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Bahrain: Cemetery of Human Rights

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Opposition activists hold national flags and pictures of opposition activists and human rights leaders who were killed and detained. Photo Sayedoo BH/Demotix/Corbis

“Five years after a wave of protests demanding widespread reform rocked Bahrain, hopes for progress on human rights and accountability for past and present abuses have faded,” said Amnesty International in February 2016.

Amnesty’s statement, issued ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Bahraini uprising on February 14, 2016, illustrates the ongoing struggle for human rights in the island nation. This absence of any protection of human rights has increased the tension between the Sunni-dominated government and the mainly Shiite opposition (Shiites make up 65 per cent of total population) that has been demanding reforms since the government’s crackdown against the uprising in February 2011.

The constitution of Bahrain does not explicitly protect the rights it enumerates. For example, it affirms the right to freedom of expression: Article 23 provides that “Freedom of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed” and adds that “Everyone has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth, in writing or otherwise under the rules and conditions laid down by law.” In reality, more than 3,000 political prisoners are jailed in cases mostly related to freedom of expression. The prominent human-rights defender Nabeel Rajab’s tweets and the opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman’s statements were considered free expression by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but that didn’t protect them from arbitrary arrest.

The constitution guarantees the right to nationality in Article 17: “Citizenship: It is prohibited to banish a citizen from Bahrain or prevent him from returning to it.” On 21 February 2016, however, the Bahraini authorities violated that right by expelling prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Mohammad Khojastah from the country, after stripping him of his citizenship for his participation in the pro-democracy movement.

The protests that began in February 2011 were met with excessive force, resulting in the death of at least 30 people. The government’s crackdown included all forms of human rights violations, such as torture, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and media harassment, according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was directed by King Hamad Bin Issas Al Khalifah in 2011 to investigate and report the events that took place in February and March 2011.

A new era of hope for the country’s political and human rights situation was anticipated after the BICI initiative, but it wasn’t long before those hopes faded and the BICI was considered to be used by the government to clean up its human rights record. Human rights organizations found that Bahrain’s steps towards reform and reconciliation, which can’t be achieved without implementing the commission’s recommendations, have been piecemeal and cosmetic at best. As BICI chairman Cherif Bassiouni commented in 2014, “these recommendations have been implemented on a piecemeal basis… [I]ts cumulative impact is not felt.”

Despite the Amnesty report and the BICI chairman’s comment, Bahraini Information Minister Isa Bin Abdulrahman al-Hammadi insisted that his country has made progress on the political front and that the “government has accelerated reforms,” which are believed, in essence, not to have been implemented. For example, the BICI recommended that the government incorporate into national law Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet Bahrain’s juvenile law was amended to state that the parents of anyone under the age of 15 who takes part in a demonstration, public gathering, or sit-in would receive a written warning from the Ministry of Interior. After a second offence in six months, the child’s father could face jail, a fine, or both. The amendment thus places the responsibility on parents, instead of protecting children participating in protests.

Bahrain’s deteriorating human rights situation is not new. In the mid-1990s, thousands of men, women, and children were illegally detained, reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees were documented, and trials failed to meet international standards. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International revealed that the State Security Law of 1974, which was used by the government to crush political unrest during that period, facilitated the routine use of torture of political prisoners and human rights violations for nearly 25 years.

The State Security Act contained measures permitting the government to arrest and imprison people without trial for up to three years, for crimes relating to state security. Other measures relating to the 1974 Act were introduced, which expanded the conditions conducive to arbitrary arrest and torture.

According to the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the situation continued to worsen until 2015.

The violations from January to September are as follows: 1422 cases of arbitrary detention, including 28 women, 241 children; 264 citizens exposed to torture, other ill-treatment, and degrading treatment, including 97 cases of short-term enforced disappearance and 52 cases of deprivation of treatment; political judgments brought against 667 persons, who have been convicted in political cases and have been sentenced to a total of 5,628 years’ imprisonment, including six death sentences, 47 cases of life imprisonment, and 128 cases of deprivation of nationality; 250 citizens deprived of nationality, including politicians and human-rights and media activists; 1789 people exposed to tear gas and gunshots, which resulted in the injury of 630 citizens as a result of the use of unjustified force, which does not meet the standards of the principles of internationally accredited necessity and proportionality set forth in international law.

The UN statement issued by 33 member states of the Human Rights Council in September 2015 and addressed to Bahrain, has gone unheard. The statement tackled the harassment and imprisonment of those who exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, including human rights defenders who have been arrested, tried, or summoned and several opposing political figures, amongst others Ibrahim Sharif, Khalil al-Marzouq, Jameel Kazim, Mageed Milad, Fadil Abbas, Mohamed Algriffi, and Sheikh Maytham Salman. Despite the statement’s recommendation to admit the UN Special Rapporteur, authorities have not yet responded to seven applications by the special rapporteurs to visit Bahrain, and denied the request of UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez.

A Human Rights Watch report issued in November 2015 entitled “The Blood of Those Who Don’t Cooperate,” asserted the continuation of torture in Bahraini prisons.

Joe Prison is one of Bahrain’s central prisons and one of its most notorious. Inmates of Joe Prison have often been subjected to psychological and physical torture, deprived of medical care, and subjected to overcrowding. In March 2015, a family protested after being prevented from visiting their relative. This led to an uprising in several buildings of Joe Central Prison, protesting the inhumane conditions in which they are living. In trying to quell the uprising, security forces used excessive force. Instead of the Bahraini authorities responding to the demands of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an impartial and rapid investigation of the events of Joe Prison in March 2015 and of the victims of torture and ill-treatment, on 25 January 2016, the Fourth High Criminal Court sentenced 57 detainees to 15-year prison sentences for the protest in Joe Prison. The security officials involved were not held accountable.

The government didn’t even spare education from violations. The Ministry of Education politicized academic scholarship by regarding the academic qualifications of students as less important than their sect and political background. The year 2015 witnessed the highest levels of sectarian discrimination against Shiites.

Bahraini Minister of Interior Rashid Abdullah Al Khalifa during a news conference in August 2015 announced the government’s intention to license the imams of mosques and to promulgate sermons that would violate the internationally- guaranteed right to autonomy of religious affairs. This was in addition to what has already been recorded—from the appalling violations of the right to freedom of belief by inciting hatred against Shiites, to demolishing 28 Shiite mosques, as stated in the BICI report, and attacking their religious gatherings during their ceremony of Ashura.

The report of the US Commission on Freedom of Religion confirmed that much remained to be done to implement the recommendations of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Fact Finding to address abuses against Shiite Muslims and to continue to enhance freedom of religion in the country.

The government’s insistence on stalling the implementation of the BICI and Human Rights Council’s recommendations and denying that the human rights situation in the country is deteriorating, blocks the way to a solution of the thorny political, constitutional, and human-rights crisis.