|U.S. to Lift Rights Conditions on F-16 Sale to Bahrain: On March 29, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson notified Congress that the United States would proceed with the sale of nineteen F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without human rights conditions attached, according to Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to the Associated Press, "The notice triggers a 40-day 'consultation' period in which committee staff can review a draft of the Bahrain approval, ask questions about the sale, and raise any concerns. Then the State Department will send a formal notification to Congress, setting off a final, 30-day review period, during which Congress could pass a joint resolution or take other steps to stop the sale."
The $3 billion dollar deal had previously been blocked by the Obama administration, which placed conditions on the sale, including the release of rights activist Nabeel Rajab, and "allowing some organization by the regime’s political opposition following the forced dissolution of the opposition al-Wefaq party."
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Rights Commission, said “such a move would be an extremely short-sighted and unprincipled choice that increases the risk of instability in Bahrain and puts America’s long-term security at risk.” Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at POMED, said, “The Bahraini government ignored those [human rights] requests, confident that the U.S. government would cave as it had done so many times in the past. Now, it appears the Trump administration is eager to release the F-16s, despite the Bahrainis taking even more steps backward since President Trump took office.”
Human rights organisations have widely condemned the announcement. Sunjeev Bery, an advocacy director at Amnesty International, said, “This deal sends a dangerous signal to Bahrain and all other countries that engage in serious human rights violations.” According to Brian Dooley, since the resumption of sales to Bahrain in June 2015, the situation has become more violent and unstable. The move comes days after Secretary Tillerson met with Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, at the Department of State on March 24.
Health Concerns Raised Amid New Prisoner Restrictions: In the last week, Bahrain has reportedly intensified restrictions on inmates at Jau Prison, the country’s largest long-term male detention facility. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) has claimed that “authorities have particularly targeted political prisoners,” subjecting the ‘Bahrain 13’ to “severe deprivation of medical care.” Inmates report a wide range of new abuses, including the authorities cancelling or severely limiting family visits, ignoring detainee complaints, and preventing detainees from accessing medical care unless they wear a uniform with shackles and consent to an invasive strip search.
U.S. Central Command boss Gen. Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee on March 29 in his prepared statement that the block on F-16 sales “due to concerns of potential human rights abuses in the country, continues to strain our relationship.”
The restrictions come as multiple reports detailing the deterioration in health of notable human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja begin to surface. On March 24, Amnesty International reported that Rajab has been “held in solitary confinement for nine months, with growing concerns about the effect it is having on his health and well-being.” Meanwhile, Brian Dooley reported that al-Khawaja’s “family say he has been having serious problems with his right eye for over three weeks, but is being denied adequate medical care.”
Young Bahraini Dies After Being Shot in January: On March 24, Mustafa Hamdan, 18, died in a local hospital, two months after being shot in the head during a raid near the home of Sheikh Issa Qassim. He had been in a coma since January 26, when security forces, wearing masks and civilian clothes, allegedly opened fire on the crowd that had gathered outside the house; several others were wounded.
Meanwhile, Hamdan’s funeral on March 27 was reportedly attacked “with tear gas and shotgun bullets, injuring those gathered.” Among those harmed was Mazen Mahdi, a photojournalist. He was targeted with tear gas despite wearing a press vest. Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, said, “The fact that the security forces attacked the funeral march of a man they killed shows how deep the culture of impunity goes in Bahrain.
Bahrain Alleges Iran-backed Assassination Plans: On March 27, Bahrain alleged breaking up a fourteen-member group backed by Iran that had planned assassinations. State media released the names of all fourteen men, and reported that eleven of them are suspected of receiving overseas training under the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah in Iraq. Allegedly, the group’s two leaders were abroad in Iran at the time of the raid. Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said police had seized weapons, explosives, and bomb-making materials. Bahram Ghassemi, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, rejected the allegations as “lies” and urged Manama to refrain from blaming Iran and instead address Bahrainis’ human rights concerns. Earlier this month, government authorities said they had arrested 25 members of an Iran-backed “terror cell” involved in recent attacks on the Bahraini security forces, including a deadly jail break in January.