Bahrain Arrests and Tortures American Tagi Al-Maidan, and U.S. Barely Lifts a Finger to Help

Bahrain's al-Khalifa regime, which systematically discriminates against the country's Shi'a majority, is out of control. Ever since Bahrani Shi'as organized around the February 14 movement in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, the regime has unwaveringly cracked down on peaceful protesters. In the midst of this brutal repression, security forces arrested a U.S. citizen and then violently dispersed Barhain's Tamarod Movement protests on August 14, even as the U.S. continues to support and arm the Bahraini regime, failing to respect human rights or adequately protect its citizens.

Invading his family's house in the middle of the night, Bahraini police woke U.S. national Tagi al-Maidan and took him into custody. There, they tortured him for several hours and forced him to falsely confess to attending a memorial for a dead protester and throwing a stone at a burning police car. The government is charging him with damaging the police car and attempting murder at a pro-Shi'a "disturbance" (the regime's word for protest), accusations that could send him to prison for 15 years. Despite the baseless charges, al-Maidan denies ever attending the protest in the first place.

The State Department stated that the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain is providing Al-Maidan with the "appropriate consular services." While U.S. citizens travelling or residing abroad are indeed responsible for obeying host country laws, Tagi al-Maidan is clearly a political prisoner of an absolutist regime and U.S. support should go well beyond standard consular assistance. Because al-Maidan's arrest is clearly politically motivated, high level U.S. officials should place political pressure on Bahrain to release him.

Nonetheless the State Department made a mockery of itself when it insisted that Bahrain is committed to "transparent judicial proceedings in accordance with universal human rights and due process." Either the State Department's analysts have not read Human Rights Watch's extensive report on Bahrain's corrupt, heavily politicized judicial system, or they're unethically taking on a PR role for the al-Khalifa regime. Not only does the judicial system obtain confessions under torture, particularly targeting journalists and human rights activists, it selectively ignores clear evidence that could lead to acquittals, largely because the king and prime minister appoint the judges.

The State Department's remarks are indicative of a broader, rotten relationship between the U.S. and Bahrain. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for all naval operations in the region. The U.S. national security establishment considers it an important buffer in the cold war against Iran.

This establishment fears that a truly democratic Bahrain could push the island to closer ties with Iran, giving the country further leverage in the Gulf. However, the protesters are primarily interested in equal rights and political representation, and the United States' blatant support of the regime could actually force Bahraini Shi'as into pursuing closer ties with Iran. National Intelligence Director and U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Dennis Blair realizes this and has called for the U.S. to relocate the Fifth Fleet, urging it to put peaceful democratic change before short-term military or economic gains.

Regardless of the human rights situation and the Obama administration's dubious strategic wisdom, American support of the Bahraini regime goes well beyond tacit consent. In fact, the U.S. continues to arm the Bahrani regime, as it does for Bahrain's allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two countries which deployed troops to the island to help suppress the pro-democracy protests.  

Facing opposition from Congress in 2012, the Obama administration decreased the value of the $53 million arms sale in order to continue arms shipments while avoiding congressional approval. The State Department maintains that the weapons are "related exclusively to external defense, counter-terrorism, and the protection of U.S. forces." However, the Bahrani authorities use live ammunition on protesters, and weapons used for external defense can clearly be used against a country's own people.

U.S. positions and policies on Bahrain are neither in the interest of human rights nor national security interests. The Obama administration is so supportive of the al-Khalifa regime that it refuses to put high level pressure on the ruling family to release its own citizen, a political prisoner. The U.S. must live up to its high minded rhetoric and ideals, unequivocally supporting Tagi al-Maidan and the Bahrani people, otherwise it risks further undermining its marred credibility both at home and on the international stage.