Open letter to the EU: Need for a stronger positioning on Bahrain

Press release
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The EU expressed its strong concerns after the crackdown on the protests which began in February 2011. All along 2011, the Union - through the voice of its High Representative and through Council Conclusions - has regularly called for the respect of the Bahraini people’s fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and assembly. The EU has also called for investigations of human rights abuses and expressed concerns around the sentencing of civil society and opposition representatives, demanding review of the sentences. The EU welcomed the publication of the BICI Report in November 2011 and offered its assistance in the implementation of the recommendations in the framework of a Bahraini-owned dialogue.

The EU public calls concerning the situation in Bahrain have visibly diminished since then. While recent EU public positioning has supported a constructive national dialogue, the Union has not reiterated strong public demands around the implementation of the BICI recommendations. FIDH believes that it is fundamental for the EU to remain visibly committed to the unconditional and rapid implementation of these recommendations and to keep condemning regular violations of human rights, including arbitrary arrests and trials.

The government of Bahrain has continuously reiterated its pledges to protect and promote human rights and implement the recommendations raised by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and international human rights mechanisms. However, no improvement has been recorded on the ground.

International and local human rights groups continue to document a wide range of violations that are mainly related to the rights of freedom of expression, opinion and assembly targeting notably human rights defenders. The main conclusions of the FIDH report released last September and which documented the systematic crackdown on political opposition and human rights activists in Bahrain remain very accurate. Among other incidents, it documented 45 killings, 1,500 cases of arbitrary arrest, and 1,866 cases of torture.

On December 7, Bahrain’s Crown Prince delivered a speech in an international forum stating that "Only through the genuine application of a just and fair and inclusive legal system will people feel that their own rights and their own futures are protected" [1]. However four days later, Nabeel Rajab, Deputy Secretary General of FIDH and President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), was sentenced in appeal to two years of prison for participating in peaceful gatherings and calling others to join.

Rajab’s conviction blatantly violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Bahrain, which provides that participation in peaceful activities to protest against violations of human rights, including through peaceful assemblies, is protected under international law.

Judicial harassment against human rights defenders, unionists and other professionals has become a common repressive practice in Bahrain. The most common accusation against those who have been recently summoned and/or charged consists in “participation in illegal gatherings”.

The Ministerial Order issued by the Ministry of Interior banning all public rallies and demonstrations “until peace and social order is restored” on October 30, 2012, has given more strength to this practice and paved the way for new cases of judicial harassment, while the vast majority of the trials’ sentences appear to be based on fabricated charges, confessions obtained under torture.

On November 2, Sayed Yousif AlMuhafdhah, was arrested in Duraz while he was documenting the injury of a man who was shot by bird-shot pellets at a protest earlier that day. He was charged with “participation in illegal gatherings” and was detained for ten days before being released without charges [2]. On December 18, 2012, he was again arrested and remanded to detention for seven days on charges of publishing false news on Twitter. On December 10, 2012 a court in Bahrain sentenced pro-democracy activist Zainab al-Khawaja to one month in prison. Ms Khawaja was found guilty of entering the "prohibited area" of the former site of Pearl Roundabout in Manama - the focus of last year’s unrest. On November 21, the Lower Criminal Court sentenced 23 health professionals to 3 months imprisonment on charges of illegal gathering.

Other measures have been again recently taken to sanction human rights defenders. On November 8, Faisal Hayat, head of the Bahrain Committee for the Protection of Athletes, was suspended for ten days from his work at the Bahrain Training Institute, as a result of his participation in advocacy meetings in Geneva. On November 15, Dr. Nada Dhaif, President of the Bahrain Rehabilitation & Anti Violence Organization (BRAVO), was interrogated upon her arrival at the Kuwait International Airport before being denied entry and deported back to Bahrain with her family. Dhaif was informed that she was on a blacklist prepared and sent by the Bahraini authorities in July 2012. She has reportedly received threats about revoking her citizenship.

While the citizenship of 31 opposition activists - mostly former Members of Parliament from Al Wefaq Shia political society and Shia religious clerics - were revoked after a decision of the Minister of Interior on November 7, such threats must be considered seriously [3]. During FIDH’s meetings with authorities in April 2012, the Government of Bahrain consistently advanced the explanation that the problem is a sectarian one. FIDH considers that the authorities use this argument to try to re-frame the legitimate calls for reform and respect for fundamental human rights as purely sectarian claims.

Pro-democracy activists, and most of the political class, insist that this is a popular uprising seeking much-needed reforms, not a sectarian one [4]. This view was reflected in interviews FIDH carried out with non-governmental officials during its mission to Bahrain.

Demonstrations and clashes with police continue almost daily in several villages on the edges of the capital. Repression of demonstrations continues with a disproportionate use of force. The excessive use and abuse of tear gas by the security forces has been regularly documented. Peaceful demonstrators are dispersed by tear gas-canisters, that are fired at close range, targeting protestors in the head or the body. Such practice has led to severe injuries and death of unarmed and unprotected demonstrators over the past months. Direct shots at protesters have also led to death or serious injuries. The most recent incident concerns a young man who has been seriously injured after security forces opened fire upon him on December 4, 2012.

Impunity remains largely the norm for those responsible of human rights violations. As of now, very few sentences were rendered by courts for security officers accused of severe human rights violations and those convinced are low-ranking officers. Moreover while several defendants including political prisoners as Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, a prominent human rights defender, or Ibrahim Sharif, the Secretary General of the Wa’ad party, have complained of torture during their arrest and detention before the judges, none of these complaints were registered nor led to an investigation.

FIDH rings alarm bells at the rise in violence and growing violations of human rights in Bahrain. Thus, FIDH calls upon the European Union institutions to put pressure on the Bahraini government to eventually put an end to ongoing human rights violations and implement the numerous pledges taken for the protection and respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

FIDH calls on the European Union to:

  • Firmly condemn the human rights violations and request the immediate release of all political activists, students, teachers, doctors, workers, human rights defenders and individuals detained and charged with alleged violations related to the rights of expression, peaceful assembly and association;
  • Support the establishment of an international monitoring mechanism, to be set up through a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council to be adopted during its next session in March 2013, with the mandate of monitoring the implementation of the recommendations of the BICI and of the Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain;
  • Suspend and ban exports of tear gas and crowd control material to Bahrain;
  • Suspend all technical cooperation programmes to the Prosecutor’s Office and to the Ministry of Justice, until sentences and trials that are contrary to international human rights standards have been reviewed and prisoners of opinion have been released;
  • Support independent human rights NGOs operating in Bahrain.

FIDH reiterates its calls to the Government of Bahrain to implement all recommendations already raised in its Report released in September and in particular, to :

  • Release Nabeel Rajab, as well as all political activists, students, teachers, doctors, workers, human rights defenders and individuals detained and charged for exerting their rights of expression, peaceful assembly and association, withdraw all charges and put an end to all forms of repression against them;
  • Allow all persons in Bahrain to enjoy and express their fundamental rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and protection from discrimination in regards to employment and access to medical services, among others, in accordance with international human rights standards;
  • Conduct independent and impartial investigations into the use of torture and ill-treatment, and prosecute those found to be responsible;
  • Implement without further delay all recommendations of the BICI report as well as those accepted by the authorities at the occasion of the Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain in September 2012;
  • Allow without any hindrance access to international human rights organisations to Bahrain.

Yours sincerely,

Souhayr Belhassen
FIDH President

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