Manama: The US embassy in Bahrain has distanced itself from a brewing controversy amid charges it was suppressing freedom of expression.
On Thursday, Yousuf Al Binkhalil, a Bahraini columnist with Al Watan daily, said that he had been informed that a series of columns he had written on US President Barack Obama had violated Bahrain's press laws.
Al Binkhalil said that his columns were critical of the US policy towards Bahrain and that they seemingly bothered the Americans. He claimed that the US embassy in Manama was behind the move to silence him.
The charge by Al Binkhalil who referred to the US president as "Ayatollah Obama" was used by several people to claim that the US was "blatantly interfering in Bahrain's domestic affairs and that it was putting pressure on the authorities."
However, the US embassy has denied the charges, saying that the initiative towards Al Binkhalil was a "sovereign decision to enforce Bahraini press and publication laws."
"We recommend that individuals and organisations who have concerns take up the matter with the agency involved," Rachel Graaf, US embassy public affairs officer, said in a statement.
"The US has a long and distinguished history of defending the rights of individuals around the world to express their opinions, even when those opinions are critical of the US or its policies."
Graf said the embassy "maintains a strong relationship with many of Bahrain's journalists and welcome the opportunity to directly engage with any journalist who seeks information or clarification on US policies."
The embassy controversy, coming after a series of claims that the US administration had been overtly siding with anti-government demonstrators, was a major theme in the sermon by Shaikh Abdul Lateef Al Mahmoud, the head of one of Bahrain's most popular movements, who warned that people were ready to take concrete action to halt "US pressures".
"If the political regime cannot stop US pressures, then it has to tell the people," Al Mahmoud, the head of the National Unity Rally (NUR), the latest political formation in the country, said.
"The admission will allow the people to express themselves through a third rally in front of the US embassy. If the US threatens to pull out its Fifth Fleet and all facilities in Bahrain, let these armies and facilities leave. We are ready to starve to death in order for the sake of our dignity and honour," he said.
The NUR emerged as a force during the period of unrest and political turmoil that hit Bahrain in February and March and held two rallies at Al Fateh Mosque, the country's largest religious edifice, that acted as a counterweight to the rallies held at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Roundabout, popularly known as the Pearl Roundabout, before it was removed.
Al Mahmoud and his followers believe that the US has been ominously biased in favour of the opposition and several columnists have repeatedly claimed that many opposition figures enjoyed support from US officials.
The publication by Akhbar Al Khaleej, a local daily, of diplomatic cables allegedly showing strong links between opposition figures and US diplomats fuelled tension and prompted intense speculations in Bahrain about the embassy ties with lawmakers, politicians and the media.
The US Navy has had links with Bahrain since 1948 and the Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain says that it today covers the busiest 60 acres in the world.
"We provide services and support to ships at sea, remote sites throughout the region, and military and civilian personnel living in Bahrain," the NSA says on its website. "NSA Bahrain is home to approximately 4,400 military personnel and Department of Defence civilian employees assigned to NSA Bahrain and 78 Tenant Commands, as well as Joint and Coalition Forces," it says.