Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. (State Department / via AP)
MANAMA, BAHRAIN — A senior U.S. diplomat who was ordered to leave the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain after meeting with a leading Shiite opposition group said Tuesday that the American ally’s move appears aimed at undermining reconciliation efforts between the government and the opposition.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski made the comments on his Twitter feed a day after Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said he is not welcome in the strategic island nation, which has long hosted the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Bahrain alleged he intervened in the country’s domestic affairs by holding meetings with some groups at the expense of others. The order to leave came after he held talks with Bahrain’s main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq.
He arrived in the country Sunday and had been scheduled to stay for three days.
On Tuesday, Al Wefaq said two of its leading members were summoned by the Bahraini Interior Ministry for questioning the next day.
In his Twitter comments, Malinowski said Bahrain’s decision to expel him is “not about me but about undermining dialogue. Those committed to reconciliation should not be deterred.”
Tiny Bahrain continues to face low-level unrest more than three years after a Shiite-dominated opposition movement inspired by the Arab Spring protests took to the streets to demand greater political rights from the Sunni monarchy. Bahrain moved to crush the uprising with the help of security forces from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Gulf Arab states.
Repeated rounds of talks between the government and members of the opposition have failed to significantly defuse the tensions. Some Shiite factions oppose the dialogue efforts altogether because they don’t think they will lead to real change.
Activists frequently clash with security forces in the streets, occasionally deploying explosives that have caused a number of casualties, including a police officer killed in a bomb blast last week.
Bahraini officials could not be reached to comment Tuesday on Malinowski’s comments.
The head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council regional bloc joined Bahrain in criticizing Malinowski’sactions in the country, raising the possibility of a wider rift between Washington and its Gulf allies.
GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, who is Bahraini, said the U.S. envoy’s meeting does not reflect the historic bilateral relations between Bahrain and the U.S., and that it does not help confidence-building efforts among different parts of Bahraini society, according to comments carried by the official Bahrain News Agency.
The GCC includes regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE released a statement about the incident later on Tuesday, saying its Arab neighbor has the right to take any measures it deems suitable to prevent the promotion of contacts with groups “that justify, instigate and commit violence and use their foreign connections to present false and distorting information about Bahrain.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Malinowski’s trip was planned with the government prior to his arrival. She said he held internal meetings at the U.S. Embassy Tuesday and is scheduled to leave Bahrain later in the day. She said the government of Bahrain has not changed its position.
“We remain and will be in close touch with both the government of Bahrain and any other country that expresses a concern, as would be normal protocol and process,” she said. “It’s worth noting he was scheduled to meet with high-level government officials and had some of those meetings before all of these events happened just yesterday.”
Psaki said the envoy was scheduled to meet with a broad spectrum of Bahraini society, including the crown prince and other senior government officials. The U.S. Embassy in Manama, the capital, said he held talks Monday with the Minister of Interior, police chief and the National Institution for Human Rights in addition to Al Wefaq.
The State Department says Malinowski visited Bahrain to strengthen bilateral ties and support King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s reform and reconciliation efforts. Psaki said Monday that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by Bahrain’s demand that he leave and said Bahrain’s government “is well aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially recognized political societies.”
Bahraini authorities insisted that a Foreign Ministry official attend all of its envoy’s private meetings, including those at the U.S. Embassy, she added. A Bahraini law passed in late 2013 prohibits meetings between opposition societies and international diplomats without the presence of an Interior Ministry official.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed reporting.