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Bahrain and Human Rights: How Regime Supporters Sent a US Diplomat Home (Piven)

Ben Piven reports for Al Jazeera English:

On a sunny day in early March, Bahraini protesters agitated for their rights in broad daylight outside the US embassy in Manama.

They carried signs that said "Give me liberty or give me death" and "Stop supporting dictators".

Ludovic Hood, a human rights specialist in the political section of the US embassy, offered doughnuts to the protesters --- a quintessentially American handout.

In response, a local cleric opined: "These sweets are a good gesture, but we hope it is translated into practical action."

The predominantly Shia anti-government demonstrators believed that the US government was not putting enough pressure on its ally, the Khalifa family-ruled island kingdom of Bahrain.

Moderates hoped the international community would use its leverage to force Bahrain's government to establish a true constitutional monarchy and create jobs for unemployed Shia citizens.

And the more extreme protesters bluntly proclaimed: "Down, Down, Khalifa."

Sent packing

But those protesters did not expect that, just two months later, Hood would be shipped back to the US from his post in Manama --- prematurely, some say --- after having been threatened on Bahraini pro-government websites.

"[By distributing doughnuts], Hood just wanted to show that he had no objection to protests against US actions," said Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, a former parliamentarian, who saw Hood observing court proceedings in October, when the government was trying 25 citizens for plotting to overthrow the regime.

"He did not insult the Bahraini authorities...but the radical [Sunni] parties used this against him," said al Mosawi, a member of the Shia Islamist Wefaq party who resigned his seat in parliament.

The campaign against Hood --- allegedly by hard-line activists belonging to Salafist organisations --- went on for two months.

The most fierce posting targeting Hood was published on May 7, in which an anonymous website user accused the US embassy's political section of being the staunchest supporter of the anti-government protests in Bahrain --- and included photos from Hood's wedding day.

The posts also made thinly veiled threats regarding Hood's alleged religion. He is apparently not Jewish himself, though his wife is. Such comments are surprising for a country whose ambassador to the US is a Jewish woman.

"We don't know exactly why Ludovic was sent back after [three years in Bahrain], but it has to do with his relationship to the opposition at large," said Jasim Husain Ali, an economist at the University of Bahrain who also resigned from his parliamentary seat alongside al Mosawi.

"Authorities in Bahrain were not happy with him. Yet he had no choice but to stay in touch with different groups," added Husain, referring to Hood as a friend, "who admires the people and culture of Bahrain".

The state department does not reveal details of security provided for its personnel, but US officials have reportedly suggested that Hood received a security dispatch equivalent to that of an ambassador prior to his departure, implying that his personal safety was a major concern.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Hood's boss, reportedly complained to Bahrain's foreign minister in May about the threats.

The Bahraini government declined to comment on Hood's departure.

Hood had been persistent in his human rights work, which reportedly made him a security liability on the ground. But both the US state department and Bahraini opposition members have told Al Jazeera that Hood was "just doing his job".

Human rights focus

Hood's task was to report on court cases involving political dissidents and liaise with a wide spectrum of political groups. Opposition figures say that he was held in high esteem by human rights advocates, but that he had raised the ire of certain factions within Bahrain's government for having cultivated close ties with detractors of the regime.

"We meet with everyone - all legal entities. We talk to all the groups that we can," said Shaina Kieran, a spokeswoman at the US embassy in Manama, describing the principle behind Hood's challenging job - and expressing confidence that his replacement would continue along the same lines.

She repeated what state department spokesman Mark Toner had said the week prior in Washington, that Hood was not officially "recalled" from his post and that his return to the US was not "premature".

Kieran says that Hood had already been scheduled - six months prior - to return to the US for a new assignment, based in Washington DC.

Caught between increasingly polarised factions in the embattled Gulf state, Hood's brand of diplomacy clearly became unpopular in certain circles.

"Any political officer doing his job well is supposed to be in touch with local organisations, labour unions, NGOs and human rights groups," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There's no way you can do that job without having direct contact."

Ottaway believes "getting Hood out of the way" was part of a campaign by pro-government factions to "hamper contacts between the [US] embassy and human rights organisations".

"It's possible that [Hood] was personally threatened, then they decided to accelerate his departure," said Ottaway.

But she also said that the allegations against Hood were not credible, having accused Hood both of being a "Zionist" and of conspiring with Hezbollah. "Whoever is accusing him better make up their mind about what they are accusing him of," she said.

"But the more fundamental issue is - what is the position of the US towards the protesters and Bahraini government and human rights and so on."

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