Manama, Bahrain (CNN) Secretary of State John Kerry treads carefully on the issue of human rights in Bahrain — a key Gulf ally in the fight against ISIS — but whose government is accused of routine human rights abuses against political dissidents and discrimination against the country’s Shiite-majority.
Kerry met with Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, and they discussed conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the need to contain ISIS and Iran. In the afternoon, Kerry met privately with members of Bahrain’s opposition and civil society.
The tiny Gulf nation is a close U.S. military ally and host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Kerry on Thursday called the kingdom a “critical security partner” in the region.
Before his meeting with the foreign minister, Kerry toured the U.S. Navy base that is home to the Fifth Fleet, where servicemen were engaged in a month-long, 42-nation maritime exercise covering waters from Arabian Sea to the Suez Canal. The exercise is aimed at keeping sea-lanes open for safe passage.
Kerry’s visit to Bahrain marks the first by a secretary of state to since the tiny Sunni-led Gulf monarchy crushed a Shiite-led uprising in 2011. Since then, hundreds of Shiites and opposition leaders have been arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
State Department spokesman John Kirby described the meeting with opposition and civil leaders as a “brief discussion” that “provided an opportunity for the secretary to hear the perspectives of these community leaders about the political situation in Bahrain, as well as their views on the scope of human rights, free expression and dissent in the Kingdom.”
Ahead of the trip, Kerry found himself under fire from human rights groups, who calling for a tougher U.S. stance on the government’s violent suppression of dissent.
They cited the cases of several bloggers and political opposition leaders serving jail terms or awaiting sentences. They also wanted Kerry to meet separately with opposition leaders, which was not on the announced schedule prior to the trip.
In the past, the top U.S. official dealing with human rights, Tom Malinowski, was ordered to leave the country for trying to meet with political activists.
Kerry, however, was muted in his comments to reporters when asked about whether Bahrain has made enough progress toward improving its human rights record.
The top U.S. diplomat praised the King and foreign minister for the “seriousness” with which they pushed human rights. He did say more needed to be done to ensure full political participation for all Bahrainis ahead of the 2018 elecktions, but he made no specific mention of the repression or discrimination against the country’s Shiite-majority.
“Here, as in all nations, we believe that respect for human rights and an inclusive political system are essential,” Kerry said.
Kerry was much more forceful in his criticism of Bahrain’s opposition for boycotting the last election, a move which he said “polarizes things instead of helping.”
During the press conference Kerry was pressed by a Bahraini journalist, who said American security officers had mistreated the local press as they tried to make their way into the hotel where Kerry was meeting with the foreign minister.
Kerry said he would look into the matter.
Later in the day Kerry is set to meet with his counterparts from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to prepare for a summit between President Barack Obama and Gulf leaders next month in Saudi Arabia, where Iran’s role in the region is expected top the agenda.