The tiniest nation in the Middle East is once again at the center of a big controversy.

A high court in the kingdom of Bahrain, a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf, has upheld a widely condemned sentence against a group of opposition activists. Critics of the case argue that the 20 defendants were targeted for political reasons, and that the government is reneging on its perennial promise to pursue meaningful reforms.

Bahrain has a long history of political repression, so the appeals court ruling, which was announced on Monday, came as no surprise. It was just another indication that the country has made little progress since being shaken by a violent uprising nearly two years ago

And with powerful friends like the United States, the oppressive monarchy has little incentive to shape up.

No King Is An Island

Bahrain is ruled by the al-Khalifa family; the current king is Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Opponents of the monarchy have long sought greater political representation, and this led to the establishment of a bicameral parliament in 2002. But the government has continued to suppress dissent and limit political freedoms. Inequality is rife in the kingdom, a fact hidden by the apparent wealth of the bustling capital city of Manama, a cosmopolitan hub for international banking and commerce.  

Simmering tensions finally exploded into an uprising in February 2011, as several other countries were going through their own versions of the Arab Spring. The conflict was heightened by religious differences: The majority of Bahrainis follow Shi’a Islam, while the monarchy is Sunni.

With help from Saudi Arabian troops, the Bahraini government was able to quash the uprising. But things never went back to normal for the country’s 1 million people -- dissent still bubbles not far beneath the surface of public life, erupting sporadically into violence.

In the court case whose ruling was upheld on Monday, the alleged criminals were all opposition activists who had been involved in anti-government protests. They were accused of participating in a terrorist plot.

Subsequent investigations by international rights groups have found that the defendants were in some cases violently arrested, and then tortured into confession. Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog organization, found that none of these alleged “terrorists” has committed any acts of violence.

“The mind-boggling verdicts in these cases did not mention a single recognizable criminal offense, instead pointing to speeches the defendants made, meetings they attended, and their calls for peaceful street protests in February and March 2011,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director, in a report from Human Rights Watch.

“Bahrain’s Cassation Court has proven its inability to protect the most basic rights guaranteed in Bahrain’s Constitution and the international treaties it has signed.”

Military 'Justice'

The ruling upheld this week was first handed down in May 2011 by the National Safety Courts, a military-run judiciary system that had just been established by royal decree in response to protests. Seven of the accused were tried in absentia; the other 13 are currently behind bars.

The National Safety Courts were disbanded in October, leaving the appeals to be handled by Bahrain’s civilian judiciary system. But although the judges have changed, the system remains the same. The defendants lost one attempted appeal in September, and the Monday decision marked their last failed chance for redress.

Eight of those convicted now face life in prison. The remaining five activists in Bahrain will serve sentences of anywhere from five to 15 years. And while they remain behind bars, Bahrain pledges to keep up with political reform.

In a show of studiousness, the country commissioned a group of five international investigators -- the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, or BICI -- to look into government’s response to the uprising, culminating in a December 2011 report.

The 503-page document detailed security forces’ use of excessive force and torture against civilians, as well as unfair judicial procedures, illegitimate arrests and deplorable prison conditions. Authors recommended that the government establish official oversight mechanisms to prevent corruption and abuse of power by security officials.

Manama boasted progress last September, when government spokesman Fahad al-Binali wrote an op-ed for Foreign Policy magazine detailing the activities of newly installed government watchdogs.

“Today, the Special Investigation Unit and an ombudsman in the Public Prosecution office receive and address any complaints regarding human rights. To date, these offices have probed 122 cases, including police officers up to the rank of colonel. Of the 122 cases, 13 were referred to court, resulting in three verdicts against the officers,” he said.

But most international observers aren’t buying it -- or else complain that the reported reforms fall far short of effecting real progress for most of Bahrain’s people.

With Friends Like These

Though Manama has been the target of constant criticism from human rights groups around the world, Bahrain doesn’t often make international headlines. That may be because the country enjoys strong alliance with the United States, and Washington has no intention of ostracizing one of its most important partners in the Middle East.

Bahrain has been an official Major Non-NATO Ally, or MMNA, of the United States since 2002. The designation enables a strong arms trade relationship between the tiny island nation and the world superpower.

In return, the United States benefits from a strong military presence on Bahraini territory, giving Washington a base of operations for defense initiatives in the Middle East.

“The cornerstone of U.S.-Bahrain defense relations is U.S. access to Bahrain’s naval facilities,” said a November report from the Congressional Research Service.

“February 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of a U.S. naval command presence in Bahrain; MIDEASTFOR (U.S. Middle East Force), its successor, NAVCENT (naval component of U.S. Central Command), as well as the Fifth Fleet (reconstituted in June 1995) are headquartered there, at a sprawling facility called ‘Naval Support Activity-Bahrain.’ The facility now covers over 100 acres, and about 5,000 U.S. personnel, mostly Navy, are deployed in Bahrain.”

The relationship is bolstered by American dollars. Base appropriations for foreign assistance from the U.S. Department of State and USAID totaled $11.2 million in 2012; the same amount has been requested for 2013.

In the face of international pressure, the United States has issued several official condemnations of human rights abuses in Bahrain. The State Department released a statement in November to mark the one-year anniversary of the BICI report, noting that not enough progress had been made in implementing reforms.

“There continue to be delays in fully implementing the report’s recommendations, particularly regarding accountability for official abuse, limits on freedom of expression and assembly, meaningful security sector reform, and a political environment that has become increasingly inhospitable to reconciliation,” said the statement.

Not surprisingly, that censure has done little to change the situation on the ground -- and things are unlikely to change if the monarchy is not held accountable. For the people of Bahrain, including the 13 people now imprisoned on questionable charges, the wait for real change could be a long one.