Patrick Cockburn: The West practises double standards in the Middle East

World View: While Barack Obama and David Cameron vigorously oppose the atrocities against protesters in Syria, they handle Bahrain with kid gloves

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Double standards have notoriously marked Britain and America's response to the Arab Spring. But nowhere is the hypocrisy more glaring than in their reactions to the uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, where both countries' governments have used the full might of their security forces to crush peaceful protests and jail and torture their opponents.

When it comes to Syria, Barack Obama and David Cameron express shock at the government's repression and are voluble in their demands for regime change. Until recently, military intervention was not being ruled out. Contrast this with the words of President Obama's spokesman after clashes between protesters and security forces in Bahrain last week. The best he could do was a purportedly even-handed condemnation of violence "directed against police and government institutions" and "excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas against protesters" by the Bahrain security forces. Imagine what an uproar there would be if the White House had said the same about Libya or Syria.

Asked about Bahrain, Mr Cameron and William Hague give its government the gentlest slap on the wrist for human rights abuses and stress the seriousness of the reform programme being implemented by the al-Khalifa monarchy, which enjoys total power on the island.

The Bahraini claim to be carrying out radical reform is convincingly discredited in a report by Amnesty International published yesterday. It concludes: "Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the al-Khalifa family rule continues. In practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011."

The al-Khalifas are unlikely to pay much attention to Amnesty, or a very similar report by Human Rights Watch a fortnight ago. The Bahraini authorities will be cock-a-hoop this weekend, as it appears likely that the Formula One Grand Prix, cancelled last year, will take place in Bahrain on 22 April. They have placed great emphasis on getting the motor race back as a sort of certificate of international belief in the future stability of Bahrain.

The reality of life in the island kingdom is very different. Sectarian division between the disenfranchised Shia minority, some 70 per cent of the Arab population, and the Sunni population, is almost total. When it comes to sectarian hatred and fear, Bahrain now vies with Belfast or Beirut at their worst, and there is little reason why this should improve. The government evidently sees reforms as largely an exercise in public relations. Contrary to its promises of greater freedom of expression, Amnesty notes that since January 2012 the "government began to restrict the access of foreign journalists and human rights delegations". It postponed a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture until June, well after the Grand Prix.

Will this well-funded PR exercise work? The Bahraini rulers have the advantage that Qatar-owned al-Jazeera Arabic, one of the most important forces behind the Arab Spring, largely ignores protests in neighbouring Bahrain, though it gives Syrian protests wall-to-wall coverage. But the reality remains that many Bahraini Shia say they see themselves as victims of an ever-intensifying apartheid, either being denied jobs or given jobs with no authority. When those sacked last year are given back their jobs, as promised by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, they are often given little to do. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told me: "Directors become clerks and clerks become watchmen."

In one important respect, the al-Khalifas in Bahrain and the Assads in Syria made a similar mistake last year. Both families overreacted with extreme violence to peaceful protests, thereby creating the very revolutionary situation they wanted to avoid.

The protests in Bahrain started on 14 February and were essentially a non-revolutionary demand for political reform and civil and economic rights. They were ferociously repressed a month later and even mild sympathy with the protesters led to imprisonment and torture.

The uprising in Syria only really got going in March after earlier demonstrations had fizzled out. If Bashar al-Assad had kept his nerve, offered radical reforms and refrained from extreme violence, he would probably have been all right. He did just the opposite. When the Syrian army and security forces were unleashed from about 21 March, their atrocities, instantly publicised on al-Jazeera and YouTube, swiftly turned millions of Syrians, and much of the rest of the Arab world, against them.

One of the dangers of holding the Formula One in Bahrain is that this may persuade the al-Khalifa family that it is out of the woods. There are signs it already believes this to be the case. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of the leading human rights advocates in jail in Bahrain, has now been on hunger strike demanding his freedom for over 60 days. His fast has led to a sharp increase in clashes between protesters and police. He may die and Bahrain has refused a request from Denmark, of which he is also a citizen, for him to be sent to Copenhagen.

I asked Mr Rajab why the government was keeping Mr Khawaja in jail when it would be much in its interests to release him. He says the government is intransigent because Mr Khawaja was the first of the Bahraini human rights advocates "to cross a lot of red lines and criticise members of the [al-Khalifa] ruling family by name". "I know how these people think," said Mr Rajab. "For them, it is a tribal matter. Many of them want to see him [Mr Khawaja] die."

The US and UK could defend themselves by saying that they do not have enough influence in Bahrain to get the government to introduce genuine reforms. There is some truth in this, since the Saudi military intervention last year shows that Saudi Arabia considers Bahrain to be very much within its sphere of influence.

But Mr Rajab believes that Britain and the US still have enough influence to persuade the Bahraini government to release Mr Khawaja and other imprisoned opposition leaders. Hitherto, they have done very little, publicly pretending that they believe a new reformed Bahrain is back to business as usual, while privately admitting this is not true.

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