New US Ambassador to Bahrain Stirs Anger by Meeting with Civil Society Figures
Government wary of opposition ever since Shia-led uprising of 2011
Steven C. Bondy, the new US ambassador to Bahrain, presented his credentials to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on February 9. But he has already provoked popular and governmental fury by hosting four civil society representatives that same day, leading to the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoning him Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani “informed Bondy of the kingdom’s reservation about the meeting that took place, with its implications that do not conform to international laws and norms in this regard. He also discussed with him the diplomatic work regulations that regulate the work of diplomatic missions in countries in accordance with the Vienna Convention,” according to a statement issued by the ministry.
The affair was kicked-off by a story published on the Delmon Post website, affiliated with an anti-government figure, about the meeting, in which the American ambassador hosted four Bahraini figures at his home: Dr. Ahmed al-Khuzaie, a writer and political analyst; Dr. Osama T. Albaharna, the vice president of the Bahrain Society for Human Rights; Dr. Hussain al-Rubaie, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society; and Dr. Huda al-Mahmoud, a member of the Bahrain Society of Sociologists (Social Workers).
“The discussion revolved around the situation in Bahrain, the possibility of dialogue and solving political and other crises, and what role the US ambassador is likely to play in this regard to move the current stagnant situation,” the website, which is run by opposition journalist Mohammed al-Ghasra, reported.
“One of the attendees asked the ambassador to urge the authorities to ‘abolish or reduce the death sentences’ [handed down as a result of the 2011 Bahraini uprising]. The ambassador responded that Bahrain is a friendly country and has full sovereignty and we cannot dictate it, but it is only possible to put forward our point of view,” the report continued.
As of Thursday, the article was still on the website without any modification.
The 2011 uprising was a series of anti-government protests led by the mainly Shia minority Bahraini opposition from 2011 until 2014. The protests escalated to daily clashes after the government suppressed the revolt with the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Immediately after the Delmon Post report was published, the Bahraini minister of interior, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, expressed anger with an official statement in which he said, “What these people did is a clear disregard for the official authorities responsible for regulating the work of these associations within a sound legal framework, and it reminds us of those unfortunate events that the country was exposed to 11 years ago, and which everyone rejects after it claimed lives and losses.
“One of the most prominent reasons for it [the violent events] was interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs and communication by personalities who violate the law [in cooperation] with external parties,” the minister said.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain is a state of law and institutions, and it will not allow room for such interference in our internal affairs, as “‘a believer should not be stung twice from the same hole,’” Sheikh Rashid said, quoting a hadith of the Prophet Mohammad which means that when a person commits a sin and receives his due punishment in the worldly life, he will not be punished for it again in the Hereafter.
After the interior minister issued his statement, journalists, writers, parliamentarians, and heads of associations launched a campaign against the ambassador, stressing that he would not be allowed to repeat what they said a predecessor in the post, Thomas Krajeski, did in 2011. Krajeski, they say, met with opposition figures and transmitted their messages to then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who issued them in the form of statements designed to place pressure on Bahrain.
On Tuesday, the Interior Ministry announced that it had summoned Ghasra to investigate “misleading information he published in the news of a meeting with the American ambassador.” He was then referred to the Public Prosecution, which completed the investigation and released him, as a journalist may not be imprisoned for news published in accordance with Bahraini law.
A well-informed source in the Public Prosecution revealed to The Media Line that “Ghasra said the information he had was told to him by persons who were present at the meeting, and that he had not spread misleading news.”
Bondy refused to address the issue or the validity of the reports with any local or international media outlets.
Mahmoud said in a statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Media Line, that her “participation in the dinner at the invitation of the American Embassy last Wednesday, February 9, 2022, was in a personal capacity only.”
She emphasized, “The Bahraini Sociologists Society, to which she has belonged since its founding in 1979, has nothing to do with this invitation in any way, and that the society’s board of directors was informed of the invitation or its content because it was a personal invitation.”
In her statement, Mahmoud did not address the nature of what was discussed during the dinner but said, “I commend the wise directives of the Bahraini government in strengthening its sovereignty over its decisions and not submitting to external dictates from any party.”
Albaharna told The Media Line: “What was circulated on one of the websites and social media and attributed to well-informed sources about the meeting with the new American ambassador at his home in the Saar area [of Manama] exceeded its bounds, in that it was not reported as a social meeting or as a dinner invitation to us as individuals and not as representatives of associations.”
He added, “There were no discussions or consultations, and there was no one among the attendees who had anything to do with political groups, political activity, or associations. Issues of political affairs were not discussed, and I was very surprised by the information that was circulated that is far from the truth.”
He continued: “What was published on the website about this meeting contained many exaggerations, and many matters of internal affairs that were not touched on were added [to the report] with the aim of incitement. We are Bahrainis and we owe loyalty and belong to this country. We ask the embassies to intervene in this matter.”
“I do not have a statement to issue in this regard, because I have no political orientation and the meeting that took place was not related to any political orientation. Bahrain is praised by everyone for the Alternative Penalties Law, which was also praised by the attendees, and we did not address the conditions of prisons and prisoners,” Albaharna said.
The Alternative Penalties and Procedures Law, which entered into force in May 2018, authorizes courts to issue penalties in place of imprisonment, including community service, attending rehabilitation courses, and paying to repair damage caused by unlawful acts.
Bahraini journalist Hassan Mohammed told The Media Line: “It seems that [reports of] the conversations about Bahrain’s internal affairs are accurate but because of the major attack that took place after the meeting, those present denied the truth of the matter.”
He continued: “There is a great contradiction in the reports and the statements made by the participants about the nature of the encounter. Some said that it was a meeting, and others said that it was a social dinner. Some said that the meeting discussed economic matters, and others that the meeting was based on previous partnerships between the associations and the US Embassy, while the US ambassador remained silent and did not comment.
Regarding the Delmon Post journalist, Mohammed said: “The summoning of Ghasra came based on a complaint filed against him with the authorities concerned, but the investigation proved that Ghasra did not lie, and that he obtained his information from persons who were at the meeting.”
Fatima Ali, an analyst and journalist, told The Media Line: “We are used to American ambassadors interfering in Bahraini affairs. It was previously done by Thomas Krajeski, and Bahrain expelled US Assistant Secretary of State [for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor] Tom Malinowski in 2014 because he met only opposition figures not on the schedule of meetings that had been arranged [for his visit] and refused to meet with institutions representing the other point of view.
“It seems that the message has reached the American ambassador, who has not yet completed the first month of his work. His refusal to communicate with the media, and his summoning by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, communicated the Bahraini message clearly,” Ali continued.
Regarding popular anger, she said: “Civil society organizations in Bahrain have the right to communicate with embassies, but after obtaining permission from the Ministry of Social Development and for a specific program and specific goals. As for communicating directly without specifying goals, it is rejected. … Communication with any party should be through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as is the norm.”
And she added, “In my view, the current US ambassador is a copy of Thomas Krajeski, who was ambassador during the Obama Administration, and since the current US president, Joe Biden, is following the same path as [Barack] Obama, it seems that things are going in the same path.
“If the same behavior is repeated, I do not think that Bahrain will remain silent, and it will certainly inform the US administration of its refusal to deal with this ambassador,” Ali said.