Prison Island

Bahrain has badly botched its local version of the Arab Spring. And there seems to be no way out.

MANAMA, Bahrain — When the boys at the head of the column bolted, so did we. A colleague and I had been observing their nighttime march through Diraz, an older, poorer suburb of Bahrain's capital mostly populated by members of the country's Shiite majority. Teenagers and young men walked in front, women in black chadors behind them, chanting "down with Hamad" -- Bahrain's king. The protest was intended as a rebuke to the Formula One auto race Bahrain's ruling family was about to stage in late April to show the world that all was well in the Gulf kingdom after a ruthless crackdown on dissent and more than a year of unrest.

We watched as the youth of Diraz peacefully made their way toward a main road. The riot police waited for them there. Maybe we should have stood fast, on the notion that police chase those who run. But when Bahrain's finest suppress demonstrations, they often fire birdshot and tear-gas canisters directly into the crowd. And the magic words "I am an American" have an effective range far shorter than that of a riot gun.

So we sprinted away with the scattered marchers down one darkened alley, then another. When it was clear the neighborhood was surrounded, we took shelter in a house. The police broke in and pepper-sprayed our eyes; I spoke the magic words, which seemed to calm matters, though we heard screams coming from other parts of the house.

At the police station, we waited as they verified our permission to be in the country. Outside, police tear-gassed mothers of the boys arrested with us, who had come to demand their sons' release. The gas drifted into the station. Everyone -- police, protesters, and we two foreigners -- tasted the sting of Bahrain's crackdown on dissent and its inexorable blowback.

Two days later, we met Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, Bahrain's chief of public security. We chatted amiably about our experience, reassuring him that we were not mistreated. But we also told him about what we had heard from families in a village next door to Diraz. Their sons had been arrested after a demonstration earlier that week and were taken to the same police station where we'd been detained. Superficially, their story was the same as that of the protesters arrested with us, with two exceptions: No foreigners were watching, and according to multiple eyewitnesses, police had beaten them brutally after their arrest, throwing some off the roof of a building onto a neighboring balcony.

In November 2011, Bahrain had a golden chance to end this kind of police brutality for good. King Hamad had appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the esteemed international jurist Cherif Bassiouni, to look into the human rights violations committed when the country's pro-democracy movement was suppressed last year. Bassiouni wrote an honest report, documenting the arrest and torture of opposition leaders and urging far-reaching reforms to punish those responsible and end human rights abuses. To his credit, the king accepted the report and promised to implement it. The government dropped charges against some dissidents accused of speech "crimes," reinstated many people who had been dismissed from work and school for attending protests, and reduced abuse of prisoners in formal detention facilities.

Since then, the momentum has dissipated. There has been no real resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition to pursue what moderates on both sides agree is the only viable solution to Bahrain's crisis -- a constitutional monarchy in which government ministers are chosen by an elected parliament rather than appointed by the king. This course of action would necessarily give Bahrain's Shiite majority more say in running the country, a prospect that is anathema to portions of the island's ruling family as well as its regional backers.

The government has also not ended human rights abuses against protesters. As we would see during our visit, police torture and abuse have simply moved from police stations to the alleyways and back lots of Shiite villages. The courts have agreed to retry key opposition leaders, but the government still refuses to release them, though their convictions were based on nothing more than the content of their speeches and participation in meetings and rallies challenging the monarchy. Also, for the first time in months, there is no approaching milestone -- no committee to be appointed, or report to be issued, or deadline to be met -- that might give moderate leaders reason to ask their people to be patient. The absence of hope is radicalizing both sides.

Relentless messaging in official media has convinced many Sunni supporters of the monarchy that opposition calls for democracy are an Iranian plot to impose a Shiite theocracy on Bahrain. Some demand that the king reject any compromise. Additionally, there are growing whispers about Sunni jihadi groups taking advantage of these fears to gain a foothold on the island. Meanwhile, in opposition strongholds, protesters who are beaten and gassed only come back more angry and determined to confront the police. In this climate, the toughest boys, the ones who fight back, become the heroes. Opposition leaders who preach nonviolence risk being marginalized.

At the Interior Ministry, police officials showed us videos of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police. In the opening sequences, the gas bombs are thrown from a distance; as the weeks go by the protesters get closer, until they are right in the officers' faces before dousing them with flames. The officials wanted us to see what their police go through, and they succeeded. Inadvertently, they also showed us that their repressive tactics are failing. Protesters are not retreating -- they are losing their fear.

Much of Bahrain's police force consists of Sunni foreigners, recruited from countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen. Sent to subdue Shiite neighborhoods that are alien territory, they seem bewildered by the youth who come at them every night. Some may also be transposing their homegrown prejudices onto Bahrain's struggle. A Bahraini college student told me that after being arrested at a protest, a Syrian policeman, obviously from that country's Sunni majority, beat him while shouting, "Do you like Bashar al-Assad? He is killing my family."

If King Hamad hopes to break this vicious cycle of violence, he will have to assert the authority he is so eager to preserve and make a bold gesture soon, even at the risk of angering his hard-line family and supporters. The best way to do this would be to release Bahrain's remaining imprisoned opposition leaders, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a hero to the young Shiite protesters who has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. If freed and given a stake in the political process, these leaders might have the moral authority to calm opposition supporters and restore their faith in peaceful struggle.

The hard-liners in the ruling family don't want to release these men because some called for replacing the monarchy rather than reforming it. But there may be another factor: Although most of the remaining high-profile prisoners are more uncompromising than the leaders of al-Wefaq, Bahrain's main legal Shiite opposition party, some are also arguably more secular. One, Ibrahim Sharif, is the Sunni leader of a secular-left party; another, Abduljalil al-Singace, is a human rights activist and political leader who studied under U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, at Stanford University.

Government hard-liners want the world to believe that the conflict in Bahrain is strictly sectarian, with all Sunnis on one side and all Shiites -- manipulated by Iran -- on the other. This helps them generate support from their base and from other Sunni monarchies, while making Western governments wary of the protest movement. It allows them to make the argument one government minister used on me: "The king wants an elected government, but first we need a nonsectarian opposition."

Meanwhile, they keep some of the strongest secular-minded leaders in jail.

Some critics of the Obama administration accuse it of siding with Bahrain's ruling family and being silent about its repression. The truth is more complex. Last year, State Department officials made an all-out effort to broker a compromise between the government and al-Wefaq, a deal that ultimately fell apart. When the king decreed emergency rule, the United States helped convince him not to ban the opposition party and, later, to appoint the Bassiouni Commission and release many detainees. But few Bahrainis in the opposition give the United States any credit for its actions because it has exerted pressure quietly, always leavened with public pledges of fealty to the U.S.-Bahraini partnership. The contrast with America's condemnation of abuses in Syria and Libya is, to them, obvious and painful. As one of Bahrain's most popular opposition figures, Nabeel Rajab, has said, "The Western governments have supported the other revolutions and are tough against dictators. We want one policy. We don't want to be treated differently."

Bahrain gets different treatment, of course, because it hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, helping the U.S. military project its might in the Gulf and contain Iran. U.S. military leaders have backed up the State Department in urging King Hamad to reform, but balk at any statement or action that they fear would jeopardize their base. While they acknowledge that Bahrain's repression of its Shiite population plays into Iran's hands, they worry about what would happen if the Shiites won their rights. One U.S. commander recently told me, "If there were one-man, one-vote in Bahrain, we wouldn't be here."

In fact, the most prominent leaders of Bahrain's dissident movement say they do not oppose the U.S. military presence in their country. No one knows whether that sentiment will hold in the face of continued repression, but from the U.S. point of view, that is an argument for urgency in demanding reform, not caution. Bahrain's Shiite majority isn't likely to be kept down forever. It is surely in the U.S. interest to be seen supporting its legitimate aspirations before disappointment in the United States devolves into rage.

The problem with U.S. policy toward Bahrain is not that it takes geopolitics into account. It's that U.S. officials may be calculating the geopolitics incorrectly. There is a growing feeling in the Middle East that, however high-minded Obama's rhetoric about democracy may be, the United States will always line up with its autocratic Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf against their opponents, especially if those opponents are Shiite. To many, it looks like the United States opposes dictators like Syria's Assad not for the sake of oppressed people, but to aid one side in a Saudi-Iranian cold war. The Iranian government, as well as every anti-American group in the region, benefits from this perception. Bahrain is the place where America can disprove it.

In May 2011, Obama condemned the Bahraini government's use of "brute force" and said there could be no "real dialogue" in Bahrain "when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." The administration should be projecting more of that kind of clarity and urgency today -- for the sake of both principle and national interest. Weapons sales to Bahrain should remain suspended until the government eases up on peaceful protest and resumes political reform. While it is true that the U.S. security partnership with Bahrain gives it a degree of influence with the ruling family, it is time to convey what is equally true -- that America's military presence on the island won't be sustainable if the government responds to protest by intensifying violent repression to an intolerable point. If Bahrain's rulers believe the United States will continue to depend on them no matter what they do, they will be less likely to heed U.S. concerns. Showing a willingness to reconsider the partnership may be the best way to save it.

When we were released from detention, we walked out to the courtyard of the police station, where Rajab, the activist, waited for us. A youth I later interviewed told me that police had made him shout "down with Nabeel Rajab" as they beat him after an arrest. But here was Rajab, having a good-natured conversation with policemen and government officials. Nearby, a well known blogger who had been arrested with us calmly debated a police official who was upset because the activist had accused him of torture on Twitter.

Bahrain is almost broken, but not entirely so. The government is persecuting its critics, but not killing them on a large scale as in Syria. As everyone we met told us, Bahrain is a small country: The protagonists on both sides know each other, and there still seems to be room for compromise. But the window is rapidly closing, and once it shuts -- as in Syria -- it will be hard to turn back. Preventing this outcome by holding Bahrain to the commitments it made to the Bassiouni Commission, and encouraging political compromise, is America's paramount interest in Bahrain.

AFP/Getty Images


Out of the Embassy and Into the Fire

U.S. officials cut a dramatic deal for the freedom of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, but the agreement appears to contain few hard assurances that China will keep its end of the bargain.

BEIJING—When Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy here Wednesday afternoon, en route to the uncertainty of a Chinese hospital armed only with the guarantees painstakingly negotiated for him by his American protectors, he got through to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a borrowed telephone.

"I want to kiss you," he told Clinton in broken English, according to an account provided by one of the senior administration officials who accompanied him in the van.

But Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.

Either way, not long after, the blind dissident, a legal activist whose cause had in the past been publicly championed by Clinton after his crusade to expose forced sterilizations infuriated local authorities and led to his extralegal house arrest, left the custody of the Americans to reunite with his wife and two children at a Beijing hospital.

The deal, Clinton said in a statement, "reflected his choices and our values." But Chen later told the Associated Press from his hospital room that he was told that Chinese officials had threatened to beat his wife to death if he had not left the embassy.

In a statement,  Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell reiterated the department's version of events. "I was there," he said. "Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he ready to go. He said, 'zou,' -- let's go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."

It was an emotional, and highly unclear, ending to a diplomatic drama that has placed human rights abuses in China once again atop the American agenda, much to the dismay of a Chinese government playing host here to Clinton, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and some 200 American officials for an annual strategic and economic dialogue meant to showcase a very different kind of relationship between the two world powers.

As recounted by two senior U.S. officials who participated in the days of talks, it was an elaborate drama of the sort that rarely plays out publicly, a mix of Cold War-vintage dissident intrigue, superpower niceties, and human emotions running high after a week without sleep for all involved-and set against the backdrop of an urgent deadline in the form of the intricately choreographed U.S.-China dialogue set to begin here within hours.

This very first account, provided to the press corps traveling with Clinton not long after arriving in Beijing on a 20-hour journey here, confirms for the first time what had been suspected since Chen's dramatic flight from his village became public last Friday: U.S. officials did in fact help Chen, injured during his escape, enter the U.S. Embassy here.

Chen, according to their account, had been injured in his foot when he jumped over the wall to make his escape-actually, said one of the American administration officials, he had to make his way over eight walls-and begin his long journey to Beijing. Once in American hands, an extraordinary process ensued as American and Chinese diplomats tried to figure out how to handle a situation that had last come up back in the chaotic days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when a dissident academic, Fang Lizhi, ended up in the U.S. Embassy for more than a year while his fate was negotiated and before ending up in American exile.

Everyone seemed determined to avoid that outcome this time, from Chen, who repeatedly told the Americans he wanted to remain in his country, to the U.S. and Chinese officials who now have much more at stake in a relationship between the world's two top economies than they did two decades ago, before China's remarkable economic rise and ascent on the global stage.

When word of Chen's arrival reached Washington, Clinton immediately dispatched top officials, including Campbell and State Department counsel Harold Koh, to lead the negotiations. According to the account provided here, it was an intense and deeply personal process of working with the fugitive once he arrived at the embassy on Thursday, April 26; Chen, who is blind, held Campbell by one hand and Koh by another at various points.

In the end, the deal they negotiated seemed to offer Chen promises, but no real guarantees. As outlined by the Americans, it included the following: a promise not only to reunite Chen with his wife and two children but also that he "will be treated humanely," that U.S officials would have access to him in the hospital; that he would ultimately be "relocated to a safe environment," and would have the opportunity to attend a university to continue his self-guided studies in law. There was no word on the other human rights activists who have apparently been rounded up in recent days after helping Chen's escape; only the American officials urging the authorities "to take no retribution" against them.

"We think we have helped to secure for him a better future," said one of the U.S. officials involved.

Still, it's a deal that's sure to be second-guessed and parsed endlessly, and one that risks alienating both the Chinese, who, angered by the incident, put out a statement on the news agency Xinhua demanding an American apology (one was not forthcoming) and human rights advocates, who may fear that the guarantees to Chen are not sufficient.

For Clinton, too, it was an important moment, and she will have to balance on this trip her stature as a human rights icon -- during Clinton's phone call with Chen, the U.S. official said, they discussed Clinton's longtime support for Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi -- with the more measured tone on such issues she has taken while serving as Secretary of State. Clinton -- whose most famous speech as first lady was a rousing address in Beijing labeling women's rights as human rights -- was widely criticized when she made her first trip here in 2009 as secretary of state for appearing to dismiss human rights as just another pro forma issue but since then she has spoken out repeatedly on such issues. She mentioned Chen's case by name as recently as November.

Apparently, the officials said today, Chen had heard of Clinton's appeal on his behalf, even locked away in his remote village.