MANAMA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gently pressed Bahrain on human rights on Thursday as he praised security cooperation with the Gulf monarchy, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based in part as a bulwark against Iran.
Kerry made the comments before he met ministers from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, all of which resent what they regard as Iranian interference in the region, including its support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war, for the Houthis in the Yemen conflict and for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Rights groups accuse Bahrain of failing to implement reforms to give its majority Shi'ites a bigger voice in government. They also accuse security forces of using torture against opponents and discriminating against Shi'ites, charges Bahrain denies.
Sporadic violence targeting Bahrain's security forces has continued since pro-democracy, Shi'ite-led protests in 2011 were put down by the Sunni-ruled kingdom with help from Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
At a news conference, Kerry called Bahrain "a critical security partner" but was circumspect about its rights record.
"Here, as in all nations, we believe that respect for human rights and an inclusive political system are essential in order to allow citizens to be able to reach and live out their full potential," he said.
Brian Dooley of advocacy group Human Rights First described the comments as "disappointingly weak". He faulted Kerry for not raising specific cases in public and said his "watery, tepid" language did little to push Bahrain to improve its record.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa defended his nation's rights policies and said activist Zeinab al-Khawaja, who is serving a two-month prison sentence with her child for tearing up a photo of the king, would be freed although the case against her will continue to be pursued.
Sheikh Khaled also criticized Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests and accused it of "hegemonic interventions through proxies in several parts of our region."
Concerns about Iran's behavior are the underlying reason for Kerry's visit and for an April 21 summit in Riyadh that U.S. President Barack Obama will attend with the GCC - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
That summit aims to reassure Arab states of U.S. support and protection following the July 14 nuclear agreement under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Speaking after Kerry met the GCC ministers, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said they wanted better relations with Iran but it had to change its behavior.
"If Iran continues its aggressive policies and continues to intervene into the affairs of the GCC states, it will be difficult to deal with Iran," he said.
Reporting and writing by Arshad Mohammed and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Angus MacSwan