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Repressing Democracy, With American Arms
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF – December 17, 2011 – NYT
WHEN President 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. …more