2011-12-22 / Commentary

Repressing democracy, with American arms

Nicholas Kristof

SITRA, Bahrain — When President Barack Obama decides soon whether to approve a $53 million arms sale to our close but despotic ally Bahrain, he must weigh the fact that America has a major naval base here and that Bahrain is a moderate, modernizing bulwark against Iran.

Yet he should also understand the systematic, violent repression here, the kind that apparently killed a 14-year-old boy, Ali al-Sheikh, and continues to torment his family.

Ali grew up here in Sitra, a collection of poor villages far from the gleaming bank towers of Bahrain’s skyline. Almost every day pro- democracy protests still bubble up in Sitra, and even when they are completely peaceful they are crushed with a barrage of American-made tear gas.

People here admire much about America and welcomed me into their homes, but there is also anger that the tear gas shells that they sweep off the streets each morning are made by a Pennsylvania company, NonLethal Technologies. It is a private company that declined to comment, but the American government grants it a license for these exports — and every shell fired undermines our image.

In August, Ali joined one of the protests. A policeman fired a shell at Ali from less than 15 feet away, according to the account of the family and human rights groups. The shell apparently hit the boy in the back of the neck, and he died almost immediately, a couple of minutes’ walk from his home.

The government claims that the bruise was “inconsistent” with a blow from a tear gas grenade. Frankly, I’ve seen the Bahrain authorities lie so much that I don’t credit their denial.

Jawad al-Sheikh, Ali’s father, says that at the hospital, the government tried to force him to sign papers saying Ali had not been killed by the police.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has recently distanced himself from the killings and torture, while pledging that Bahrain will reform. There have indeed been modest signs of improvement, and a member of the royal family, Saqer Al Khalifa, told me that progress will now be accelerated.

Yet despite the lofty rhetoric, the police have continued to persecute Ali’s family. For starters, riot policemen fired tear gas at the boy’s funeral, villagers say.

The police summoned Jawad for interrogation, most recently this month. He fears he will be fired from his job in the Ministry of Electricity.

Skirmishes break out almost daily in the neighborhood, with the police firing tear gas for offenses as trivial as honking to the tune of “ Down, Down, Hamad.” Disproportionately often, those tear gas shells seem aimed at Ali’s house. Once, Jawad says, a shell was fired into the house through the front door. A couple of weeks ago, riot policemen barged into the house and ripped photos of Ali from the wall, said the boy’s mother, Maryam Abdulla.

“They’re worried about their throne,” she added, “ so they want us to live in fear.”

Mourners regularly leave flowers and photos of Ali on his grave, which is in a vacant lot near the home. Perhaps because some messages call him a martyr, the riot police come regularly and smash the pictures and throw away the flowers. The family has not purchased a headstone yet, for fear that the police will destroy it.

The repression is ubiquitous. Consider Zainab al-Khawaja, 28, whose husband and father are both in prison and have been tortured for pro-democracy activities, according to human rights reports. Police officers have threatened to cut off Khawaja’s tongue, she told me, and they broke her father’s heart by falsely telling him that she had been shipped to Saudi Arabia to be raped and tortured. She braved the risks by talking to me about this last week — before she was arrested, too.

Khawaja earned her college degree in Wisconsin. She has read deeply of Gandhi and of Gene Sharp, an American scholar who writes about how to use nonviolent protest to overthrow dictators. She was sitting peacefully protesting in a traffic circle when the police attacked her. First they fired tear gas grenades next to her and then handcuffed her and dragged her away — sometimes slapping and hitting her as video cameras rolled. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights says that she was beaten more at the police station.

Khawaja is tough as nails, and when we walked alongside demonstrations together, she seemed unbothered by tear gas that left me blinded and coughing. But she worried about her 2- year-old daughter, Jude. And one time as we were driving back from visiting a family whose baby had just died, possibly because so much tear gas had been fired in the neighborhood, Khawaja began crying. “I think I’m losing it,” she said. “It all just gets to me.”

Since the government has now silenced her by putting her in jail, I’ll give her the last word. I asked her a few days before her arrest about the proposed American arms sale to Bahrain.

“At least don’t sell them arms,” she pleaded. “ When Obama sells arms to dictators repressing people seeking democracy, he ruins the reputation of America. It’s never in America’s interest to turn a whole people against it.”

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