- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2012

The ambassador from Bahrain is defending her country against allegations that the Persian Gulf kingdom is still abusing its citizens, more than a year after the government crushed an uprising led by majority Shiite protesters against the minority Sunni royal family.

King Hamad has “undertaken an expansive program of political and economic reform unprecedented for the region in which we live,” Ambassador Houda Nonoo said in testimony prepared for a recent congressional hearing on Bahrain.

Mrs. Nonoo, who noted that she was not invited to the hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission last week, explained that the king is implementing nearly all of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which he established to investigate the police crackdown on mostly peaceful protests that were marred by some violent demonstrators.

The protests by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in February and March 2011 “remain painful for all Bahrainis,” she said.

“In the government’s efforts to restore law and order after the outbreak of violent protests, many mistakes were made. We particularly regret the unfortunate loss of life of all Bahrainis who mobilized to take advantage of their right to free speech and free expressions,” Mrs. Nonoo said.

The United States and many human rights organizations criticized the Bahraini government, which also imposed martial law at the beginning of the protests.

“Many of these accusations were based in truth, but many were hypersensationalized and false,” the ambassador said.

Mrs. Nonoo said the government has adopted most of the commission’s recommendations, including stripping the National Security Agency of arrest powers and restricting it to intelligence gathering only, strengthening anti-torture laws, dropping charges against protesters for shouting anti-government slogans, reinstating government workers who were fired for protesting, and establishing a victims’ compensation fund.

At the congressional hearing, a member of the Bahraini opposition dismissed the government’s claims of reform.

“After 16 months since the imposition of martial law … more violations were committed and not fewer,” said Matar Ebrahim Matar, who resigned his seat in parliament last year to protest the crackdown on the demonstrators.

He called the king’s government an “authoritarian regime” and denounced Hamid as an “absolute monarch.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, complained that the “root causes of the severe unrest” in Bahrain “remain unaddressed and unresolved.”

“The government is continuing to arrest and imprison Bahraini citizens for expressing political views the government doesn’t agree with,” he said.

Mr. Wyden, chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee on international trade, suggested applying pressure on Bahrain to meet labor union commitments under a free-trade agreement with the United States.

A State Department official told the commission that Washington sees improvements in Bahrain and noted its strategic value to the United States as home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, which allows the Navy to project U.S. power in the Persian Gulf and confront Iranian threats to the region.

“In a number of ways, Bahrain today is more stable than it was a year ago,” said Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

However, he added, the country is still a “deeply divided nation struggling to regain its equilibrium.”

Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, said much of the tension in Bahrain comes from its position “right on the fault line between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim worlds.”

The Sunni minority, aligned with Saudi Arabia, is fearful that the rival Shiite majority has links to Iran.

Mr. Malinowski said the official media have “convinced many Sunni supporters of the monarchy that opposition calls for democracy are an Iranian plot to impose a Shiite theocracy on Bahrain.”

• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email [email protected] The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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