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The Royal Stall

While unarmed civilians die on Bahrain’s streets, the king of the tiny oil-rich nation continues to tell his people he is eager for dialogue and refuses entry to a prominent human rights champion from the U.S.

Denied a visa was Richard Sollom, deputy president of the US-Based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), who was hoping to attend the trial of doctors and nurses that treated injured protestors during months of unrest last year.

He left for Dubai, from where he told The Washington Post, “I am quite stunned. This was the first time a member of an international rights organization came to Bahrain after authorities promised to respect human rights and told us we can come and see for ourselves.

“We can see now that not much has changed,” he added.

Sollom thus became the second huan rights executive to be denied entry to Bahrain. Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, a major US-based human rights organization, applied for a visa but received a letter from Bahrain’s Minister for Human Rights and Social Development, Fatima Al Booshi, on January 11th suggesting he should delay his entry until the end of February.

In his reply, Dooley reminded the Minister that she told him on November 24th 2011 that non-government organizations (NGOs) would have access to Bahrain if they gave “five days’ notice of their arrival”. Brian informed the “Human Rights” Ministry of his proposed visit next week, on December 20th.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, also assured human rights groups that NGOs would have “unfettered access to Bahrain.”

In his letter to the Minister, Dooley also noted  that, at the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report in November, King Hamad had assured the world that ‘any Government which has a sincere desire for reform and progress understands the benefit of objective and constructive criticism,’ and that the day of the report of the BICI report ‘turns a new page of history.’ ”

Calling this a backward step for the Kingdom, Faisal Fulad, President of the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRWS), said: “His Majesty the King has made it clear that Bahrain has nothing to hide when he opened the country up to the world in October, facing the truth of an independent commission which reported last year’s democratic protests.”

He added: “So why are we now back to this? By not allowing a human rights activist to enter the kingdom, we are giving conflicting messages to the world that will now be asking, once again – is Bahrain a free and democratic country or not?”

He suggested a “return to an offer of talks put on the table last March” by the Crown Prince and the Deputy Supreme Commander.” Members of the opposition have made similar calls.

The Crown Prince had proposed a National Dialogue that included talks on seven key points: A parliament with full authority; a government that represents the will of the people; a review of naturalization; fair voting districts; the combating of corruption; state property; and addressing sectarian tension.

Bahrain’s King and his family are Sunni Arabs. Most of the Bahraini population consists of Shia Muslims and foreign workers. The Shias have long-standing complaints of discrimination against them in jobs, housing and social acceptance.

“Bahrain’s leadership has taken many brave steps forward in the last year to show that democracy is alive in the kingdom, but this move seems to take us back to stage one,” Fulad said, adding:

“I believe this is a time for the second phase of dialogue and to concentrate on HRH the Crown Prince’s seven points. At the same time, reforms should be stronger so that people will believe reform is happening.”

Meanwhile, human rights defenders, medics, students and others targeted by the Bahraini government in its crackdown on pro-democracy efforts continue to face abusive detention despite growing calls for their release.

One of those calls came from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for the unconditional release of all Bahraini detainees imprisoned after a military trial. Human Rights First (HRF) noted that the Bahraini government had failed to comply with that request and, in fact, “is taking steps to delay the appeals of those accused.”

“Yesterday, a group of students from the University of Bahrain who were sentenced to 15 years each by the military court had their appeal hearing postponed until March. Five of them remain in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison,” said HRF’s Dooley.

“Their case and others like it make clear that Bahrain’s leaders are ignoring key calls for reform issued by Commissioner Pillay and even the Kingdom’s own Bassiouni Commission,” he said.

In addition to the students, the Bahrain regime continues to contest the appeals of others sentenced by the military court, including 20 medics who appear to have been prosecuted for treating injured protestors and telling the media about the nature and extent of injuries.

Dr. Nada Dhaif is one of the medics sentenced to 15 years after a trial in military court. Dr. Dhaif was summoned by the police for a four-hour interrogation on December 25.  During that interrogation, she was warned to keep a low profile, an apparent government response to her decision to speak with the media and human rights organizations about how she and others were tortured in detention.

Dr. Dhaif told Dooley, “I am being targeted for telling the world the continuing truth about Bahrain. Members of my family are also being harassed by the regime. I have only ever advocated peaceful reform but am being threatened for my human rights advocacy.”

Local human rights activists also report ongoing concerns about treatment in custody. Hassan Oun, aged 18, was rearrested today after speaking to a local human rights organization. During previous interrogations, Oun said he was raped by a security officer.

That officer allegedly later called Oun after his release and threatened to rearrest him and rape him until he died. According to Maryam Al Khawaja of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Oun was recently arrested again in what she said was revenge against him for speaking to their center.

Every indication points away from the Royal Family’s willingness to engage in discussions of reform and reverse the variety of heinous human rights abuses committed by the country’s security apparatus.

For most democracies in the international community, the King’s double-dealing has triggered a profound sense of disappointment and betrayal. Hopes soared high when the King, in a first-of-a-kind move in the Middle East, commissioned and accepted a genuinely independent report prepared under the leadership of a distinguished judge from Egypt. That report found that Bahrain was guilty of unacceptable human rights violations, including widespread torture in detention.

The King urged dialogue. But that word is not being heard much these days. It seems obvious that His Highness is attempting to sandbag the world, stalling for time.

Meantime, little is being heard from the US, where President Obama finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Bahrain is of strategic importance to American interests, as it is not only a supplier of oil, but host to the US Fifth Fleet.

Bahrain has hired a small army of PR people in the US and the UK to promote the notion that the “unrest” is over. No need to worry about it anymore. These communications gurus also want to see the Bahrain Grand Prix, the Kingdom’s Formula One racing event, rescheduled. It was cancelled earlier because of the violence in the country.

But now, there is an opportunity for the folks who supervise Formula One to show the world that the unrest was never over and is far from being over now. Just last week, two children died from inhaling tear gas fired at them by the security forces.

Formula One can honor these children and demonstrate that there are things more important than money. Helping to ensure the basic rights of a people is surely one of those things. And if Bahrain really values Formula One for its tourism and economic development, that gives the organizers enormous leverage.

We need to urge them to use it.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.