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US senators urge Biden to confront Bahrain's 'serious' human rights abuses

Lawmakers call on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to 'promote reform and respect for basic human rights' in Gulf nation
A Bahraini man walks past photos of men reportedly detained after attending anti-government protests, displayed behind a mosque in the village of Diraz, 10 July 2015 (AFP)

A bipartisan group of US senators has called on the Biden administration to pressure Bahrain to end the "violent, systemic repression" of its population.

In a statement released on Monday, a group of seven US senators called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to consider using the Global Magnitsky Act or other sanctions against members of the Bahraini government "responsible for serious human rights violations".

The Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody in Moscow in 2009 after pushing to expose corrupt tax dealings, allows the president to investigate and impose sanctions for rights violations, including extrajudicial killings.

"We write to raise our concerns about the government of Bahrain's troubling rights record and to better understand your administration’s strategy for pressing this issue with our important ally and partner," the senators wrote.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which saw pro-democracy demonstrators take to the streets of the Gulf nation, the Sunni monarchy has launched a comprehensive crackdown on opposition groups and human rights activists.

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report compiled earlier this year by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said at least 51 people had been sentenced to death since 2011, with leaders of the protest movement languishing in prison despite promises from the country's leadership to enact reforms.

"We believe American officials must be willing to speak hard truths when friends and partners lose their way and appreciate that you have spoken of putting human rights at the center of US foreign policy," the senators said. 

"Bahrainis continue to call for agency and accountability, often at great risk to their safety and that of their families. We stand with them in urging you and the Biden-Harris administration to promote reform and respect for basic human rights in Bahrain and greater stability in the region."

Signatories to the letter were Democratic Senators Tammy Baldwin; Sherrod Brown; Patrick Leahy; Jeff Merkley; Bernie Sanders; and Ron Wyden, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

Husain Abdulla, a Bahraini exile who founded Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, said the Gulf states was a "test case" for the Biden administration which has sought to put human rights at the centre of its foreign policy.

"The government of Bahrain is an egregious, persistent and blatant violator of the rights of its citizens on nearly every level," Abdulla said.

The kingdom rejects allegations of human rights violations and denies discriminating against its Shia citizens. But earlier this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused Bahrain of being in "violation of international law" over its treatment of prisoners, some of whom are documented to be as young as 13 years old.