General: GCHR highlights freedom of expression online, torture in Bahrain and Annual Report during UN HRC side events

02.04.21

During the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC)’s 46th session in March, the Gulf Centre and partners held several online side events discussing threats to freedom of expression online, torture in Bahrain and its Annual Report.

On 25 March 2021, GCHR launched its Annual Report, “Human Rights in the Gulf Region and Neighbouring Countries in the Face of Lockdowns and more Layers of Restrictions” during an online event. At the event GCHR staff highlighted key issues, cases and achievements from GCHR’s work in the region, including threats to protesters in Iraq, attacks and online threats to women human rights defenders, and impunity for attacks and murders of journalists and human rights defenders.

“It's so painful to cover all the violations against the brave human rights defenders in the region, such as Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah or Loujain Al-Hathloul in Saudi Arabia, who are champions of change,” said GCHR's Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim. “Even if they are released from prison like Loujain, they are not really free to work for human rights.”

“It's been one of the hardest years for WHRDs in the MENA region, due to the pandemic, and we want to praise the efforts of those WHRDs motivating us to work for equality & freedom, says,” said Weaam Youssef, GCHR’s WRHDs Programme Manager.

GCHR works with many partners on advocacy at the UNHRC, where we submitted Universal Periodic Reviews (UPRs) on Oman and Lebanon and carried out advocacy for accountability in Yemen and Iraq, as well as calling for human rights defenders to be freed across the region said GCHR’s Geneva Officer Michael Khambatta.

To watch the event, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky82mM4cHgQ

On 17 March 2021, GCHR co-organised an online side event to discuss systematic torture in Bahrain, and to launch its report, “Patterns of Torture in Bahrain: Perpetrators must Face Justice”  released the day before in cooperation with Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The event is online at: https://youtu.be/i-fvS76QL0Q

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB, moderated the event and began by noting that torture never really ends, and the psychological consequences continue long after. While no representative of Bahrain announced themselves, the Chat function had to be disabled after being flooded with irrelevant text.

Claire Nevin, GCHR researcher, presented the report highlighting that torture is systematically used by the authorities and is central to maintaining power. Confessions through torture are used extensively in prosecution and have even led to the death penalty. Human rights defenders, journalists and other peaceful critics have been targeted as “terrorists”, which causes a chilling effect for anyone wanting to speak out. She also addressed the failure of accountability. Internationally, little pressure is put on Bahrain, while senior officials who are personally linked to torture are received abroad. She highlighted the United Kingdom’s role in allowing the sale of spyware and educating police.  

Asma Darwish of BCHR began by noting that “Torture is policy, and impunity the norm.” The methods of torture used included sexual assault, reprisals against families, beatings often while blindfolded and/or stripped naked, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and forced standing for long hours. Darwish called on the Bahraini authorities to allow a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and to open an office by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.   

Shawan Jabarin, Secretary General of FIDH, noted that this report is a “red flag” and said that unless there is accountability it will just repeat and repeat. “Torture is a short-term vision and a crime against humanity,” he concluded. It must be dealt with in the international system under the rule of law, said Jabarin, calling for an investigation commission on torture.

Noting the European Union’s urgent resolution on Bahrain adopted in March 2021, speakers at the event called for the United States and others to enforce accountability measures such as the Magnitsky Act. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, co-founder of GCHR and BCHR, was tortured with impunity, and remains in prison for his human rights activities. 

At an event on 16 March about “Freedom of Expression Online in the Gulf & Neighbouring Countries”, GCHR launched some findings from research carried out with the Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC), housed at the University of California.

At the event, former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye noted that GCHR is extremely active at the UN because it's very hard for MENA activists to engage in public debate in their home countries. He said, “Engagement by GCHR in Geneva is tremendous but level of reprisals against MENA human rights defenders is a sad reflection” of this work.

Research shows that surveillance against human rights defenders, cases of targeted attacks on human rights defenders are the tip of the iceberg and high-profile arrests have a silencing effect on others.

“Many cybercrime laws are vague and overbroad, with problematic provisions that are used to prosecute human rights defenders” and others, including in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where counter-terror laws are used to target women's rights activists, said Astha Sharma Pokharel of the Berkeley Law Clinic.

Researchers from the Berkeley Law Clinic also presented findings about several other countries in the region. There are two laws that target online expression in Oman, including for advocating for tribal rights, Palestinian rights and women's rights. Women human rights defenders are subjected to government harassment, intimidation and surveillance. The Cyber-Defense System created in 2020 signals enhanced surveillance.

Another researcher reported that rights defenders including those advocating for Bedoon rights on Twitter are most targeted in Kuwait under two laws used to limit online expression. For example, blogger Mohamed Al-Ajmi was charged for "insulting religion" online, and others were charged for corruption reporting. 

Research shows three trends in Iran, said another Berkeley researcher, naming the targeting of journalists, women protesting compulsory veiling, and the use of the death penalty and disproportionate sentences for protesters, rights activists and journalists, citing the recent execution of journalist Roohollah Zam.

More news from the research by GCHR and Berkeley will be published in future.