Michael H. Posner, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said Washington has been actively involved in discussions with both the Bahraini government and the protesters.
“We have been very clear from the get-go that we have a strong national security interest in Bahrain, a 60-year military history, and they are a key ally,” he said. “We are going to continue to engage on that level. But on a parallel track, we are absolutely committed to pursuing a human rights and democracy agenda.”
Shiites vs. Sunnis
Follow Muhafdah for a few days and you understand the forces threatening the government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
On a recent Thursday evening, Muhafdah drove to a rally of more than 2,500 anti-government demonstrators near the capital. When the 30-year-old activist arrived, looking stylish in his gelled hair, jeans and soft-leather loafers, men and women hugged him, kissed him on both cheeks and pushed him to the front. Muhafdah is among the country’s best-known human rights activists, and people treat him like a rock star.
One after another, speakers railed against the monarchy, demanding an elected government, more jobs, less discrimination and a less brutal police force.
The grievance here is partly rooted in the long-standing struggle between the two main branches of Islam, the Shiites and the Sunnis. Shiites constitute the majority of Bahrain’s 1.3 million people, but Muhafdah said Shiites like himself have long been excluded from most top government jobs, including in the army and the police.
Hussain Neamah, 47, dressed in an all-white traditional robe, told the crowd about how police killed his 16-year-old son, Ali, with two blasts of birdshot at close range on Sept. 28.
“He was killed with the regime’s gun,” Neamah said, and the crowd broke into chants of “Yasqot Hamad,” or “Down with Hamad.
When he left the stage, Neamah embraced Muhafdah with moist eyes. Police said that Ali was throwing molotov cocktails and that the officer who shot him was defending himself; Neamah said his son was unarmed.
Muhafdah embraced Neamah and offered a few quiet words of comfort.
“I try to give them support,” the activist said. “They are angry and sad. But this is the cost of our struggle.”
Driving away, Muhafdah said police seem to have been trying to reform since November, when a panel of international investigators who reviewed the government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters last year concluded that there was a “culture of impunity” in Bahrain’s security services. The monarchy was internationally condemned for torturing even doctors and nurses detained for treating wounded protesters; several medics remain in prison.
But no senior officials have been fired for the abuse. Muhafdah said the police culture is still brutal. “They are told: ‘The protesters are enemies. They are calling for the regime to fall down. Silence them,’ ” he said.