The United States is loosening some of its restrictions on weapons sales to Bahrain, a Persian Gulf ally that has grappled with massive protests pushing for greater democracy.
“We have made the decision to release additional items to Bahrain, mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the government of Bahrain needs to address,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday.
But the U.S. move has upset rights activists, who say the country is still attacking and abusing dissidents.
The U.S. froze its weapons sales to Bahrain in October over human rights concerns. Nuland said the U.S. was still withholding antitank missiles and Humvees, along with “certain additional items for the Bahrain Defense Force,” stressing that the newly released items “are not used for crowd control."
The Bahraini crown prince met with U.S. officials this week. Nuland did not specify what would be sold to Bahrain, but Bloomberg News reported that the equipment includes air-to-air missiles and ammunition.
Bahraini dissidents and rights groups say the government has not done enough to meet the demand for reforms in the island nation, continuing to jail and harass protesters. Government loyalists counter that protesters have hurled Molotov cocktails at police and blame Iran for stirring up trouble.
The unrest has left the United States open to accusations that although it has championed other "Arab Spring" uprisings, it has been less aggressive in backing calls for change in Bahrain, a strategic ally. The nonprofit Human Rights First slammed Friday's announcement.
"Where is the progress that warrants the reward of arms?" its human rights director, Brian Dooley, asked in a statement. "This new sale will only damage U.S. credibility among those working for democracy in Bahrain and across the Middle East.”
Nuland insisted the U.S. was concerned about excessive force by police. “We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind, including attacks on peaceful protesters or on the Bahraini police,” she said.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles