Bahrain: Freedom of expression and assembly must be respected, and Prisoners of conscience freed ahead of elections


The month of November marks the parliamentary elections in Bahrain and the controversial visit of Pope Francis to the island. Activists and prisoners of conscience have been speaking out about both these issues being used as a cover up for systematic oppression in the country. Having been involved in documenting the country's continuous and systematic human rights abuses, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) joins in calling out these superficial solutions to the country's deep-rooted problems of lack of freedom of speech and representation. They come at the same time as Bahrain is being reviewed at the United Nations as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

While the news of elections might at first glance sound like a positive event, once one takes a closer look, in Bahrain it in fact is very misleading. Elections should be the time in which citizens of the country feel they have a voice and are represented, but how can they when the Bahraini government continues to imprison activists and protesters - most of whom have been subjected to torture, spent more than a decade serving time for trumped up charges, and are continuously being mistreated in prison. Human rights abuses in Bahraini prisons - from beatings, harassment, and lack of medical care among other things - never seem to stop. 

While prisoners such as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Zuhair Ashour wither away, prison guards and police who were involved in torturing prisoners are being promoted to higher positions, using their status to further harass their victims and threaten them in some cases even with death. 

At a time when the government has left no space for any opposition, independent media or civil society organisations that are not completely under their control, to ensure there is no opposition to the elections - and in an act of further intimidating people - lead prosecutor Adnan Alwedai announced in an interview with leading government newspaper “Akhbar Al-Khaleej” that inciting people not to participate in the elections is considered a criminal offense with a punishment of up to two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 2000 Bahraini Dinars. 

Yet, this has not stopped prisoners of conscience from speaking out from within the prison about the sham of the elections and asking people not to participate. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s imprisoned co-founder, said in a recent phone call that “under this charade of elections and religious tolerance, please look harder to find who are the people buried beneath, the people this charade wants to erase. You will find us.” Even more ridiculous, a former minister has stated that he supports “citizens being forced to vote, even if it's with empty papers.” 

As a condition for free elections, the #FreeAlKhawaja campaign, GCHR, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)  and the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights  (ECDHR) prepared a checklist about the elections with recommendations.

In November 2022, Bahrain will also be reviewed by the United Nations at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In a joint submission, GCHR, ADHRB, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and FIDH examine the Government of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s (Bahrain) compliance with its UPR recommendations and international human rights obligation, and make a number of recommendations related to freedom of expression and assembly, violations against women and men human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience.

The timing of the Pope's visit on 3-6 November, which ends six days before the elections, is clearly another attempt by the Bahraini government to gloss over very deep, systematic and historical persecution against the people of Bahrain, including religious persecution specifically targeting the Shia majority. In a letter from prisoners of conscience to the Pope, they write, “One of our customs which we were raised with is receiving, honouring, and celebrating a guest. Forgive us, for we will not be welcoming you, because we are in the prisons that hold the political opposition.”  

They continue, “We speak to you in the name of more than 4000 political prisoners from the citizens of this island since the start of the Arab spring in 2011. Some of whom finished their sentences but were never compensated, others who died in prison without ever getting justice, others killed with no investigations into their killings, some still awaiting execution, and yet more who have no hope of ever being released after being sentenced to life or several life sentences.”   

In another letter from exiled Bahrainis, many of whom have lost their Bahraini nationality for merely taking part in the pro-democracy movement, they stated that they hope the Pope “will not allow his visit to be yet another festival that is used to hide our torment and pain.” 

In a speech on 3 November, the Pope did speak out against the death penalty and human rights violations, and called for religious freedom and equality.

GCHR joins our colleagues at the #FreeAlkhawaja campaign to demand that the international community not view these events positively unless the Bahraini government responds to some basic demands. 

  1. Release prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally by sending a clear signal that no elections can be free with peaceful voices of dissent in prison
  2. Allow opposition to run in elections by repealing the ban on people associated with dissolved opposition societies from running in the elections 
  3. Halt the criminalisation of encouraging others not to vote by repealing the decision to punish non-vote advocates with prison and fines 
  4. Ensure independent civil society can operate without attacks by initiating spaces for human rights groups and dissolved opposition societies to form again
  5. Respect the rights to freedom of expression and assembly by ending attacks on voices of dissent, free media and peaceful protestors.