Dubai - A powerful US-based labour organization is urging Washington to suspend a free trade pact with Bahrain in response to the Gulf nation's crackdown that includes purging union leaders accused of supporting pro-reform protests, a union leader said Monday.
The petition by the AFL-CIO seeks to push the United States to make one of its first tangible censures against key ally Bahrain - home of the US Navy's 5th Fleet - for sweeping attempts to crush an uprising by its Shiite majority demanding greater freedoms.
Washington has urged Bahrain's Sunni monarchy to seek dialogue with protesters and publicly condemned violence and mass arrests, which include journalists, activists and trade union leaders. But US officials have stopped short of taking more direct action against Bahrain's rulers.
Suspending the free trade pact - which waives tariffs on industrial and consumer products - would send a strong message to Bahrain's leaders that "their actions are moving in a very dire direction," said Jeff Vogt, deputy director of the AFL-CIO's international department.
The five-year-old trade accord with Bahrain is small in economic terms: Bahrain is a midlevel export market for US goods and two-way trade is less than $1.5bn a year - a fraction of other Gulf neighbors such as Saudi Arabia. But it carries symbolic importance to Bahrain, which has just modest oil and gas reserves.
The pact is just one of 17 such bilateral trade agreements with Washington, which also includes Israel, Jordan and Oman in the Middle East.
Vogt said it's the first effort by the AFL-CIO to halt a free trade deal because of political pressures.
"Bahrain's actions have gone so far beyond the pale," he said. "We shouldn't be in this agreement."
US trade officials have up to six months to respond to the appeal, filed late last week in Washington, Vogt said. But the AFL-CIO seeks fast-track review because of the "severity" of the crackdown and Bahrain's role as a leader in labor rights in the Gulf, where many nations outlaw unions or worker groups, he added.
The petition claims that leaders of the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions, the umbrella labor group on the island kingdom, have faced detention or dismissals. It said the heads of other worker groups, including teachers and nurses, have faced similar pressures.
"If the Bahraini (labour) federation is crushed, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the Gulf," Vogt said.
More than 30 people have died since the protests began in February by Bahrain's Shiites, who represent 70% of the population but are excluded from top political and security posts.
Last week, four anti-government protesters were convicted of killing two policemen during the uprising and sentenced to death by a military court.