- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The tiny and sometimes troubled Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, must allow its electorate to “express themselves peacefully” during an election in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings, heads of a bipartisan congressional human rights commission have warned.

“With upcoming elections in Bahrain later this year,” Randy Hultgren, Illinois Republican and co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said on Tuesday. “I urge the government to allow its people to organize and express themselves peacefully and according to their own conscience.”

During the Arab Spring of 2011, Bahrain became a hot spot when its Shiite majority demonstrated for greater political freedoms. The protests were violently quashed by the island’s Sunni leaders with help from Saudi and Emirati forces.

While the long-running tensions have cooled recently, commission members on Tuesday noted that as the kingdom prepares for its second Council of Representatives election since the uprisings, observers have voiced concerns about possible new laws to ban political opposition parties from participating. Fears also exist that the government has gerrymandered districts to reduce Shia representation.

Elections for the 40-seat Council of Representatives are slated for late 2018.

“The United States must do more to encourage Bahrain, a trusted ally, to follow through on its human rights obligations,” Mr. Hultgren added. “Political repression of the Shia community and free speech advocates and bloggers will not lead to stability, but instead will foster the kind of extremism Bahrain claims to be fighting.”

Rep. James P. McGovern, the commission’s top Democrat, joined Mr. Hultgren for a Capitol Hill briefing on election conditions. Panelists analyzed restrictions on freedom of expression and expressed worry the upcoming elections could be neither free nor fair.

Despite the difficulties, the island kingdom has remained a critical port for American military strategy in the Persian Gulf by hosting the Fifth Fleet which conducts long-range missions including anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa and monitoring Iran.

“As the Bahraini regime grows increasingly repressive, we must not view our human rights concerns as separate from or opposed to strategic ones,” said Mr. McGovern, Massachusetts. “Unaddressed human rights concerns often lead to even worse strategic problems. And we know the more repressive a regime becomes, the more likely today’s peaceful protests become tomorrow’s violence and chaos.”

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