Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Human rights first

Human Rights First has produced several reports on the human rights situation in Bahrain based on regular visits to the country. In recent months we have monitored deterioration in the human rights situation, including an intensification of attacks on civil society and a curtailment of free expression.

Attacks on Civil Society

1. Bahrain’s judicial system is being used to harass and intimidate human rights defenders, interfering with their legitimate work. On 1 October, a Bahraini appeal court upheld the convictions of nine medics who treated demonstrators in last year’s uprising. The appeal verdicts follow the original sentences given by the military court to the 20 medics in September 2011. The medics were arrested, detained and tortured into giving false confessions last year and were released from custody while their appeal was under way. In June 2012 some of the 20 were acquitted while nine had their convictions confirmed and were sentenced to jail terms of between one month and five years. It was an appeal against these convictions and jail terms that was rejected.

2. On Tuesday, October 16, prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was back in court for hearings on an appeal of his conviction for taking part in “illegal gatherings,” for which he has been sentenced to three years in prison. Rajab remains in detention, where he has been since early June, and hearings in his case have now been adjourned until December 11.

3. On the same day, Mohammed Al Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was arrested and also charged with taking part in illegal gatherings. He was released the following day. In addition, in a court hearing on 15 October 2012, a group of 28 medics had their verdicts postponed again; these are now expected on 21 November 2012.

4. On October 21 an appeals court upheld the convictions of Mahdi Abu Deeb, President of the Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA), and Vice-President of the BTA Jalila Al Salman. Abu Deeb sentence was reduced from 10 to five years in prison for his part in the pro-democracy protests last year and has been held in detention throughout the appeals process. Al Salman’s sentence was reduced from three years to six months. She told Human Rights First she was tortured into making a false confession.

5. Al Salman and Al Maskati were among a group of Bahraini human rights activists in Geneva for the United Nations Human Rights Council session in September 2012. The group has been the subject of a smear campaign in parts of the Bahrain media for their criticism of the human rights record of the Government of Bahrain, contributing to an environment of harassment and intimidation. Newspaper reports referred to the activists as “traitors” and suggested that they “contributed to the distortion of Bahrain’s reputation abroad.” Al Maskati reported that he received death threats by phone while in Geneva.

6. The Bahrain government has declared repeatedly and publicly that it intends to end abuses and improve its human rights record, and it has taken some important steps towards reform. But the government’s treatment of human rights activists tells another story. Real reform will not take hold until the government stops targeting human rights defenders and drops the charges in these emblematic court cases. The Bahrain government pledged to implement the recommendations of the investigative commission, led by international lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, which it convened after the uprising last year. But the government’s efforts so far have focused on creating bureaucratic processes for implementation, and have failed to produce real change that can be felt by those who are peacefully pressing for reform. Since the government’s appearance before the Human Rights Council, at which it made additional commitments to reform, the situation on the ground has deteriorated—medics have been sent back to jail, and the leaders of Bahrain’s human rights movement are being harassed and imprisoned. If the government is serious about its commitments to reform, these steps are hugely counterproductive.

Attacks on Freedoms of Expression and Assembly

7. Human Rights First voiced concern about escalating efforts to silence dissent in Bahrain, where the Kingdom’s Ministry of the Interior in October announced an end to “all rallies and gatherings.” In its announcement, the minister explained that recent rallies “extended to callings for the overthrowing of leading national figures” and “that those acts were emptied of respect and intended humiliation, hence they jeopardize civil peace and disturb security and general order.” This, he said, “couldn’t be accepted in any condition.”

8. The protests won’t go away just because the authorities ban them. This is another blow to those looking for a peaceful way to criticize the government, and will likely lead to more frustration and anger. The Kingdom should rethink this strategy. The latest ban is not how most observers hoped the government would respond to last month’s U.N. Human Rights Council recommendation that Bahrain improve its record on freedom of expression

9. In recent months there has been violence at some of the protests as a fringe of demonstrators clash with the police, leading to several deaths and many injuries. The space for condemning these acts is narrowing as there are fewer and fewer permitted outlets for peaceful expression. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, whose recommendations King Hamad of Bahrain promised to implement almost a year ago, includes recommendation 1724 (a), that the Government of Bahrain should “consider relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to television broadcasts, radio broadcasts and print media. The continuing failure to provide opposition groups with an adequate voice in the national media risks further polarizing the political and ethnic divide.” This has not happened.

10. In September 2012, the Ministry of the Interior announced it would soon “tackle crimes related to defamation and abuse on social media networks” after “it was noticed that some people were using the communication technology to abuse national and public figures through the Internet.” 

11. The Bahraini Ministry of the Interior says that its social media crackdown is not a curtailment of freedom of speech. King Hamad insists that “people are not arrested because they express their views, we only have criminals.” Last month, Bahrain Ambassador to the U.S. Huda Nonoo claimed that “Bahrain expanded freedom of expression in response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Commission of Inquiry ... As a result, His Majesty the King approved changes to Bahrain’s constitution bolstering this fundamental right”.

12. In early November 2012 a civil court sentenced three men on charges of insulting Bahrain’s King on Twitter, to six months, four months and one month respectively. The fourth man is expected to be sentenced later in November. In May 2012, Nabeel Rajab was detained for three weeks after criticizing the Interior Ministry in a tweet. He was also fined $750. His appeal in that case is slated for consideration on 11 December. Rajab was also detained in June on separate charges stemming from his tweet that Bahrain’s prime minister should step down. For that offense, Rajab was sentenced to three months in prison, a term he had nearly completed when a Bahraini court finally acquitted him on appeal. Rajab is one of the most prominent human rights activists in the country and has over 168,000 Twitter Followers. The charges against Rajab are politically motivated and are a direct violation of his freedom of expression.

13. In September 2012, the Bahraini Government agreed to respect these freedoms and to abide by the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.

14. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.

Human Rights First was founded in 1978 as the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights to promote laws and policies that advance universal rights and freedoms. Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. To maintain its independence, it accepts no government funding.

Reports produced by Human Rights First about Bahrain include:

Bahrain: Speaking Softly—May, 2011:

Bahrain: a Torturous Process—July, 2011:

Bahrain: No More Excuses-Time for Radical Change—December, 2011:

Bahrain: The Gathering Storm—February, 2012:

Bahrain’s Reforms-No Backdown on Crackdown—May, 2012:

11 December 2013

Prepared 21st November 2013