America's relationship with the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain stretches the outer limits of U.S. tolerance of despotic, repressive regimes in the name of U.S. strategic interests in the region.
The island nation's latest assault on normal human rights practices occurred Monday when a higher court upheld the convictions of nine medical personnel, found guilty in June by the Court of National Safety of what it considered to be various crimes surrounding their having provided care to demonstrators in last year's anti-government protests. One got five years in prison; a second, three years; and seven more, one month to a year.
Demonstrations have continued for 20 months, including rioting surrounding the funeral Saturday in the capital Manama of a 17-year-old boy killed by security forces in a protest the day before.
The civil disorder is a reaction to the monopoly on political and economic power in Bahrain, a state of about 1.3 million inhabitants, held by its 30 percent Sunni Muslim minority and monarchy, in the face of a 70 percent Shiite majority. Power-sharing does not seem to be in the vocabulary of King Hamad al-Khalifa's family and religious group, although obviously continued denial of it makes prospects for dialogue even more slim. Saudi Arabia, also a Sunni-ruled monarchy, sits across a 16-mile causeway from Bahrain and sent security forces, including armored cars, to the island when the government's rule appeared to be threatened last year.
U.S. interests in Bahrain turn primarily on the presence of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet. The United States is also very sensitive to the concerns of oil-producer Saudi Arabia and its Sunni monarchy. The American response to Saudi Arabia's sending forces into Bahrain in 2011 was, of course, entirely unlike its response to Iraq's sending forces in 1990 into Kuwait, another Persian Gulf state, which set off the first Gulf War.
It is perhaps unreasonable for Americans to demand consistency from its government in its policy approach to states like Bahrain. At the same time, how much do a naval base and close relations with an important neighboring oil state count for in the face of human rights violations such as sentencing medical personnel to prison for having treated injured demonstrators?