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Bahrain: Women human rights defenders at risk in detention

2014-11-02

Bahrain’s disregard for the health of detained women human rights defenders and their children is shocking, says the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), and should be eliciting greater calls from the international community to stop jailing them for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Bahrain should immediately revoke all laws that violate freedom of speech, including those that criminalise insulting or defaming state institutions or the monarch, said GCHR previously in a joint statement with Human Rights Watch on 26 October.

Zainab Al-Khawaja, a leading human rights campaigner who has been detained on numerous charges including insulting the King since 14 October, could receive a heavy sentence under a law ratified by the King in February 2014, which provides for a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini Dinars (US$26,500) for anyone deemed to have offended the King, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem. A verdict is due on 4 December following a session at the Lower Criminal Court on 30 October, which Al-Khawaja and her lawyer boycotted.

Al-Khawaja, who is in her ninth month of pregnancy and due to give birth by caesarean section on 3 December, faces six charges, five of which, according to her lawyer, clearly violate her right to free expression. The other charge arises from her action in ripping up a photo of the King on 14 October during a court hearing at which she faced charges that related to two previous incidents when she tore up photos of the King. She has previously been in jail on similar charges, in violation of her right to freedom of expression and assembly, and was released in February 2014. See: http://gc4hr.org/news/view/794

Among Bahrain’s main international Allies, only the United States has called on the Gulf state’s government to drop the charges against Al-Khawaja and release her. The US, along with the European Union, have been monitoring her trial. On 20 October, the US State Department called for Al-Khawaja’s immediate release. On 28 October, over 51 Members of the European Parliament, expressed concern about Al-Khawaja, saying, “The Bahraini government has also reignited its campaign against the Bahraini-Danish citizens and human rights defenders of the al-Khawaja family.” Human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is in prison on a life sentence for peacefully expressing his right to free expression.

There is no reason to think that Al-Khawaja will receive special treatment, says her sister Maryam Al-Khawaja, Co-Director of the GCHR. She notes that protestor Zahra Al-Shaikh and her six-month-old baby, who needs special medical attention, are still in prison. Al-Shaikh was charged with illegal gathering, and has been arrested several times in violation to her right to freedom of assembly.

Maryam Al-Khawaja herself was recently jailed upon arrival in Bahrain on 30 August and charged with allegedly assaulting a policewoman. In reality, Al-Khawaja herself was assaulted and her shoulder muscle torn, yet nobody has been called to account for this assault. She had made the trip to try to see her father, whose life was at risk following a hunger strike in prison. See: http://gc4hr.org/news/view/767

Children have been detained with their mothers, or on their own following their participation in protests. Numerous children, some as young as 11, have been arrested and detained for weeks on end in Bahrain, reports the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), even though minors below the age of 15 are not criminally responsible under Bahraini law.

On 29 October 2014, women’s human rights defender Ghada Jamsheer appeared before the Third Lower Criminal Court on charges of defamation via twitter. She was first arrested on 15 September and has been held since then. While she was acquitted in one case, fined 100 Dinar in another case, and granted bail in a third case upon the payment of 50 Dinar, she remains in detention on two other defamation charges. The court postponed the hearing of those two cases until 24 November 2014, two days after the parliamentary elections.

Jamsheer is the President of the Women's Petition Committee (WPC), a network of Bahraini women human rights defenders who campaign for the codification of Bahrain’s family laws and their reform. She was summoned for interrogation on 9 September 2014 in relation to her tweets about corruption at King Hamad University Hospital, headed by a member of the ruling family. She continued tweeting after that and up until her arrest six days later. See: http://gc4hr.org/news/view/749

While calling for Zainab Al-Khawaja, Ghada Jamsheer and Zahra Al-Shaikh and her baby to be released, the GCHR notes that the detention of these women and children violate their rights under international law and urges the Bahrain authorities to uphold their international commitments as follows.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which reviews state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, concluded in relation to article 19, on freedom of expression, that: “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties, albeit public figures may also benefit from the provisions of the Covenant. Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.” Bahrain has ratified the covenant.

In addition, the detention and ill-treatment of a child without an immediate and just cause, in the absence of a conviction of a crime, against his mental and physical well-being, and interest as a student violates several articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states in Article 3: "In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration." Article 37 continues, stating: "State Parties shall ensure that: No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.