The US democratic Senator Chris Murphy participated in the Manama Dialogue on Friday, November 22, 2019, during which he spoke on the US foreign policy and stressed on maintaining positive relations with allies in the Middle East. During the visit, Murphy met with participants in the Manama Dialogue from several countries in the region, including Bahraini and US officials. Murphy has also utilized his visit to stopover the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet in Juffair. The visit was expected to take normal turns, had Murphy not visited the house of the detained human rights activists Nabeel Rajab and met there with a number of civil and political activists in the country.
Days after the visit, there was no official comment or response from the Government of Bahrain, some local observers believed that this official silence may signal a “formal understanding” of what Murphy stated to Bahraini officials during his meetings, although diplomatic sources indicated that officials responded to Murphy’s inquiries on the crisis in Bahrain with a firm state of “denial.” The position has changed after Murphy’s departure from Bahrain to Lebanon, and almost a week after his visit to Rajab’s house, especially after Murphy has put this visit to house of Nabeel Rajab within the framework of his assertion that “America should be a consistent voice for democracy and human rights”, which is why I went to visit Nabeel Rajab’s family in Bahrain” in accordance with a statement published after the visit, which also stated that “Advocating for the freedom of expression must be an element of every bilateral relationship, which is why I raised his case, along with the broader need to protect open civil discourse, with Bahraini government officials I met with in Manama.”
Hours after the statement, a “coordinated” smear campaign was launched on Senator Chris Murphy and his visit to Rajab. The campaign began with fierce criticism from Mohammed al-Sisi al-Buainain, Head of Bahrain’s foreign affairs, defense and national security committee at the National Assembly. Al-Buainain accused Murphy of “trying to sow sectarian strife” and “interfering in an internal political affair.”
Al Buanain stated that Murphy avoided joining a US congressional delegation visiting the Shura Council and National Assembly claiming that bypassing the visit was “incompatible with the duties of his visit to a sovereign state.”
Abdulaziz Al-Ajman, the head of the Bahraini Shura Council’s foreign affairs, defense and national security committee, issued an unforeseen statement that accused Murphy of attending “private meetings with supporters of extremism, terrorism and incitement.”
There appears to be an anticipated intention in Bahrain to boost the attack on Murphy’s visit and his position on human rights violations in the country. Sawsan Al Shaer, a loyalist journalist wrote two articles in Al Watan Newspaper declaring that the visit is a “blatant interference in internal affairs.” Faisal al-Sheikh, a journalist in the same newspaper, intensified the campaign against Murphy by accusing him of of “supporting terrorism.”
It is unknown if the campaign on Murphy will continue in the coming days, taking steep turns in the escalation, and reminding observers of the expulsion of US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski in 2014 after meeting opposition leaders and human rights activists. One of the main triggers of the smear campaign was a video of Murphy filmed at Rajab’s home, in which Murphy refers to Bahrain’s government as a “regime”and his official statement calling upon the United States to be a consistent voice for democracy and human rights.
On the whole, the reaction to Murphy’s calls were negative, on two levels. On a Governmental level, the US senator was met with a position of “denial of the existence of a crisis in Bahrain and the lack of need for human rights reforms”, and a harsher position was anticipated at a pro-governmental level by parliamentary figures and official newspapers that campaigned a series of accusations and repeated allegations that included “conspiracy against Bahrain”, and “interference in its internal affairs”, in addition to accusing non-state activists that attended the meeting at the house of Nabeel Rajab of “betrayal and treason.”
Thus, Murphy’s visit took on negative dimensions, although it was in the context of “freedom of expression”, meeting all parties involved in the crisis, and trying to create grounds for reconciliation and human rights reforms in the country.
The positions of members of the National Assembly and the Shura Council reflect the extent of fear within governmental circles on a forecasted change in the US foreign policy towards Bahrain noting that Murphy’s statements do not contradict with the findings of the US State Department Report on human rights in Bahrain. The Government of Bahrain is accused my many observers of instigating and supporting the smear campaign on Murphy due to that dominating fear.
A previous paper published by Bahrain Interfaith, entitled “Attitudes of the US Administration towards Human Rights in Bahrain,” highlighted changes in the US foreign policy towards their position on human rights in Bahrain since President Donald Trump took office.
With the presidential elections in the United States getting closer, and the forecasted change in the foreign policy towards human rights and democracy if Democrats win the elections; the levels of fear within governmental circles is expected to increase. This clearly explains the drive behind the campaign on Chris Murphy.