The United States said on Monday that it would lift its ban on providing security and military aid to Bahrain, which was imposed after the Gulf state cracked down on Shia-led protests in 2011. U.S. officials said the decision was taken because Bahrain had made meaningful reforms since then.
However, Washington did not specify the weapons or military equipment that would be sent to the country.
Dozens of people died when the government clamped down on protesters in 2011, who were demanding that the ruling Sunni family end its discrimination against the country’s majority Shia population.
"While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate ... we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
The Barack Obama administration cited the release of Bahrain's opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif earlier in June as an example of the kind of reforms that prompted the U.S. move. Sharif was a major organizing figure in the 2011 movement and was later among a group of 20 activists who were tried for plotting to overthrow the government.
“Bahrain is an important and longstanding ally on regional security issues,” Kirby said. “Following the lift of these holds, we will continue to press Bahrain on our human rights concerns.”
The decision to reinstate assistance to the country was, however, criticized by rights groups. Sarah Margon, Washington director of the international activist group Human Rights Watch, said the step was being taken even though there was no “real or meaningful political reform” in Bahrain, BBC reported.
"Bahrain's jails are bursting at the seams with political detainees and the recent prison sentence for political opposition leader, al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, means that a political accommodation remains as far away as ever," she added.
Salman was convicted earlier in the month for inciting hatred and violence. His Sunni-led al-Wefaq movement has been strongly critical of the government. His arrest was also condemned by Amnesty International, which said the conviction violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a signatory. He was arrested in December, a move that led to widespread protests across the country.
Protesters continue to clash frequently with military forces, which are almost exclusively Sunni, in villages and cities across the country, and at least 89 people have been killed in confrontations with security forces since 2011, Agence France-Presse reported.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet, and is seen as a critical member of the international military coalition against the Islamic State group.