On Friday, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted a hearing on the human rights situation in Bahrain. The commission – chaired by James McGovern (D-MA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) – requested the testimony of the following individuals: Joe Stork, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa programs at Human Rights Watch (HRW); Maryam Al-Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations Office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR); and Richard Sollom, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). The commission had also requested the testimony of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and Under Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman who declined the invitation.

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Representative James McGovern opened by noting that the Commission held a hearing on the issue last year under the leadership of Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD). He stated that the purpose of this hearing is to review the status of human rights in Bahrain with an emphasis on the “grave human rights abuses” that have taken place over the last three months. He stated that over the last decade, Bahrain has shown a willingness to address human rights issues in a constructive manner and noted the close strategic friendship and relationship between the United States and Bahrain. However, alluding to a Wall Street Journal editorial McGovern stated “Bahrain is indeed a friend, but it does not deserve ‘a pass’ on human rights issues.” He called on the Bahraini government to “allow the International Committee for the Red Cross or the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or an appropriate U.N. human rights rapporteur to travel to Bahrain, visit detainees and provide an objective assessment of their physical security and the judicial process that will determine their future.”

McGovern also expressed his disappointment that the State Department officials were unable to attend the hearing and noted the large number of calls and e-mails from individuals from Bahrain to express their views on the situation in the country. He noted, however, that it has become clear over the last two days that “these calls were orchestrated” as they followed a similar script. He also noted that the Bahraini government had requested to also testify at the commission hearing, but noted that the commission is “a forum where the voices of the voiceless are provided an opportunity to be heard” and not for foreign government officials. However, a statement from the Government of Bahrain has been submitted for the record. He also submitted a May 11th press release from Amnesty International over the trials as well as a May 12th release by Human Rights First and an April 21st < href="http://blog.aflcio.org/2011/04/21/global-union-movement-calls-for-end-to-repression-in-bahrain/">report by the AFL-CIO on the Bahraini government’s failure to comply with agreements under the U.S. Bahrain Free Trade Agreement.

Joe Stork began his testimony by stating that this is a critical time for the U.S. to be having this hearing, especially as the Bahraini government attempts to build a counter-narrative. He noted the danger of this counter-narrative as it equates a largely peaceful pro-democracy movement as an act of terrorism. Stork noted that even though the government is fully in control of the security situation in the country, they have continued to abduct, arrest, torture and beat their citizens for participating in the February protests. Stork noted that he has been monitoring the human rights situation in Bahrain since 1996 when he documented abuses that took place during the Intifada. He discussed the improvement of the human rights situation in the country when King Hamad took power in 1999 and implemented reforms. Stork stated, however, that HRW was dismayed by reports of torture that began to surface in late 2007 and noted that even following the release of a HRW report on human rights in Bahrain in 2010 the government has failed to adequately investigate these claims.

Stork stated that members of HRW staff which were on the ground from February 17th till April 20th noted unlawful killings by security forces using live ammunition and the misuse of riot control weapons which led to the death and injury of many protesters. They also noted a series of arbitrary arrests and detention of over 1000 people. Currently, 630 people remain in detention and are incommunicado; including leaders of legally recognized political societies such as: Ibrahim Sharif, head of the secularist National Democratic Action Society; Matar Ibrahim Matar and Jawad Fairouz, recently elected members of parliament representing the Wefaq society. He stated that the incommunicado detention gives rise to legitimate concerns that the prisoners are being tortured and abused; Stork expressed his appreciation for Rep. McGovern’s calls for groups like the International Committee for the Red to monitor the prison conditions.

Stork discussed the false nature of the Bahraini government’s narrative. He stated that their reports that Shi’a doctors were refusing to treat Sunni patients and was using medical facilities and resources illegally are completely false. Additionally, he noted the expulsion of foreign journalists in the country and stated that despite government claims that international groups were allowed to monitor the trials, there are many reports of people, such as Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley, being denied access. He also noted that the Bahraini government is refusing to allow him and other members of the HRW staff from entering the country to monitor and report on the situation.

Stork urged the U.S. government to speak out vigorously and publicly against the abuses lest the U.S. appear complicit in the government’s repression campaign. He also stated that the U.S. should announce a comprehensive ban on security resources until the government halts the arbitrary use of violence and hold accountable the authorities and officials who committed human rights violations. Stork also called on the government to publicly “criticize by name the most flagrant abuses, such as unlawful killings and torture, and the wholesale impunity for serious crimes in violation of international law.” He stated that failure to do so will hurt U.S. credibility abroad and undermine efforts to promote human rights and democracy in the region. Stork also called for a U.N. Human Rights Commission to convene a special session on the issue as well.

Maryam al-Khawaja opened by discussing her trip to Bahrain in February to document human rights violations by Bahraini security forces who were reportedly using unnecessary and excessive force against protesters. She noted that the February 17th “clearing” of the Pearl Roundabout in Manama was not a clearing, but rather an orchestrated attack on civilians as security forces intentionally shot protesters at point-blank range with pellet guns, rubber bullets and tear gas. She also discussed the mass arbitrary arrests and beatings of opposition leaders, human rights activists, and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and former members of parliament. She discussed the case of her father who was beaten during his arrest and has told family, lawyers, and a judge that he was beaten during detainment and that his life has been threatened. These detainees, many of whom are under 18, have had extremely limited access to their family members. She also noted the arrest, beating and harassment of women during the protests including attacks on school girls. Al-Khawaja discussed the dismissal of over 1300 workers for participation in protests, the expulsion of Shi’a students from universities, and revocation of scholarships for Bahrainis studying abroad. She also noted the demolishing of 52 Shi’a mosques and attacks by the riot police on religious gatherings. Stork also noted that the government had previously taken pains to preserve these mosques making their demolishment all that more significant.

Al-Khawaja also commented on the Bahrain governments attempt to paint the pro-democracy protests as a sectarian conflict to perpetuate fear in the country and abroad. She noted their attempts to make the story about Iran gaining influence in the country rather than the government failing to address the legitimate concerns of the people. In his closing remarks, Richard Sollom also noted that security forces, torturing patients in hospitals, attempted to force protesters to confess to getting support and training in Iran. Responding to a question by Rep. McGovern on the sectarian issue, she also stated that thus far the Bahraini groups have denounced the Iranian governments’ statements and are against any intervention from Iran. However, if their concerns are not addressed and the human rights situation continues, these groups may turn to Iran for support, which will have regional implications. Al-Khawaja also stated that many Bahrainis do not feel safe in their homes due to the security forces’ daily campaign against their people. Thus, she urged the Administration to use the leverage they have with Bahrain to encourage reform and to make topic-specific statements in the condemnation of human rights abuses in Bahrain.

Richard Sollom requested to submit the recent PHR report on the attacks against doctors. He stated that in conflict areas, doctors tend to have the best first-hand knowledge on human rights violations conducted by governments. He noted that they are in many cases able to discern the cause of injury and also tend to know the number of deaths. Being important eye-witnesses to government abuses thus made doctors a target in Bahrain. He noted that the PHR report discusses the group’s findings following in-depth interviews with 47 doctors, patients, and medical personnel, many of whom were at the Salmaniya Hospital. The interviews stories were corroborated by medical examinations, x-rays, and a review of medical files. Sollom also discussed the abduction and arrest of medical personnel and stated that “for each doctor, nurse, or medic that the government disappears, many more civilians’ lives are impacted as patients go untreated.” Sollom also refuted the government’s claims that doctors refused to treat Sunnis, stating that they are ethically and professionally bound to do so.

The report also finds that government authorities used excessive force, including high-velocity weapons and shotguns, while using birdshot, rubber bullets, and tear gas against unarmed civilians – often at a close range. They also have used tear gas in enclosed spaces and tortured detained protesters. He also discussed the security forces use of torture during interrogations at Salmaniya hospital and reports that security forces stole nurses and doctors’ uniforms and ambulances to get closer to protesters, round them up and attack them. He stated that these actions are a breach of international law, particularly those regarding medical neutrality.

Sollom called on the Obama Administration to lead an international effort to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Violations of Medical Neutrality through the United Nations Human Rights Council. He also called on the administration to speak out and condemn these attacks, in no uncertain terms. He also urged embassy officials to visit Salmaniya Hospital and meet with physicians and medical personnel who were witness to these attacks. He also encouraged Congress to support the passage of a resolution on medical neutrality that was recently introduced.

Rep. McGovern expressed once again his disappointment that the administration was unable to send someone to testify before the commission. He then asked the panelists what the role of U.S. entities has been on responding to human rights abuses in Bahrain. Joe Stork responded by stating that the President recently called King Hamad to discuss universal rights of the people and to encourage dialogue and reform. Additionally, he stated that Under Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, in his March trip to Bahrain, attempted to stall GCC troops entering in Bahrain and also attempted to restart a national dialogue. Stork also expressed his belief that the absence of Bahraini army the day after the Pearl Roundabout was cleared was likely due to U.S. pressure. Publically, however, little has been said on the situation in Bahrain. Richard Sollom also stated that up to this point, to his knowledge, no body from the U.S. embassy has visited the hospital or talked to medical personnel about the events which took place.

Rep. McGovern also asked Maryam Al-Khawaja to respond to claims that the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has provoked the government and perpetuated violence in the country. Al-Khawaja stated that the BCHR has been documenting human rights abuses for many years and has been officially recognized by the government since 2002. It is also internationally and nationally recognized for its documentation of human rights abuses and partners with international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. She also stated that the BCHR has routinely condemned violence of any kind from both civilians and the authorities. Stork also stated, in response to questions, that the BCHR although unrecognized in 2004 following statements made by Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja criticizing the Prime Minister was tolerated and allowed to function. The Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society was also stripped of recognition and its board was fired following the publication of reports criticizing the government. Stork stated that there are government institutions that have formed human rights groups and it is possible that they were allowed to access to the trial. Al-Khawaja noted that she has two contacts left in the human rights community in Bahrain that are not being detained, including Nabeel Rajab who has been harassed, threatened and is under an unofficial travel ban.

In response to a question by McGovern on whether PHR has been allowed to operate in Bahrain, Sollom discussed a visit to a hospital where he was met with security forces in black and green uniforms and ski masks. He stated that the security forces detained the group in a small room under armed guard and interrogated them for over an hour. He noted that although the Bahraini government public statements that they are allowing international human rights groups unfettered access to medical facilities and trials, are completely false. Stork noted that this is a recent change as in past years government relations with human rights groups has generally been good.

Rep. McGovern also questioned the panelists on the use of U.S. weapons and equipment. Al-Khawaja noted in the Pearl Roundabout she saw tear gas canisters and rubber bullets that had Made in USA and Made in Pennsylvania insignia on it. Sollom stated that he saw the same markings on gas canisters which had been used in attacks in enclosed spaces, including at a wedding. Stork also stated that these reports could be corroborated by HRW’s own reports as well. He noted that the pellet guns and the security forces using them were imported from Pakistan.

In their closing remarks, Richard Sollom cautioned the U.S. against falling victim to the Bahraini government’s propaganda campaign to paint the situation as a sectarian one. Maryam Al-Khawaja stated that the human rights situation in Bahrain is getting worse and passed along the request of many Bahrainis for the U.S. to pressure Bahrain to end these human rights abuses. Joe Stork called on the administration to have stronger and more consistent rhetoric, noting how failing to do so will implications on our efforts throughout the region. He also called for this hearing to take place in a committee that has subpoena powers so that the U.S. government officials will discuss these issues.

Rep. McGovern noted, again, that the commission is neither pro-government nor anti-government. He stated, however, that the United States has been late in responding to the situations in Middle East and urged the administration to listen to these accounts, address the legitimate concerns and attempt to help remedy the situation. Doing so, will reflect well on the U.S., McGovern said. He also made clear that while the Bahrain and the United States have an important strategic relationship, we should not give them a pass on human rights. He stated that the commission will continue to monitor the situation and that he will impress upon his colleagues the importance of speaking out on these issues.