WASHINGTON — Human rights activists at a congressional hearing Friday implored the Obama administration to publicly and forcefully denounce Bahrain's violent and abusive crackdown against anti-government protesters.
The only problem was nobody from the administration attended the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing to listen to the pleas. Two top State Department officials — Political Affairs Undersecretary William Burns and Jeffrey Feltman, an assistant secretary in State's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs — were invited to testify, but didn't show up.
"I was expecting at least one, possibly two witnesses from the State Department to testify," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., the bipartisan commission's s co-chair. "Regrettably, over the past 72 hours, we were informed that no one in any of the bureaus is available today."
A State Department official said Burns and Feltman were unable to testify because of scheduling conflicts.
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Human rights activists complained that the White House has been publicly mum amid reports that Bahrain's Sunni-led government, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is waging a violent and bloody crackdown — destroying Shiite mosques, illegally detaining and torturing dissenters, attacking medical personnel to prevent them from treating wounded protestors, abusing women and girls, and expelling journalists from the island nation.
Joe Stork, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told the panel that about 1,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested in Bahrain since March, with about 630 still being detained.
"What is most disturbing is the fact that we don't know where these people are, neither do their family members," Stork said. "The use of incommunicado detention raises very serious concerns about torture."
Stork and Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, called on President Barack Obama to end what they consider a passive diplomatic approach to Bahrain and take concrete actions to register Washington's displeasure over the crackdown.
Stork said the U.S. should impose a comprehensive ban on security assistance to Bahrain, including commercial sales of riot control and military hardware, until the crackdown is eased and those responsible for use of force are held accountable. In addition, he said, U.S. military officials should tell their Bahraini counterparts that military relations depend on a halt in human rights violations in the country.
"We further urge Congress and the Obama administration to criticize these abuses by name, such as unlawful killings and torture...," Stork said. "We cannot guarantee that public diplomacy will have the desired effect, but the time for depending only on quiet diplomacy has passed. What's at stake is not only the situation in Bahrain but U.S. credibility regarding human rights issues throughout the region."
The administration is weighing a petition by the AFL-CIO urging the U.S. to warn Bahrain that its crackdown on anti-government demonstrators could hurt a 2006 trade pact that ended tariffs on trade between the two countries.
White House officials said Obama called Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa on April 30 and told him that "the United States, as a long-standing partner of Bahrain, believes that Bahrain's stability depends upon respect for the universal human rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis."
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