Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Bahrain: Human Rights Situation Deteriorating (2018)

Human rights situation worst it has been in the country’s history, Khalid Ibrahim, director of Gulf Center for Human Rights, told Fanack.

Bahrain-Human rights-Diraz protests
Bahraini anti-government protesters demonstrate against Sunday’s Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix and demand freedom for political prisoners, Diraz, Bahrain, 1 April 2016. Photo AP

Although Bahrain’s 2011 uprising, which saw Shiites targeted and protesters violently silenced, seems a long time ago, the human rights situation continues to deteriorate in 2017. Human rights activists and freedom of expression are particularly at risk from a government increasingly intolerant of dissent.

“The human rights situation is the worst it has been in the country’s modern history,” Khalid Ibrahim, director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, told Fanack. “There is no one to speak up, no space for civil society. Most of the prominent human rights defenders are in jail, sometimes tortured, have fled the country or are banned from leaving it if they work with the international community.”

He referred to several cases since June 2016:

  • Detaining Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, for speaking in public about human rights abuses in his country. He was sentenced on 10 July 2017 to two years in prison for ‘publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state’.

  • Suspending al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper.

  • Sentencing the scholar and activist Khalil al-Halwachi to ten years in prison for allegedly possessing weapons and ‘insulting the judiciary’.

  • Dissolving the secular opposition society Waad and the largest political society al-Wafeq.

  • Denying an entry visa to a Human Rights Watch representative.

  • Harassing and occasionally torturing journalists and activists.

Although the government undoubtedly targets high-profile activists, according to the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), ordinary people are regularly punished for speaking their minds. One of these is Najah Ahmed Yusuf, a 40-year-old mother of four who works at the Labour Market Regulatory Authority.

ADHRB described what happened to her. ‘On 20 April 2017, the Muharraq security office summoned Najah to accompany her 14-year-old son on Sunday 23 April 2017 to an interrogation on ‘illegal gathering’ and alleged rioting … After her son’s interrogation, Najah was also interrogated and accused of working with a terrorist organization in Iran and Iraq … Najah had only two choices: to work with the state and provide information on people she did not know or to confess to the false accusations. The officers asked Najah to return the next day with her answer. On Monday 24 April 2017, Najah returned to the security office and refused their offer. As a result of her refusal, she was beaten. She was asked about her supposed relationships with escaped prisoners, and about the organizers and funders of political activities in her village. Najah did not know the people she was asked about, and could not provide an answer to their questions. As a result, she was beaten more violently and sexually assaulted. The security officers threatened to rape Najah and threatened to kill her or one of her family members by staging an accident.’

The interrogations and abuse continued for two days. Najah was then transferred to a detention centre for almost month. On 25 May 2017, she was taken to court without prior notice. When she refused to plead guilty to false charges, the hearing was adjourned. She remains in custody and has been denied access to her lawyer.

“More recently, we were very shocked to learn that [authorities] tortured a human rights defender, Ebtisam al-Sayegh, for her work,” Ariel Plotkin, a Bahrain researcher for Amnesty International, told Fanack. “She was brave enough to speak publicly about what happened to her, so she got arrested again on 3 July 2017. We have no news of where she is, how she is treated; it is absolutely vital to prevent her from being tortured again.”

Plotkin added, “We have seen large crackdowns on all types of peaceful critics since June 2016. Any form of criticism is targeted by the regime and … there is a very weak answer from the international community, so it feels like this situation will not stop.”

Indeed, a major diplomatic event appears to have paved the way for further repression. On 23 May 2017, at a conference in Saudi Arabia, American President Donald Trump declared that Washington’s relationship with Bahrain was set to improve. “Our countries have a wonderful relationship together, but there has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration,” he said. His administration also announced a $5 billion sale to Bahrain of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft and related equipment, waiving the human rights conditions attached to such a sale by the Obama administration a year earlier.

Following Trump’s assurances, government forces mounted a deadly raid on a pro-opposition protest in the village of Diraz, which left at least five people dead and hundreds detained. “This shows that now the Bahraini government feels totally free to attack, detain and torture any opposition or person critical about its politics,” Plotkin said. “Before, Bahrain was a country that could change, that had potential to reform, but the wind has turned to a bad and bleak situation at the moment.”

In February 2017, a coalition of NGOs wrote an open letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council asking it to intervene in Bahrain. The letter, which has gone unanswered, included the following recommendations:

  • Release protesters, activists and human rights defenders detained or convicted solely for having exercised their rights to peaceful assembly, association or expression.

  • Ensure independent, thorough and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment.

  • Demonstrate the effectiveness, impartiality and independence of human rights institutions, including the National Human Rights Institution, the Ombudsman, the Special Investigations Unit and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission.

  • Commute the death sentences of Muhammad Ramadan and Hussain Ali Moosa, who were convicted for their alleged involvement in a February 2014 bomb explosion.

  • Revise or repeal laws that unduly restrict freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

  • Engage in comprehensive reform of the legal system to ensure effective independence of the judiciary.

  • Ensure accountability for the serious human rights violations that took place during and after the 2011 protests.

  • Cooperate with Special Procedures of the HRC, including by swiftly providing access to Special Rapporteurs who have outstanding requests for visits to Bahrain, most notably the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

According to Plotkin, Bahrain “follows the line taken by the United Arab Emirates, like what happened with Qatar, a Bahraini lawyer was even arrested for criticizing the ban on Twitter”.

If Bahrain continues down that road, more basic human rights could come under attack, and increasingly violently.

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