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Bahrain inks US deal on heels of prison hunger strike

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa met with senior US officials in Washington following the largest prison protest in Bahrain's history.
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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday hailed strengthened ties and shared interests with Bahrain, a long-standing US partner in the Persian Gulf whose government has been accused of muzzling its peaceful opposition.  

Blinken hosted Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also prime minister, at the State Department for the signing of a bilateral agreement aimed at bolstering security and defense cooperation, enhancing economic ties and strengthening collaboration on science and technology. 

“At the heart of the agreement is a shared goal: working together to build a region that is more secure, more prosperous, and that's more connected to the world economy,” Blinken said in a joint announcement. 

As Jared Szuba has reported, the Biden administration hopes the agreement will be the first in a series of similar deals with Middle Eastern countries as Washington seeks to maintain its influence in the region. 

Casting a shadow over the news, however, was a mass hunger strike launched last month by inmates demanding improved living conditions in the Jau prison, which holds most of Bahrain's prisoners of conscience. Activists say more than 800 prisoners participated in the strike, making it one of the biggest expressions of dissent in Bahrain since the Arab Spring uprising there more than a decade ago. 

Reached for comment, a Bahraini government spokesperson said Manama "does not tolerate mistreatment of any kind."

"Bahrain takes the welfare of all individuals within its criminal justice system extremely seriously and our record and actions demonstrate that,” the spokesperson said. 

The prisoners, many of whom developed serious health concerns amid the prolonged hunger strike, announced Monday that they would pause their protest after Bahraini authorities promised to grant them extra rights, including improved health care and increased hours of exposure to sunlight. If those changes aren’t implemented by Sept. 30, the inmates plan to resume their strike “with even greater determination,” according to the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). 

Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, BIRD’s advocacy director and a former detainee at Jau prison, attributed the promised reforms to the crown prince’s high-profile trip to Washington. 

“It took authorities 36 days to offer them a proper deal, and I cannot see a good reason for them to show some flexibility other than the visit,” al-Wadaei said. 

Blinken on Wednesday touted the Gulf country's hosting of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, whose duties include deterring Iran from interfering with commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. 

“Without us being physically there, thanks to the access of the Bahrainis, that deterrence becomes a lot more challenging,” said Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official who is director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute.  

Beyond that, Saab said, “cooperation is rather limited and obviously subject to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, which, let's not kid ourselves, is the guardian of Bahrain.” 

Bahrain’s majority-Shiite population of some 1.5 million people is ruled by a Sunni monarchy that closely depends for security on its neighbor to the west, Saudi Arabia, whose troops helped crush the 2011 uprising, which saw more than 100,000 protesters pour onto the streets demanding a constitutional monarchy. 

At least 35 died in the unrest. At the time, rights groups perceived a double standard in the Barack Obama administration’s more measured calls for restraint in Bahrain, compared to its condemnations of government crackdowns elsewhere in the Middle East. 

Bahrain has since arrested thousands of people, including journalists, activists and protesters, according to rights groups. 

Asked if senior US officials would press Bahrain’s crown prince this week for the release of political prisoners, a senior administration official told Al-Monitor in a phone briefing Tuesday that the US has engaged in “candid conservations” with the Bahrainis and pointed to “important strides” the country has made on human rights. 

The State Department’s annual human rights report notes that Bahrain has “substantially reduced” the number of prisoners in custody following the 2021 expansion of an alternative sentencing program.  

“We understand that some arrangements have been made,” the administration official said of the hunger strike. “We're hopeful that that situation is now being resolved."

Brett McGurk, the top Middle East adviser for the White House, had met with the crown prince last week in Manama. In Washington, the crown prince met with senior US officials, including Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.  

As the US and Bahrain inked their new partnership agreement, the Gulf country's most prominent political prisoner announced that he was resuming his hunger strike. Human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 2011 protests, said Wednesday that he would refuse food after authorities allegedly prevented him from attending a scheduled medical appointment. Al-Khawaja is one of the more than 1,200 prisoners detained in Bahrain on political grounds, BIRD estimates. 

"The debate should not be about improving conditions or political prisoners," BIRD's al-Wadaei said. "The debate should be about unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners.”

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