Bahrain’s government has until now maintained excellent relations with the United States, despite being accused of massive human rights violations over the past three years. On Monday, however, the regime decided to expel the United States’ top diplomat on human rights matters for meeting with an opposition group.
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, who only recently won confirmation after a lengthy delay in the Senate, is on travel to the small Persian Gulf country to discuss the promotion of increased democracy and human rights. In that role, on Sunday he met with members of the opposition group Al Wefaq, who advocate for more representation of the Shiite majority in the island’s politics. That meeting, however, has seen Bahrain declare Malinowski “persona non grata” — literally “an unwelcome person” in Latin — and asked him to leave the country.
Bahrain’s foreign ministry “said that the US official intervened flagrantly in Bahrain’s internal affairs and held meetings with a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors, thus discriminating between one people, contravening diplomatic norms and flouting normal interstate relations,” the state-run Bahrain News Agency reported. “In a statement today, it said that the decision is in line with the recommendations endorsed by the National Assembly in its extraordinary session held in July 2013.”
The flare-up over Malinowski’s meeting is related to Bahrain’s ongoing attempts to tamp down on protests against the Sunni royal family, which in the past have included beating and jailing dissidents, calling in the Saudi Arabian army, and spreading the story that any reforms are an Iranian plot to gain a new Shiite stronghold in the Gulf. According to the Associated Press, Malinowski had also scheduled meetings with the government for his three day meeting, which has now been cut short thanks to his removal. The government’s declaration has also made unlikely that the assistant secretary will meet with human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who was released from prison late May after serving two years for taking part in illegal protests.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki had few details to add on Malinowski’s expulsion at her daily press briefing, aside from noting that he current is still on the ground in Bahrain. The assistant secretary, she said, was “on a visit to reaffirm and strengthen” America’s ties to Bahrain, adding that “our team is in close touch on the ground to figure out exactly what’s happened here.”
The Bahraini government’s hostility towards Malinowski shouldn’t come as much of a surprise based on his previous writing on the abuses within the country. Prior to his nomination, Malinowski served as the director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington, DC office. In a 2012 dispatch titled “Bahrain: Prison Island,” he wrote candidly about the crackdown that ended many hopes for the spread of the protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Malinowski reported that despite assurances that human rights abuses had ended, “police torture and abuse have simply moved from police stations to the alleyways and back lots of Shiite villages,” while opposition leaders remained imprisoned “though their convictions were based on nothing more than the content of their speeches and participation in meetings and rallies challenging the monarchy.”
“Assistant Secretary Malinowski’s ouster from Bahrain makes clear what we’ve known for some time: Manama isn’t interested in genuine reform,” Sarah Margon, Malinowski’s replacement at Human Rights Watch’s DC office, told ThinkProgress in an email, referring to the capital city. “Malinowski’s expulsion also shows that those in government who are opposed to reform continue to call the shots.”
Human rights activists have long derided the United States’ policy towards Bahrain as hypocritical, alleging that Washington is willing to look the other way when crackdowns ensue due to the fact that the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet currently docks in the island’s port. The policy of selling arms to the Bahraini government despite its human rights violations is one issue that has united both the right and the left in opposition.
The State Department late Monday night issued a statement on Malinowski’s expulsion, saying that the United States is “deeply concerned” about the move. “Assistant Secretary Malinowski’s visit to Bahrain had been coordinated far in advance and warmly welcomed and encouraged by the government of Bahrain, which is well-aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially-recognized political societies,” the statement from Jen Psaki read. “Contrary to our longstanding bilateral relationship and in violation of international diplomatic protocol, the government insisted — without advance warning and after his visit had already commenced — to have a Foreign Ministry representative present at all of Assistant Secretary Malinowski’s private meetings with individuals and groups representing a broad spectrum of Bahraini society, including those held at the U.S. embassy. These actions are not consistent with the strong partnership between the United States and Bahrain.”