Finding the Key to Release Zainab Al Khawaja 04/11/2016 09:32 am ET | Updated 1 day ago

Four days is a long time to unlock a door. Last Thursday, standing with visiting Secretary of State John Kerry, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa promised that prominent dissident Zainab Al Khawaja would be released and “sent to her home.”

It still hasn’t happened. She was jailed a month ago, due to serve more than three years in prison for a series of peaceful protests against the regime’s repression. Hadi, her 16-month-old baby, is with her in jail.

The minister said her release “is a humanitarian issue, and Zainab al-Khawaja will be released…but the case will continue.” The real point of course is that she shouldn’t have been sent to prison in the first place, and that charges against her ought to be dropped.

Secretary Kerry missed the opportunity to immediately respond to the minister’s announcement – he could have said that her release should be immediate and unconditional, that she and others should be free to peacefully criticize the regime.

But he failed to speak out publicly for her. In fact, in the week of her arrest last month the State Department offered a series of baffling responses (four in the following five days). These included repeatedly urging the Bahraini government to follow “due process” and “transparent judicial proceedings,” despite there being no legitimate legal system in Bahrain for dissidents and despite all of Zainab’s judicial processes having been exhausted anyway.

More alarming still was the State Department’s contradiction of what it said on her case on October 20, 2014, when it called for the charges against her to be dropped. And in December 2014 when U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted she was “very troubled by 3 year sentence given to Zainab al-Khawaja. In#Bahrain and around the world, peaceful activism must be protected.”

Zainab Al Khawaja is a perfect example of where the State Department’s muddled response is harming U.S. interests. Instead of offering vague statements in his pubic remarks in Bahrain about the importance of human rights Secretary Kerry should have clearly called for her release. She’s exactly the caliber of leader Bahrain needs to help navigate the country out of its sectarian and political crisis. Educated at Lewis and Clark in Oregon and Beloit in Wisconsin, Zainab is an expert on peaceful political change and the American civil rights movement.

She and I have spoken regularly over the last five years about the history of peaceful dissent, about the nature of hate and reconciliation. A little while before her arrest we were discussing how Rosa Parks, when asked to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus in 1955, moved from the aisle to the window seat. “It’s a cool detail,” said Zainab. “Proof that she meant it…not like she maybe said no and then regretted it.”

Five years ago this week she wrote a powerful public letter to President Obama citing the relevance of the U.S. struggle for civil rights to Bahrain’s protests for democracy, and in a 2014 piece for the New York Times described how Martin Luther King was “reaching out to us from another land and another time to teach us very important lessons… that we must not become bitter, that we must be willing to sacrifice for freedom, and that we can never sink to the level of our oppressors.”

She’s the most thoughtful activist I’ve ever met. I spent years researching and writing an academic book on American civil rights history, but my understanding of the philosophy Martin Luther King is nowhere near hers. In the 2014 film “We Are the Giant“ she explains how other nonviolent struggles, including those of Gandhi and of the Maoris against the British Empire, have also shaped her thinking.

People in the Middle East wonder why Washington repeatedly gets key decisions wrong—like rewarding and arming Bahrain’s anti-democratic ruling family rather than siding with inspirational intellectuals like Zainab. The State Department’s botched response to her arrest a few weeks ago has further damaged its credibility across the region, as has Secretary Kerry’s failure to call publicly for her release.

Last June Kerry’s State Department lifted some holds on weapons sales to Bahrain, citing “meaningful progress on human rights,” which are all but invisible to everyone else. The administration said it was resuming sales to Bahrain’s military, but not to its police force—despite the fact that no senior Bahraini army official has been held accountable for its central role in arrests and torture of 2011, and despite that there is no way to prevent the military from simply selling or giving the police the newly-purchased weapons.

What are Bahrain’s human rights leaders to make of promises from the White House that the Obama administration will “stand with civil society” while there is little or no reaction to the targeting and jailing of of Zainab or other prominent human rights activists?

Kerry’s Bahrain trip was a precursor to the main event, the April 21 Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia, which President Obama and Gulf leaders, including Bahrain’s king, will attend.

It’s the perfect opportunity for Obama to show what he means by “standing for civil society,” and to end the confusion about what the U.S. means about protecting free speech.

If Zainab has still not been released by then Obama should publicly ask the Bahrain king why he’s having so much trouble finding the prison door key to let her out, and should publicly press for the release of all prisoners targeted for their peaceful dissent in Bahrain and the other Gulf states. Bahrain’s ruling family and the Gulf’s other autocrats are incapable of solving their countries’ problems, including widespread hate, sectarianism, and polarization. Washington needs the region’s most powerful minds to be out of prison, discussing and solving these problems—minds like Zainab’s.

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