Bahrain: On 7th anniversary of beginning of popular movement, NGOs call for end to systematic targeting of human rights defenders and journalists

14/02/2018
Statement
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On the 7th anniversary of the peaceful popular movement of the Bahraini people which started on 14 February 2011, the undersigned NGOs call on the international community to help free human rights defenders in Bahrain, some of whom are jailed for life, and to stop the persecution of journalists simply for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Bahrain now has a reputation as one of the few countries in which all well-known human rights defenders (who are not already in jail or in exile) have been banned from working freely or travelling. This is designed to isolate the human rights movement and cut its links with the international mechanisms in particular the United Nations. A collective travel ban is essentially imposed on all human rights defenders, preventing them from participating in the activities of the three sessions held each year at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. Likewise, international NGOs and journalists, along with UN experts, cannot freely visit Bahrain.

Human Rights Defenders in Jail, Victims of Torture and Ill-Treatment

Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders are in jail, facing ill-treatment. On 05 February 2018, Khadija Al-Mousawi tweeted that she visited her husband, prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has been targeted and abused in Jaw prison. He has been taken to hospital in shackles.

"When I went to visit my husband he was talking about going to the hospital chained," she tweeted. "I expected him to say that he felt humiliated, but he said the opposite. He was walking very slowly because of the weight of chains and the chain distance between the feet, but he was raising his head having a nice feeling.”

Al-Khawaja is the Founder and Former President of both the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), as well as the former MENA Protection Coordinator for Front Line Defenders. He has been held in Jaw prison since his sentencing to life in prison in 2011, along with other human rights defenders and activists, including blogger Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace, who collectively make up the Bahrain 13.

In the past year, Al-Khawaja and other prisoners of conscience have protested repeatedly about the deteriorating conditions in Jaw Prison, which mimic the general deterioration of conditions in Bahrain for human rights defenders and civil society.

After he sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior in November 2017 about the conditions in prison, Al-Khawaja was also denied the right to make any phone calls until 17 December, which appears to be a reprisal against him for raising his complaint.

Another prominent human rights defender who has been ill-treated in detention (including being returned to unsanitary conditions following surgery, which resulted in an infection) is Nabeel Rajab, GCHR’s Founding Director, Co-Founder and President of BCHR, FIDH Deputy Secretary General and a member of the Human Rights Watch MENA Advisory Board. On 15 January 2018, the Court of Cassation upheld the two-year prison sentence against Rajab for talking with various media outlets about human rights issues. On this sentence alone, he will remain in prison until December 2018, even though he has now been incarcerated already for 20 months since his arrest on 13 June 2016.

One of the things that Rajab is accused of falsely stating is that journalists and NGOs are banned from entering the country. However, it is hard to dispute that the country is not only closed in term of civic society space, but equally not accessible for the international human rights observers. Among those NGOs which have not received permission to enter the country are signatories to this letter including FIDH, Front Line Defenders and GCHR, which has been waiting for the green light to enter the country to do a human rights mission since 2012.

In another case, Rajab is being prosecuted over two charges both related to tweets and retweets posted in 2015 about the war in Yemen and also about allegations of torture in Jaw prison after a prison riot in March 2015. The first charge is “insulting a statutory body” (Article 216 of the Bahraini Criminal Code) referring to the Ministry of Interior in relation to tweets he posted denouncing the torture of detainees at Jaw Prison. The second charge is “disseminating false rumours in time of war” (Article 133 of the Bahraini Criminal Code) in relation to tweets he published about the Saudi-Arabia led coalition air strikes in Yemen. A verdict is expected at the next hearing on 21 February 2018 and Rajab faces imprisonment of up to 15 years if convicted.

Women human rights defenders are not spared torture and abuse in prison. On 22 October 2017, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, the monitoring and documentation officer of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, was released from prison pending trial. Al-Saegh was held in solitary confinement in Isa Town Women’s Prison since her arrest on 03 July 2017 and subjected to harsh interrogation. The Public Prosecution ordered Al-Saegh to be incarcerated for six months pending investigation under the anti-terrorism law. In July 2017, a group of UN experts expressed “deep concern at the alleged arbitrary detention of Bahraini human rights defender Ebtisam Alsaegh amid reports she has been tortured and sexually abused and is now on hunger strike.”

In a previous incident, on 27 May 2017, Al-Saegh was arrested and suffered torture and abuse at the hands of the National Security Agency (NSA). She was summoned to Muharraq police station for questioning about her human rights activities and then tortured and sexually abused by members of the NSA. The security officers also threatened to murder her and her children. She was released seven hours later but had to go directly to hospital suffering from a “severe nervous breakdown.”

During the interrogation in May, she was asked about the work of activists inside and outside Bahrain, and about her human rights work in Geneva during the UN HRC sessions.

In 2017, the security authorities arrested and tortured many human rights defenders and then released them after forcing them to pledge to stop their human rights activities. Other people who were interrogated at Muharraq police station subsequently renounced their activism on Twitter and stopped tweeting. Only Al-Saegh strongly condemned these illegal practices, describing them on Twitter as a "crime against humanity."

All human rights defenders in Bahrain are either in prison or exile, or prevented from freely working or travelling, such as Zainab Al-Khamees, banned from travel since November 2016, and Nedal Al-Salman, BCHR’s Acting President, banned from travel regularly since May 2016, preventing her from attending UN HRC sessions. Al-Salman has been accused of illegal gathering and was interrogated four times, with charges remaining against her. The ban has been lifted twice and re-imposed, often for unknown reasons.

On 25 January 2016, human rights defender and board member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) Naji Fateel was among 57 prisoners sentenced to additional 15-year terms for allegedly being involved in disturbances in Jaw prison in March 2015. The public prosecutor accused the men of having “unleashed acts of chaos, riots and rebellion inside (prison) buildings,” and they were charged with “damaging public property, attacking police, arson and resisting authorities,” among other offences. Fateel was already serving a 15-year prison sentence for “establishing a group for the purpose of disabling the constitution,” and has been in prison since May 2013. He was badly tortured in prison, and it is believed that his imprisonment stems from his human rights work, including his interactions with the UN.

Journalists Tortured and Jailed, Media Shut Down

Journalists in Bahrain are not able to work freely and have suffered terribly for covering human
rights violations. Journalist Nazeeha Saeed, former correspondent for France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya, reported being tortured in 2011. She is no longer able to work as a journalist in Bahrain and forced to leave the country. On 18 July 2017, an appeal court in Manama upheld the sentence imposed for “working without a license” against Saeed. She was fined 1,000 Bahraini dinars (approx. USD$2650). Saeed was charged with unlawfully working for the international media under Article 88 of Law 47/2002. Saeed had applied for renewal of her license but her application was rejected without any basis. It was the first time in 12 years that her accreditation was not renewed. She was also placed under a travel ban.

Previously, Saeed was arrested and tortured in May 2011 after covering protests. She was repeatedly beaten and subject to electro-shocks 10 times while in police detention. One of the policewomen responsible was brought to trial but acquitted in October 2012. In November 2015, authorities decided against charging other identified officers because of “insufficient” evidences. 

On 30 October 2017, human rights defender and “Al-Wasat” journalist Mahmoud Abdul-Ridha Al-Jazeeri was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment and his nationality was ordered to be revoked. On 28 December 2015, Al-Jazeeri was arrested during a raid on his home by security forces in plain clothes. His arrest came one day after he wrote an article reporting on the regular consultative (Shura) council’s session, during which an MP asked authorities to punish Bahrainis who had their citizenship revoked on political grounds by depriving them of government housing. He was charged with supporting terrorism, inciting hatred of the regime, having contacts with a foreign country, and seeking to overthrow the government by joining Al-Wafa and the February 14 Youth Movement. He was subjected to ill-treatment in detention including being blindfolded and not being allowed to sit or sleep for almost three days. He is appealing the sentence.

On 24 June 2017, “Al-Wasat” newspaper notified its employees in an e-mail of the decision to lay off all 160 staff members. On 04 June 2017, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority (IAA) suspended “Al-Wasat” for allegedly violating the law and repeating the publication of and broadcasting news that stirs up the community and affects the relations of the Kingdom of Bahrain with other countries. The suspension relates to an article published about protests in Morocco on 04 June 2017, which was accused of “abuse of one of the Arab countries."

Editor-in-Chief Mansoor Al-Jamri said, "After 15 years of journalism, we reaffirm that the success of “Al-Wasat”’s unique project would not have been achieved without the confidence of its constituents, which it considered a civilised means of reform, a bridge of understanding, cooperation, coexistence and acceptance of opinion and the opposite opinion, depending on the loyalty to the whole nation of all groups of society, while adhering that is internationally acclaimed to media professionalism." He added, "The most important of all: honesty in saying and acting."

Recommendations to the International Community:

We, the undersigned NGOs, appeal to the United Nations mechanisms, the European Union, in addition to all governments with influence - in particular the United States and the United Kingdom - to apply serious pressure on Bahrain to demand the immediate release of all detained human rights defenders as well as all prisoners of conscience; and to protect public freedom, in particular freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and freedom of association; and to stop the security forces from practicing any form of torture or ill-treatment on detainees, a practice which is well documented in recent years and regarded as systematic in Bahrain.

We further call on the Bahrain authorities to allow the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, freedom of expression and torture to visit Bahrain immediately in order to meet representatives of civil society, meet detainees, assess the human rights situation in the country as well as to convey their recommendations to solve the crisis facing human rights defenders and journalists.

In addition, we call on the government of Bahrain to fulfill its promises made during Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review to uphold international standards protecting the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, including by taking immediate steps to:

- Overturn the convictions, following unfair trials, of demonstrators and human rights defenders and activists, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and Naji Fateel, and immediately and unconditionally free them;
- Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of all human rights defenders in Bahrain, bring an end to the practice of torture and ill-treatment in prison, police stations or secret locations and bring perpetrators to justice immediately;
- Allow human rights defenders to work freely inside of Bahrain, and travel abroad, including by removing travel bans against Nedal Al-Salman, Zainab Al-Khamees, and Ebtisam Al-Saegh;
- Allow foreign NGOs, journalists and UN representatives to freely visit Bahrain;
- End the harassment of journalists and allow all journalists to carry out their work without fear of reprisals;
- Respect the right to freedom of expression and opinion for all people in Bahrain, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bahrain Constitution.

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