ODVV interview: Bahrain’s human rights record...
Bahrain has been in turmoil since 2011, when anti-government, pro-democracy protests swept across the island nation and were met with the government’s iron fist. The movement was mostly led by the Shia opposition of the Sunni-ruled kingdom, and put a spotlight on the rampant corruption and anti-democratic practices of the Bahraini government. Although the movement was nominally quashed in 2014, it had a significant ripple effect on the kingdom’s international credibility.
In the recent years, Bahrain’s human rights record has been occasionally discussed by the media, academicians and human rights organizations, and critical observers raised valid questions as to the reasons why Bahrain’s major international allies don’t reprimand it over its human rights violations.
The account by the Bahraini government illustrates the kingdom as a responsible member of the international community that staunchly upholds human rights and political freedoms. “The reform project of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, which was launched in 2001, reaffirmed … the promotion and protection of human rights as an essential part of the Kingdom’s strategy in developing state institutions and national legislation,” reads an article on the website of Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Moreover, national legislations such as those concerning freedom of opinion, religious freedoms, labor laws, support of civil society organizations and unions, and the criminalization of trafficking in persons reflect the growing respect for rights and liberties in the Kingdom,” the article adds.
However, international organizations have a totally different understanding of the situation of human rights in Bahrain. According to Human Rights Watch, “civilian and military courts continue to convict and imprison peaceful dissenters” under the pretext of national security, ill-treatment and torture of detainees is condoned and the officials involved are not held accountable, imprisonment and harassment of activists, journalists and photographers is a common practice and arbitrary citizenship revocations as well as crackdown on human rights defenders and women rights activists have intensified.
Sayed Yousif Al-Muhafdah is a prominent Bahraini political activist and a member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. He is a former political prisoner and has widely spoken out against human rights violations and suppression of freedom of speech in his country.
In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Mr. Al-Muhafdah responded to some questions about the state of human rights in Bahrain, the fate of the country’s prominent political prisoner Nabeel Rajab and the stance of Bahrain’s major international allies on its rights violations. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Earlier this year, prior to the Formula One auto racing competitions hosted by Bahrain, Amnesty International published a report, investigating the human rights situation in the Arab country, and stated that under the glamorous cover of F1 games, the sinister face of Bahrain lied, which is that of a repressive government that conveniently imprisons any critic, even over posting a tweet. Do you agree with Amnesty International’s description of Bahrain as a “deeply repressive” government?
A: Bahrain’s human rights record regressed rapidly in 2019. The year saw the intensification of repressive tactics used against peaceful dissidents, and at an alarming scale, including the doubling of death sentences and restrictions of freedom of expression compared to the previous year.
Yes, the Bahraini government is “deeply repressive”, not just from the Amnesty point of view, but it has been described so by most of international human rights bodies and UN human rights committees.
On 6 February 2019, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) released its 2018 Annual Report on Bahrain, titled “Bahrain: A Deepening Spiral of Repression.”
The 54-page report outlines the wide range of repressive tactics utilized by the Bahraini authorities against peaceful dissidents on an almost daily basis, including arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and imprisonments, citizenship revocations, death sentences, torture and ill-treatment in prisons and reprisals beyond Bahrain’s borders.
Q: Nabeel Rajab, the Bahraini human rights activist, is perhaps the most prominent political prisoner in the kingdom, who was sentenced to five years behind bars in February 2018 for his critical tweets documenting mistreatment and torture of inmates in the Jaw Prison. The Bahraini government considers Rajab a troublemaker and the media close to the government have long accused him of sponsoring terrorism. This is while in the eyes of the opponents of the government, he is a hero and the leader of the protest movement. Why is Mr. Rajab facing this much pressure by the government and its proteges?
A: The prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab faces a five-year prison sentence for tweets he posted on his own Twitter account where he wrote wars brought hatred, destruction and scourge and did not bring peace and stability, criticizing the war in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, as well as other tweets about noticing torture in prison being committed by police. Rajab was subjected to a mock and malicious trial that did not respect judicial objectivity. Bahraini courts used arbitrary laws and legal adaptation contrary to the principles of criminal justice, amounting to criminalization of freedom of opinion and expression.
Human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is punished by the prison administration that has placed him in isolation prison. They have prevented him from meeting the rest of the prisoners and detainees even while taking him to places designated for visits.
The reports by all international human rights organizations and international observers on the trial of Nabeel Rajab concluded that he is a prisoner of conscience and his place is not a prison.
Q: Since 2011, more than 800 Bahraini nationals have been stripped of their citizenship. Among them, 115 people had their citizenships revoked after a mass trial in which confessions extracted under duress were cited. Doesn’t this practice contravene the international law? Is the Bahraini government using citizenship revocations as a tool to suppress its critics?
A: In Bahrain, the government has been wielding citizenship as a weapon of control and oppression. Stateless citizens are denied the right to have legal residency, the right to freedom of movement, to own property and to hold government or private jobs. They are also prevented from starting a business and borrowing loans or even sending their children to public schools and to receive free medical care. The stateless can also get deported at any time and many stateless dissidents are arbitrarily imprisoned under the country’s anti-terrorism law.
In Bahrain, revoking people’s citizenship is used as a punishment for political dissent and activism, in breach of the international law, including Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, moving in the opposite direction of the United Nations’ goal to end statelessness by 2024.
Since 2012, 990 individuals have been stripped of their nationality, making them mostly stateless. On April 19, 2019 alone, the citizenship of 138 people was revoked in an unfair mass trial, condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner. Despite the fact that the nationality of 551 citizens was reinstated, the nationality of 439 other Bahrainis is still projected.
Q: International media have published harrowing reports on the situation of prisons in Bahrain. In September, Britain’s Morning Star daily wrote that female prisoners in Bahrain are subjected to severe sexual and psychological torture in order to make forced confessions. The head of the Muharraq Security Complex, where two of these women are being kept, had obtained a sum of £16,000 from the British government in 2015 as a training grant. Are international organizations determined enough to pressure the Bahraini government to implement reforms in its prison system and stop such practices?
A: Bahraini security officials have repeatedly and routinely tortured human rights activists, lawyers, and politicians. This practice has continued for almost 50 years, since Bahrain’s independence in 1971. Today, Bahraini practitioners systematically and routinely torture detainees to coerce them and extract information, or change the conduct of victims, their families or other loved ones. Torture of a sexual nature, in particular, is a depraved practice, as torturers use the most intimate and personal parts of a person’s body in order to inflict suffering.
We can observe continuous efforts by international human rights organizations to pressure the international community and particularly current members of the UN Human Rights Council, to call on the government of Bahrain to engage with international human rights mechanisms, including by issuing an immediate, unconditional and open invitation to UN Special Procedures to visit the country.
Q: Since the Saudi-led military coalition was launched for military intervention in Yemen, Bahrain has been taking part in the war using the advanced weaponry it has been purchasing from Britain. British ammunitions including tear gas have also been used to crush demonstrators during the 2011 protests. Do you think the Boris Johnson government will change its arms policies with regards to selling weapons to Bahrain?
A: Yes. There is a strong and effective campaign against the government of Conservative Party led currently by Boris Johnson to stop supporting and selling arms to military coalition led by Saudis overseeing a military intervention in Yemen and Bahrain. However, such a policy is not expected to change if Tory Party remains in power even if Boris Johnson will not be in charge.
Q: It appears that the kingdom of Bahrain is locked in a serious challenge with the country’s Shia population, who have been complaining about being marginalized and deprived of social, economic and political rights for so long, believing that their voices are not heard by the government. Sheikh Ali Salman, the former chairman of the Al-Wefaq Party that was dissolved in 2016 is currently serving his life prison sentence. How equitable was the sentence handed down to the Shia dissident? What are the main demands of the Bahraini Shias and why is the government finding it difficult to come to a compromise with them?
A: Bahraini authorities exercise racial discrimination against Shia citizens at the level of recruitment, scholarships, promotions, appointed positions and diplomatic representation. These have been documented in several international reports, including the USA 2018 Annual Report on Religious Freedoms in the World.
Sheikh Ali Salman has been an active advocate for peaceful political movement and comprehensive reform projects of the government. Since the early stages of the government’s detention of and trial against Salman, the international community has been condemning the government’s persecution of him.
Bahraini Shias have regularly demanded equal rights for all citizens, stressing freedom of belief and opinion, and called on religious issues of the indigenous Shia citizens to be resolved within the boundaries of the constitution and international agreements on freedom of religion.
They demanded authorities in Bahrain to start national reconciliation to achieve comprehensive political and human rights reform, beginning with the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, remedies for victims and an end to the targeting of the opposition and the activists because of their activities in rejecting injustice and tyranny.
Q: Do you think the international community and the powerful countries, mostly the United States, have paid enough attention to the violations of human rights in Bahrain, or is it that they prefer not to forfeit their strong partnership with the kingdom by criticizing it and choose to be politically correct?
A: United States is a major Bahrain international ally, where the human rights values and political reforms are not major concerns of the current US administration. Unfortunately, the priority of the White House is dedicated to arms sales and military contracts and in return there is a blind eye to serious and continuous human rights violations in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in general and Bahrain in particular.
Q: Are the anti-terrorism laws of the Bahraini government fair and effectual? In a 2019 report, the Human Rights Watch noted that Bahrain’s definition of terrorism is highly general and vague and this allows the security apparatus to pressure and detain the critics, human rights defenders, activists and all those who are unhappy with the status quo. What’s your take on that?
A: The majority of Bahrainis believe that “Bahraini Law to Protect Society from Terrorist Acts” is legitimizing state terrorism against citizens. This law is designed to legalize violations by the National Security Agency, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary with a view to eliminating all forms of civil mobility, freedom of opinion and expression and instilling fear in the society, with the excessive penalties included in the articles of this law. Moreover, the broad powers of the Public Prosecutor’s Office were extended and the powers of the judges were also extended to impose tight sentences and surrounded them so that they could not commute the sentence.
Bahraini authorities should abide by international instruments and treaties to restore the powers of the judicial arrest of the National Security Agency, and to abolish the articles that allow the practice of enforced disappearance.
By: Kourosh Ziabari