In response to pointed criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Council, representatives of the Bahraini government claimed they would accept and implement over 150 of the council’s recommendations for the improvement of human rights and the treatment of prisoners. Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa remarked that “Our actions, more than our words, should dispel any doubts regarding [Bahrain’s] commitment to upholding human rights through the rule of law.” Despite this, there are real reasons to be skeptical that Manama is ready to turn the page. The government is certainly interested in pushing a more progressive image abroad, but the truth at home is that authorities remain committed to pursuing a hardline political agenda that invariably involves sustained suppression of activists. 

For one, the crackdowns have only increased. In April 2011, police arrested, tortured, and subsequently sentenced Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, a dual citizen of Bahrain and Denmark, to life imprisonment. Though Khawaja had garnered considerable popularity for his criticism of the royal family (and of the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, especially), his primary commitment had long been to the protection and advocacy of human rights—working to draw international attention to various abuses inside Bahrain. In July, Khawaja’s longtime friend and collaborator, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested and detained for criticizing the country’s leadership on Twitter—eventually being charged with organizing illegal protests and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Rajab’s appeal is scheduled to be heard in late September. Abd al-Hadi’s daughter, Zaynab al-Khawaja, was also detained in early August for participating in protests, and has taken considerable public risks in an effort to draw attention to regime brutality; as a result, she has faced periodic arrests over the last eighteen months and multiple charges that could keep her in prison for years.

As a consequence, Nabeel Rajab, the Khawajas, and other key human rights defenders have increasingly come to enjoy widespread popularity and significant political capital. This development of these new players deeply discomfits the government. The government has already deeply politicized the issue of human rights over the last year and a half; since early 2011 the regime has sought to use the uprising as a pretext for punishing its long-time political adversaries. Authorities moved early last year to round up what it considered its most contentious opponents—including Ebrahim Sharif, Abd al-Jalil Singace, Hassan Mushaima, Abd al-Wahab Hussein and others—and almost all outspoken opposition leaders. They justified their detentions as the result of the activists’ “radicalism”—a fictitious claim which served to undermine organizations that could rally a popular movement and constitute the most immediate threat to the regime’s survival. 

What is remarkable, however, is that these new activities are not affiliated with the country’s mainstream political opposition societies—such as Al Wefaq or Haq. Whereas Al Wefaq and others have admirably sought (but nevertheless failed) to negotiate an end the crackdowns, Rajab and the Khawajas have remained committed to holding officials accountable and seeking justice for those traumatized and victimized since the uprising began, proving considerably more adept than the formal opposition at drawing international attention. In the absence of more credible leaders, Rajab and the Khawajas have become de facto symbols of popular opposition and for a platform that blends political opportunity with social justice. Along with well-known collaborators Said Yusuf al-Muhafda and Alaa Shehabi, both of whom have also faced periodic arrest, they have helped bring attention to both the government’s abuses and the ongoing resilience of opposition forces. Because they too have been subjected to abuse, their continued commitment to reporting events and supporting calls for accountability have also had the effect of inspiring protesters to carry on. While none of them have sought the kind of authority that comes with office, they have nevertheless become key political icons for much of the country’s restive community. Considering this high visibility and international rapport, perhaps it was just a matter of time before they landed in Bahrain’s dungeons.

But the current cases should be understood with the regime’s agenda in mind. Human rights activists in Bahrain have been especially clear in their rejection of sectarian politics. In doing so, they have been a particularly troublesome irritant to the regime’s public relations and narrative machine. Authorities have struggled to frame the uprising as sectarian—claiming that the country’s revolution reflects a particular Shii political agenda to replace the Al Khalifa with a theocratic state beholden to Iran. Of course, there is little actual evidence that Bahrain’s opposition takes its marching orders from Tehran. There is, however, consistent public commentary and an overwhelming track record that spans more than a decade that the vast majority of activists only seeks relief from oppression and a chance for greater opportunities to participate politically. Rather, it is the regime that is most clearly committed to sectarianism; Rajab and the Khawajas have not only denounced any kind of sectarian agenda, they have also deliberately worked to promote cross-sectarian cooperation. Their popularity also suggests that it is indeed a nonsectarian agenda that has and continues to mobilize ongoing protests and popular politics. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of the opposition in Bahrain comes from the Shia community and that Bahrain’s largest opposition bloc, Al Wefaq, is exclusively Shia, the claim has been uncritically accepted by those who either share the country’s agenda or have a dim understanding of Bahraini politics. More than anything, then, their detentions amount to little more than a brazen effort to silence a set of critics, but also those who have most effectively laid bare the distortions peddled by the government.

Given Western fecklessness on Bahrain since early 2011 it is unlikely that the crackdown on human rights defenders will prod the global powers-that-be to take a more critical stand toward the Al Khalifa. While (to their credit) U.S. officials have called for Rajab’s release, it is far from clear what steps the State Department or others will take to help make it happen. Rajab’s conviction will not alter the United States’ backing of the ruling family, not its commitment to the political status quo in Bahrain and the Gulf, and Manama is counting on precisely that. The reality is that—absent significant international pressure (especially from the United States)—Bahrain will remain on its current course. While American and Bahraini officials remain reticent to do what is both right and smart, those committed to principle everywhere else should find some comfort in knowing that there are those like Rajab and the Khawajas who will. 

Toby C. Jones is an associate professor of history and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. He is also a non-resident scholar in the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East program.