December 2, 2012

The writer is president and chief executive officer of Human Rights First.

During my 25 years as a lawyer and human rights advocate, I’ve been in many courtrooms in many places. But I’ve never seen anything quite like what I recently witnessed in Bahrain. I sat in on one of the hearings for the 28 medics being prosecuted after treating injured protesters during the democratic uprising last year.

In the chaotic courtroom, the judge dismissed arguments by defense lawyers that their clients had been tortured. That’s when Nabeel Tammam, one of Bahrain’s leading ear, nose and throat specialists, raised his hand and asked for permission to speak. Seemingly mistaking him for one of the defense lawyers, the judge acknowledged Tammam, who spoke the words he had not been allowed to say publicly before any Bahraini judicial authority since his detention in 2011: “My name is Nabeel Tammam. I am one of the medics, and I was tortured.” Tammam described what he suffered at the hands of government officials; the judge quickly ended the hearing.

If this is what the rule of law looks like in Bahrain, I thought, no wonder the country is in crisis.

It has been one year since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a body set up to investigate the events surrounding the uprising, issued its report. The BICI confirmed what Human Rights First and other international nongovernmental organizations had been saying for months: that the government had swept up thousands in illegal arrests, used excessive force against protesters and engaged in a pattern of abuse that resulted in at least four prisoners being tortured to death.

To his credit, King Hamad accepted the report’s recommendations and promised to implement them. Several Bahraini government ministers I met pointed proudly to a new police code of conduct and a special office to prosecute human rights abuses. But the people on the receiving end of the policing and justice systems in Bahrain told me that these “paper reforms” have meant next to nothing in the real world. If anything, they say, police conduct has worsened, and the judicial system remains hopelessly politicized.

No senior government figure has been held accountable for last year’s arrests or deaths in custody. Political prisoners remain in jail. All public gatherings have been banned, and last month three men were sent to prison for criticizing the king on Twitter.

Public protests are growing increasingly violent. In recent months, a pattern of clashes involving police and a small minority of protesters has emerged, leaving people dead on both sides. Since the BICI report, the government has imprisoned leading activists, including Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. His colleague Said Yousif told me, “They’re picking off figures in civil society, those who speak out against the government. The Bassiouni report has changed nothing. We’re not seeing any sign of real reform here.” The government recently took Yousif into custody.

Meanwhile, the United States has been conflicted about what to do in Bahrain. The tiny island country in the Persian Gulf hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and the conventional wisdom is that this prevents the U.S. from criticizing the regime too openly. But the U.S.’ “carrots-only” strategy of trying to bolster reformers in the royal family has not worked. The conventional wisdom has it backward; precisely because of the 5th Fleet’s presence, no other country has a greater stake in seeing a peaceful transition to democracy there. And that requires the United States to find its voice.

Tammam and the other 27 medics received their verdicts on Nov. 21. Five were acquitted while Tammam and 22 others were convicted and sentenced to three months in jail.

The United States, which has sent observers to the medics’ trials, should state publicly what it says in private: The trials fall far short of international standards. This should be part of a more muscular U.S. approach toward its ally.

In a region where threats to U.S. interests abound, it may be tempting for the Obama administration to conclude that, while not ideal, the status quo in Bahrain is tolerable for now. That would be a mistake. There is no status quo in Bahrain. The situation is deteriorating, and pro-democracy activists are growing more desperate. There will either be reform, or a descent into worsening violence. The United States may not be able to control the outcome, but — for its own strategic interests and the good of the Bahraini people — it must do everything it can to persuade the regime to choose the right path.