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U.S. labor urges trade pact with Bahrain be suspended

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The largest U.S. labor group wants President Barack Obama's administration to suspend a free trade pact with Bahrain over human rights abuses in the kingdom's crackdown on anti-government protests.

Jeff Vogt, deputy director of the AFL-CIO labor federation, told Reuters on Friday the group has urged the administration to notify Bahrain it intends to withdraw from the trade agreement after a required six-month waiting period.

"We felt this is tremendously important given that the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions has really been bludgeoned during this crackdown," Vogt said.

"Many members of the GFBTU and several trade unions have been fired or harassed or arrested. We see this as an effort to dismantle an effective, independent voice in the country for workers. I think it would send a very negative signal to the rest of the region were this trade union to be destroyed," Vogt said.

The U.S. Trade Representative's office referred Reuters to the U.S. Labor Department, which did not have an immediate comment. The Labor Department has until about June 21 to examine the group's petition and decide how to proceed.

The AFL-CIO believes the best course would be for the United States to notify Bahrain it intends to withdraw from the pact, and then begin consultations to see if various labor rights abuses can be corrected, Vogt said.

At least 13 protesters and four police died during unrest that gripped the island kingdom in February and March until Bahrain declared martial law and invited in troops from Sunni neighbors to quash anti-government demonstrations.

Bahrain's Shi'ites say they are denied access to state employment, land and housing, and point to the naturalization of foreigners from largely Sunni countries as proof of a policy of sectarian rule.

The government has since cracked down on Shi'ite villages and opposition activists, arresting hundreds, and fired hundreds of workers from state-owned companies. At least three people have died in custody.

The government says it has targeted only those who committed crimes during the unrest. It announced on Monday that it would prosecute dozens of health care workers for crimes committed during the protests, including causing the death of wounded protesters by inflicting additional injuries on them.

Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and a regional financial and banking hub, is one of four Arab League countries that have a free trade pact with the United States. The others are Jordan, Morocco and Oman.

U.S. exports to Bahrain have grown sharply since the free trade agreement went into force in January 2006.

The United States shipped $1.25 billion worth of goods to the kingdom last year, compared to $350.8 million in 2005.

The pact also helped boost Bahrain's exports to the United States to more than $625 million in 2007, from $431.6 million in 2005. However, the kingdom's exports to the United States tumbled during the global financial and totaled just $420.2 million last year.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Todd Eastham)

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