Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was full of tough talk when he visited the island kingdom of Bahrain in early December.
The United States, he vowed, will continue to guard “the free flow of energy and commerce” from the Persian Gulf and keep Iran nuclear-free, through the presence of 35,000 US military personnel or the (as-yet-unproven) regional missile defense system.
Hagel also trumpeted the American commitment to “political reform” in the gulf region. But the Pentagon chief uttered not a word about the hundreds of Bahrainis languishing in prison—many without adequate medical care—for demanding the very rights he says they deserve. Bahrainis have engaged in nearly daily demonstrations against the Al Khalifa monarchy for the past three years. This resistance started on Valentine’s Day, 2011, when thousands gathered at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital city, Manama, to demand free and fair elections, real power for the popularly elected lower house of Parliament, the release of political prisoners and an end to government corruption.
From the beginning, the monarchy has sought to suppress this activism with home raids, torture, show trials and lengthy prison sentences. At least three dozen people have been killed, including four who died while in police custody. No one has been held accountable for the deaths.
Another thirty-four people—including three children under the age of 10—are suspected to have died from exposure to tear gas or from being struck in the head by tear gas canisters. The group Physicians for Human Rights accuses the government of “weaponizing” tear gas by firing canisters into homes and cars and in “unprecedented” amounts, especially in Shiite villages, where it has become a virtual fog.