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Rights group urges US rethink on Bahrain strategy

A Bahraini Shiite Muslim girl holds a portrait of a detained political activist as she takes part in a ceremony marking Ashura on November 14, 2013 in the village of Sanabis, west of the capital Manama
A Bahraini Shiite Muslim girl holds a portrait of a detained political activist as she takes part in a ceremony marking Ashura on November 14, 2013 in the village of Sanabis, west of the capital Manama

Human rights activists Friday called on the US administration to withhold arms sales to Bahrain and draw up a new strategy towards the key Gulf ally to push it to implement long-delayed reforms.

The appeal came ahead of a briefing to US lawmakers on the situation in the Gulf kingdom where a 2011 uprising by the majority Shiite population was brutally put down by the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy which has ruled Bahrain since independence from Britain in 1971.

Protesters calling for elections and democratic reforms were met with overwhelming military force leading to at least 89 deaths and thousands of arrests, according to rights groups. And recommendations by a commission of inquiry set up by King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa have failed to be fully implemented.

"Long-term simmering tension in Bahrain, increasingly violent protests, a rise in sectarianism, a relentless government crackdown on dissent, and the ruling family's failure to deliver political reform all raise crucial questions for the US government’s role in the country," a new report by Washington-based Human Rights First said Friday.

"As Bahrain slides towards greater instability, it is time for the United States to adopt a more active approach, making clear that there will be serious consequences for the Bahrain regime if it continues to fail to reform."

Since 2000 the US has sold Bahrain -- which is home to the important US Gulf Fifth Fleet -- some $1.4 billion in weapons, although some are on hold or have been scaled back since the uprising.

A $580 million military construction project, mainly to develop the naval base, is also underway, Human Rights First said, which slammed the administration of President Barack Obama for an "ambiguous and inconsistent" approach to Bahrain.

Despite vocal criticism of human rights abuses, the US has not imposed sanctions on Bahraini officials accused of carrying them out, and has continued to arm the regime.

"The United States should adopt a new approach to Bahrain to promote long-term stability and reduce the chances of one day having to decide where it should relocate the Fifth Fleet," the report, entitled "Plan B for Bahrain: What the US Should Do Next" said.

Brian Dooley, the report's author, said that there had been little follow through on the 26 recommendations made by the inquiry.

"No senior government figure has been held accountable for the arrests or deaths in custody, and key political leaders remain in jail. Bahrain is a strategic regional ally of the United States and is home to the U. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The United States should rethink its strategy as human rights abuses persist on the fleet's doorstep," he said in a statement.

Dooley was to later brief lawmakers Friday on ways to promote human rights.

In a series of recommendations, the report suggested that arms sales and transfers to the police and military be withheld and made contingent on progress on human rights.

The group also urged State Department and Pentagon officials to publicly condemn the ongoing violence, call for the release of peaceful opposition leaders, and ask to visit them in jail in the meantime, as well as hold meetings with Bahraini opposition figures without a government representative present.

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