Is there hope for a human rights-respecting culture in Bahrain?

Guest article by Nedal Al-Salman and Kristina Stockwood

Bahrain has the potential to be a democratic society with an active and participatory citizenry. Yet Bahrain’s current rulers have chosen to ignore the international community’s recommendations and instead have focused on rewarding loyal subjects and punishing anyone who dissents.

In the past, Bahrain’s human rights community has suffered periods of repression and periods of tolerance, never knowing if the situation would go up or down, yet still confident that things could improve. But in the past two years, we find ourselves repeating over and over that ‘the situation has worsened’, with new violations every month, leaving little hope for a functioning civil society in which the freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, particularly given the willingness of powerful allies to place business and military concerns above human rights. When will the downward spiral end?

Like Tunisia, Bahrain had the potential to follow a democratic path in the wake of the popular movements that began in the Arab Spring of 2011. And indeed, for several weeks, the protests flourished in camps of families as a majority of the tiny country’s citizens took to the streets peacefully to demand equality for all Bahrainis.

Also like Tunisia - and unlike its powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia - Bahrain already had many measures of equality in place for women in the workplace, education and justice fields. Women were not required by law to wear hijab, although many chose to do so either out of religious preference, or pressure to adhere to the more conservative values of society.

However, Saudi Arabia’s influence is large enough that soon enough, the peaceful protests in 2011 came to an end, thanks in part to the Saudi tanks rolling in across King Fahd Causeway to join the Bahrain Defense Forces (BDF) to put down the demonstrations, which they did quickly and brutally. Around 40 people were killed initially, with dozens more to follow, including five who were tortured to death in custody. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested, including children, as well as doctors and journalists doing their jobs, some tortured brutally, and others sentenced for up to life in prison for protesting. In 2011 and 2012, 48 doctors, dentists, nurses and medics were put on trial and some of them were sentenced for between five and 15 years for treating protesters.

Since the popular movement was crushed on 14 February 2011, the authorities have completely shut down the independent media, closed opposition societies, jailed, banned from travel or exiled almost every human rights defender (or threatened them to stop their work), reinstated the death penalty and revoked hundreds of citizenships, while naturalising thousands of immigrants in the security forces and prison systems to handle the citizens jailed for protesting against the policies of the authorities. They have done all this while denying United Nations (UN) human rights experts the ability to visit the country for the past five years.

At the same time, the rise of extremism in the region was taking hold through armed groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Da’esh (the so-called ‘Islamic State’). While focusing their attention on peaceful dissidence in the streets, the authorities turned a blind eye to people intent on actual violence.

Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was sentenced to prison for stating that the BDF was the “incubator” of terrorism, following the posting of videos by extremists calling for the overthrow of the ruling family. Rather than going after the real threats to their safety, the authorities sentenced Rajab and other human rights defenders to prison. They include BCHR’s founder Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and former president Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace, sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for their role in the peaceful protests. They were charged with being part of a terror cell instigated by enemy state Iran, along with 11 others collectively known as the Bahrain 13, who include Al-Khawaja’s uncle. Both men were badly tortured during their arrest and detention, as reported in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), mandated by the King to address the violations that took place in February 2011. The BICI found no evidence of an Iranian connection. Yet they remain in prison to this day with no hope of ever being freed, because in Bahrain, life in prison really means life.

Rajab, today in 2018, has the awkward problem of finding himself locked up in Jaw Prison in a segregated wing, sometimes in the same cell as five high-ranking Da’esh members who belong to the Bin Ali clan - the very same family whom he referenced in the “incubator” tweets for which he was sentenced previously in 2015.  He is currently serving two sentences amounting to seven years in prison for giving media interviews and for tweeting about torture in Jaw Prison, as well as protesting about the Saudi and Bahraini role in bombing Yemen, where civilian casualties have mounted since 2015.

Ironically, in April 2011, just as he was arrested, Al-Khawaja was in the process of founding a new regional Gulf organisation, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), to take on the challenges facing human rights defenders across the region. After his arrest on 9 April 2011, Rajab stepped up to take an active role in the founding of GCHR as well. It’s not that they were complacent about the situation in Bahrain, but it seemed stable enough to take on the challenge of human rights in the region, particularly in other countries with closed societies and little or no freedom of assembly or expression, like Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Bahrain had a very healthy human rights culture with many independent civil society organisations (CSOs) operating with or without authorisation. BCHR, for example, had been banned since 2004, after Al-Khawaja gave a speech criticising the government’s handling of poverty in the country, for which he was subsequently arrested.

Since 2011, the authorities have systematically arrested the leaders of independent human rights CSOs, including Al-Khawaja, Rajab and Naji Fateel, who was arrested and tortured after travelling to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Since then, other human rights defenders have been banned from travel before each session of the UNHRC, some finding out as they arrived at the airport that they could not fly to Geneva, including the Bahraini author of this article.

The case of Fateel proved that not only could a human rights defender be heavily sentenced for human rights activities outside of jail, but the authorities would continue to persecute some of them in jail, not just through poor treatment, but by adding new sentences.

Fateel, a member of the Board of Directors of the Bahraini human rights CSO Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013, allegedly for establishing “a group for the purpose of disabling the constitution” under Article 6 of the controversial Terrorism Act. As with the Bahrain 13, it was an excuse to silence and punish him for his UN engagement and role in documenting peaceful protests. Photos were widely circulated showing the marks of torture on his back and he suffered health problems in prison.

Then on 10 March 2015, security forces attacked prisoners in Jaw Prison using rubber bullets, teargas and shotgun pellets, following a disruption by prisoners protesting about restrictions on family visits. Fateel was not involved in the protest, but was injured during the attack, suffering a broken leg, and was subsequently sentenced to an additional 10 years for assault and damage to prison property.

The treatment of prisoners fails to adhere to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), not least when prisoners are tortured or kept in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. At one point, Rajab was held in jail with a dead cat and insects, and when he was returned to his cell in 2017 following surgery, his wounds become infected. Other prisoners have been left without proper treatment for eye degeneration, like Al-Khawaja, heart conditions, like Dr Al-Singace, or even cancer. BCHR has documented numerous cases of prisoners failing to receive cancer medication. Despite suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis, Ghada Jamsheer was kept in prison without medication and then discharged to do community service, at risk to her health.

Rather than looking at the root cause of dissent and addressing concerns about the human rights violations raised by human rights defenders, the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process and the King’s own BICI report, the authorities found new ways to punish those who refuse to stop talking about human rights. First they invented Twitter laws to prosecute Rajab, who became the first person jailed for using Twitter in the region, possibly the world.

The authorities issued Royal Decree 1/2017, which granted the National Security Agency (NSA) judicial powers to arrest and detain civilians involved in so-called “terror crimes.” But vague anti-terror laws have more often been used against human rights defenders, journalists, activists and protesters, rather than dangerous criminals.

A new form of intimation appeared in May 2017, when activists, bloggers and human rights defenders were summoned by the NSA for interrogation, and subsequently renounced their work on Twitter and stopped tweeting.

While detained at Muharraq police station on 27 May 2017, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, the monitoring and documentation officer of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, was tortured and sexually abused, but she refused to stop her online activities after her release, even tweeting about the torture, so they came after her again. She was the only one to speak out and condemn her detention and torture, describing them on Twitter as a “crime against humanity.”

She was later arrested again because she refused to be silent. On 18 July 2017, the Public Prosecution ordered that she be detained for six months, pending investigation under the anti-terrorism law. She had been arrested two weeks before during a raid by the NSA on her home. On 22 October 2017, she was released from prison pending trial.

Despite the constant efforts to crush the human rights community, Al-Saegh and a small group of other human rights defenders refuse to abandon their work. Even Rajab and Al-Khawaja continue their work from prison, with Rajab writing articles for the international media even if they result in further prison sentences, and Al-Khawaja writing several books about human rights in prison. While a few human rights defenders are public, many more anonymous people bravely continue the work of documenting human rights violations, including the team of two dozen people working for BCHR on the ground.

From exile, human rights defenders Zainab and Maryam Al-Khawaja, Nazeeha Saeed, Hussain Jawad, Sayed Yousef Al-Muhafdah, Sayed Ahmed Al-Wadaei and many others continue to publicise the human rights violations taking place in Bahrain. They were forced to flee after being arrested, with most of them sentenced to prison, and several tortured or abused in detention. Some of them, like Al-Wadaei, suffer tremendous penalties. He has already been deprived of his citizenship and three members of his family are currently behind bars on trumped-up charges in reprisal for his advocacy abroad.

The families of human rights defenders suffer tremendously for the work of their loved ones, often ending up in jail themselves, like the Al-Khawaja family and Al-Wadaei’s family, including his mother-in-law. Zainab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to over three years in prison on a variety of charges, including ripping up a picture of Bahrain’s monarch and “insulting” a police officer after being arrested for protesting against the torture and imprisonment of her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. She was detained in 2015 with her baby son and, after being released in May 2016 with her child on humanitarian grounds, was forced to flee Bahrain into exile, fracturing her family.

Rather than keeping human rights defenders in prison or in exile, deprived of citizenship, Bahrain should welcome the efforts of these brave women and men who strive for a better society where all are equal.

Recommendations

We think the hope for an open civil society can only come if the government of Bahrain adopts the following recommendations, including many based on those proposed by BCHR in its recent 2017 Annual Report, ‘No Right to Rights’:

1. Release all political prisoners and human rights defenders, and search for a mechanism of dialogue with opposition parties. This may provide a way out of the political crisis that represents the root cause of the human rights violations committed in Bahrain over the course of 2017, as well as in previous years.

2. Stop utilising anti-terror laws until they are reviewed and amended to bring them into line with international human rights standards, as the UN has previously demanded. The government must also cease utilising laws and regulations designed to fight terrorism against peaceful opposition figures and human rights activists.

3. Stop promulgating laws that contravene international human rights standards, and amend those that have already been brought into force to ensure they comply with the stipulations of international human rights agreements and conventions, especially those to which Bahrain is a signatory.

4. End systematic torture immediately, and put an end to the culture of impunity by punishing those responsible. The government must also allow the UN Rapporteur on Torture to visit Bahrain as soon as possible.

5. Provide proper medical care to all prisoners, end the use of solitary confinement and ensure proper hygienic conditions in prison, according to the Nelson Mandela Rules.

6. Guarantee the freedoms of opinion and expression for those who criticise the authorities or peacefully oppose government policy, and act to ensure they are protected. The government must also cease promulgating laws that violate the freedom of expression and media freedom, and revoke those that are already in force.

7. Stop targeting human rights defenders and online activists, and seek to foster a healthy environment in which they can carry out their work, including by allowing them to establish independent organisations to monitor human rights.

8. Stop targeting peaceful political opponents, and allow them to continue their work without facing restrictions, persecution by the security forces or politically motivated court proceedings.

9. Sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, as well as the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

10. Allow international human rights organisations and UN Special Rapporteurs to enter the country, and grant permits to journalists, broadcasters and writers seeking to enter Bahrain to carry out their work.

11. Halt the policy of revoking citizenship and deporting individuals, in whatever circumstances. The government must also seek to find solutions for those left stateless by the policy, and for those who were already stateless for other reasons.

About the authors

Nedal Al-Salman is Acting President of BCHR and head of the women’s and children’s programmes. She carries out advocacy in Bahrain and abroad and manages BCHR’s operations, and has been interrogated and banned from travel repeatedly. Kristina Stockwood has been supporting human rights defenders in Bahrain for more than a dozen years, including by organising missions, joint statements and online advocacy through her work with various CSOs. She is Chair of the GCHR Advisory Board.