brutal and bloody crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.

The Guardian reports that ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit investigative news organization, obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request revealing that missiles, combat helicopters, ammunition, combat vehicle parts and communications equipment has been sold to the autocratic island kingdom. The documents cover a period lasting from the beginning of 2011 until February 2012, during which time Bahraini security forces arrested, tortured and killed pro-democracy protesters throughout the nation.

It is not clear from the documents whether all of the ordered weapons were delivered or, if they were, whether they were used against protesters. The US claims it only sold defensive weapons to Bahrain, but human rights advocates question this. Some equipment, such as Bell helicopters, which was sold without guns to the regime have reportedly been fitted with weaponry that has been used to kill and injure demonstrators. Time has reported that US-made Cobra helicopters have fired on protesters.

Bahrain, which has been ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa dynasty since the 1700s, is populated by a long-oppressed Shiite majority that began protesting against the regime two years ago. Dozens were killed. Hundreds were arrested and tortured. Anyone suspected of opposing the royal regime was subject to arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture and death.

Brutal state security services raided schools, torturing and threatening to rape girls as young as 12. Doctors and other medical personnel who treated wounded protesters were arrested and tortured as well. Female doctors were tortured with electric shocks, beaten with nail-studded boards and threatened with rape. Some were forced to eat feces. All were tortured to elicit false confessions. Then 47 doctors and nurses were tried and convicted of treason for doing their jobs.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed Washington’s “deep concern” about the deadly, brutal Bahraini crackdown. President Obama had little choice but to eventually condemn it. But he also welcomed Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to the White House, despite issuing an executive order barring human rights violators from entering the United States just a couple of months later. Obama also affirmed Bahrain’s importance as a US ally– the US Fifth Fleet is based there and the tiny yet oil-rich and strategically important island is seen as a bulwark against a perceived threat from nearby Iran.

As freedom-seeking Bahrainis were being tortured by the royal regime, the Obama administration rewarded that regime with $53 million in new arms sales in May 2012. Bahrainis felt abandoned and betrayed by an American administration that claimed to champion freedom and democracy but was selling weapons to a regime apparently hell-bent on crushing freedom.

State Department spokesman Noel Clay told ProPublica that the US “continue[s] to withhold the export of lethal and crowd-control items intended predominately for internal security purposes, and have resumed on a case-by-case basis items related exclusively to external defense, counter-terrorism, and the protection of US forces.”

All told, US arms sales to Bahrain since 2000 have totaled some $1.4 billion.

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