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12 May, 2012 09:34

US restarts Bahrain arms sales amid rights anxiety

The US is resuming arms supplies to Bahrain after freezing delivery last October. Despite Washington’s assurance the weapons will not include any crowd control devices, rights activists have raised concerns that the US is supporting a dictatorship.

Washington claims that delivering weapons to Bahrain is crucial for providing security in the region. Bahrain is situated on a strategic island in the Persian Gulf opposite Iran. For more than 60 years it has served as the US Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters.US officials declined to specify the items on the list, but sources of Foreign Policy magazine familiar with the deal revealed the sales include six harbor security patrol vessels, air defense communications equipment systems for Bahrain's ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, night-vision equipment and upgraded F-16 fighter jet engines.Also, US legislation is being prepared for the sale of a naval frigate.It seems the deal has been sealed by Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who has been on an official visit to Washington this week.Washington froze arms deliveries to its key Gulf ally following a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests which began last February. According to Amnesty International, since the uprising to demand more democracy started, there have been 60 deaths, as well as numerous arrests.On Friday, the White House issued a statement saying that "We have made the decision to release additional items to Bahrain mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the government of Bahrain needs to address."The Obama administration says the supply to Bahrain will not include anything that can be used for crowd control, such as small arms or tear gas. Despite the promise, the US decision has infuriated human rights activists who regard the deal as proof of double standards. Last October AM General and Raytheon Co fulfilled a $53 million contract with Bahrain, supplying 44 Humvee vehicles and several hundred wire-guided TOW missiles. The Bahrain army used the Humvees while dispersing protesters.

Rights activists believe that since American-Bahraini relations are so close and co-operative, the US could have demanded democratic concessions, such as stopping human rights violations, from the Kingdom.American Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy criticized the move, telling Reuters that “this arms sale sends the wrong message.”"The government of Bahrain has yet to respect the Bahraini people's legitimate demands, or to hold accountable its own police and military officers for arresting, torturing and killing Bahraini protesters," he said.“If a government is engaging in systematic human rights violation and the US is on the record opposing those – why don’t we use this aid as leverage to make it [Bahrain] fulfill its legal obligations and stop repressions?” questions Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, in an interview with RT.The deal sends a clear signal to countries in the region, first of all Iran which once claimed Bahrain as its territory, that the US will stay in the Gulf state against all odds. For protesters rallying in Bahraini streets this kind of signal dashes all of their hopes, Professor Zunes told RT.“Bahrain is a tiny state and no matter how much weapons you sell them, they could not defend themselves against Iran, Saudi Arabia or anybody else who wants to take them over,” argues Stephen Zunes. “This [American weapon supply] is not about Bahrain’s self-defense, this is about encouraging [American arms] manufacturers, this is about extending the influence of the US in the region,” he explained.Professor Zunes told RT that “in terms of share of the population, protest in Bahrain was the largest in all of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests, in any country. And yet the US stood by the Bahraini regime supported by Saudis and other American allies.” Zunes recalled that in Bahrain not only protesters were prosecuted – journalists covering protests were sent to jail as well.Considering the western concern with the state of democracy in Libya and Syria, the position of the US on the Bahraini protests is “totally hypocritical”, claimed the professor.Rights activists have criticized US mainstream media for muting information on the crackdown on Bahrain's protests, in contrast to the strong US media support for the protests in Libya, Egypt and Syria. Such a difference in approach can only be explained by double standards in American foreign policy, Stephen Zunes concludes.