Bahrain has turned down several journalists for visas to visit the Persian Gulf nation on the one-year anniversary of sweeping antigovernment protests next Tuesday, telling them it has gotten too many requests.
The rejected journalists include New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was detained in Bahrain while watching protests in December, along with correspondents for the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and other outlets. Several took to Twitter, saying they received letters citing the "high volume of requests" as the reason for being turned down.
“This is the hallmark of a repressive regime -- not allowing journalists into the country,” said Brian Dooley of the nonprofit Human Rights First. He was turned down for a visa in January. “The government is only fueling suspicions that they don’t want the rest of the world to see what’s going to happen.”
Bahrain, an island state near Saudi Arabia run by a Sunni Muslim monarchy, has been roiled by violent protests during the last year. Protesters have agitated for greater democracy, saying that Shiite Muslims are systematically discriminated against. The demonstrations kicked off Feb. 14, 2011.
Bahrain cracked down on the protests last year with help from Saudi forces. Human rights groups say dissenters were met with arrest and torture. Bahrain's monarch created new military courts that sentenced more than 250 people to heavy punishments, including death, Human Rights Watch said.
Journalists were targeted too: Bahraini reporters have been arrested, and foreign journalists have been granted visas so limited -- some as short as 48 hours -- that their work is hampered, according to Reporters Without Borders. The group recently ranked Bahrain 173rd out of 179 countries in press freedom.
The king created an independent commission to investigate allegations of police brutality and other abuses. It found dozens of people were killed in the unrest, including five people who died from torture in police custody, along with many cases of excessive force and using the courts to squelch dissent.
Government loyalists say the monarchy is addressing its problems, and they allege that some protesters have exaggerated the crackdown and turned violent themselves, attacking police with firebombs and steel pipes. But human rights groups say the country is still pressing unfair cases that originated in military courts, and police are still carrying out brutal crackdowns on protesters.
The violence has put the United States in an awkward position. Bahrain has long been a U.S. ally, seen alongside Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Iran. But if the U.S. tolerates the violence in Bahrain, it weakens its case against Syria, which has been embroiled in a bloody uprising for nearly a year.
“The international paralysis over Bahrain has, if anything, become more pronounced with the rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program,” Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers University, told the Associated Press. “It's every tough problem in the region funneled into one small place.”
The Iranian foreign minister, for instance, condemned Western powers for a “double standard.” In a recent editorial, the Washington Post wrote that although repression in Bahrain wasn’t comparable to the chaos in Syria, Washington's denunciations of Syrian bloodshed would be more credible if it halted aid to Bahrain.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Women take part in a protest in Maksha village north of the Bahraini capital, Manama, on Monday. Credit: Mazen Mahdi / European Pressphoto Agency