Violations persist in Bahrain as human rights defenders and journalists remain behind bars, under threat, or in exile



I. Introduction

The current situation in Bahrain is dire, causing great concern to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and partners, as well as United Nations experts; yet there is little action on the part of allies. The vast majority of human rights defenders are in jail, in exile, under travel ban, or enduring severe threats and intimidation as a result of their peaceful work. Dozens have been abused and tortured, or had their nationalities revoked and family members arrested. International NGOs and journalists are prevented from visiting Bahrain to document ongoing human rights abuses, including the re-instatement of the death penalty in 2018.

As Bahrain heads towards elections in November 2018 (postponed from October), the government seems determined to keep a tight lid on independent civil society, allowing no real dissent or opposition, having closed down opposition societies and jailed some of their leaders.

Nowhere in the region is there a more comprehensive catalogue of closure of civic space than in Bahrain where all human rights defenders have been persecuted in one or more ways, the only independent newspaper Al-Wasat has been closed, political societies have been shut down, and protests have been violently suppressed leading to the death of five people in May 2017. The country’s leading human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja (GCHR’s Founding Directors) remain in jail. Rajab was one of the first people to be jailed for expressing concern about human rights violations on twitter, having been jailed in 2012 for tweets - leading to the spread of social media prosecutions across the region.

While other countries may be equally as repressive today, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the rapid decline in Bahrain in the past two years is what sets it apart. Bahrain used to have functioning NGOs, a strong contingent of human rights defenders and journalists free to work, and independent media, but this is no longer the case. Since 2011 and the crushing of the popular movement, human rights defenders and freedoms of expression and assembly are suffering tremendously. Following an inquiry into the February 2011 crackdown, the government pledged reforms in a report to the King, and through its obligations under the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR), yet violations persist and UN experts have been prevented from visiting for the past five years.

There has been no accountability for the torture of human rights defenders in prison, nor the murder of people during the 2011 protests and subsequent protest. Even named perpetrators have escaped justice with impunity. Due to the government’s failure to hold perpetrators of torture accountable in Bahrain and the lack of any local remedy to address impunity, using an international jurisdiction is an option that is being explored by GCHR in consultation with other institutions.

In his parting note before leaving his job as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein mentioned human rights defenders from around the world who “provide the best hope for a troubled world,” including “the Khawaja family, Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al-Salman and Ebtisam Al-Sayegh, who have all have shown extraordinary courage in the face of considerable adversity.”


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