Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Index on Censorship

The following submission documents the state of free expression in Bahrain since the start of unrest on 14 February last year. Index on Censorship first began documenting and observing the internal situation following the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI) report in late November last year. The inquiry was commissioned by Bahrain’s King Hamad to investigate human rights violations committed during a brutal crackdown on popular protests near the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout in the country’s capital Manama.

Last year, Index participated in a mission to Bahrain to investigate the state of free expression in the country following this attack on popular protests.1 Members of the mission found that Bahrain’s government was far more concerned with maintaining the façade of a modern Arab nation rather than implementing real reforms, and this continues to ring true. Promises for reform are still unfulfilled, and the government’s violent attempts to crush, rather than address unrest have only pushed the country into a downward spiral. According to a report recently released by The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), only three of the BICI report’s 26 recommendations have been fully implemented.2

This submission details restrictions on free expression since the release of the BICI report, which was celebrated as a historic move for the country, but has since yielded little. For freedom of expression violations and an analysis of the BICI report, please see Appendix A, the full report from the mission.3

1. Protests

Bahrain has routinely crushed protests since November last year, and unaddressed tensions have made the country’s protests more violent, matching concerns voiced by activists during the mission last year. According to our partners in Bahrain, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), there have been 37 deaths since the release of the BICI report, bringing the total number of deaths to 84 since the start of unrest last year4

Some of the worst brutality faced by protesters was during key dates5 for either the country’s unrest or around the time of international events intended as propaganda for a global audience. In the lead up to the controversial 2012 Formula One race in April, clashes between security forces and protesters garnered international attention, as clashes during the race itself took the life of one protester, Salah Abbas Habib.6

Following unrest between protesters and security forces on 29 October 2012 in the village of Eker the country decided to ban protests citing national security concerns and claiming that there had been “repeated abuses” of free expression.7

2. Journalists

Even though Article 24 of the country’s constitution guarantees press freedom, and the BICI report also recommended fewer restrictions on the press, journalists within the country face constant harassment as well as ongoing obstacles to reporting.8 Most notably, renowned journalist Reem Khalifa has faced an aggressive smear campaign for her international and independent reporting.9 She was fined 600 BD for allegedly assaulting two supporters of the Bahraini regime at a press conference, and is continuously smeared in pro-government media and websites.10

Citizen journalists and bloggers also face dangers --- journalist Ahmed Radhi was arrested in May and held for four months shortly after criticising a proposed union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain at the time on BBC Arabic.11 Citizen journalist Ismael Hassan al-Samadi died after being shot during peaceful protests in the tense build up to the Formula One race.12

Foreign journalists have faced difficulties in entering the country, as Bahrain’s visa process is continuously changing, arbitrary and unclear.13 During the Formula One race, many sports journalists scrambled to cover unrest, as reporters were barred from entering the country. Journalists from Channel 4 managed to enter the country, but were deported despite promises that journalists would be allowed unfettered access to cover tensions during the race. In the run-up to the anniversary of Bahrain’s unrest in February, numerous journalists were denied visas, flying in the face of promises of transparency.14

3. Access for International Community

International NGOs have also faced difficulties in entering the country, with a lack of transparency in the visa application process. While in Bahrain, Ministry of Human Rights Under Secretary Saeed Al-Faihani told members of the mission that as long as established procedures are followed, international organisations would be allowed access to the country.15 However, these organisations have faced difficulties in entering the country, even when following the rules.

Index along with members of five other organisations were denied entry to Bahrain in May 2012 only a week before arranging a mission to investigate the state of free expression since publication of the BICI report.16

4. Targeted Human Rights Activists and Political Prisoners

According to BCHR, there are more than 1300 individuals being held in detention for political activity, with 400 arrested since 2011.17 BCHR’s members, along with other human rights activists, have been targeted by the authorities, particularly for speaking out against the regime internationally. Recently the country revoked the citizenship of 31 activists who have criticised the regime, using a tactic previously used in the 1980s and 1990s to force activists into exile.18

The BICI report recommended that “all persons charged with offences involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, have their convictions reviewed and sentences commuted or, as the case may be; outstanding charges against them dropped.” (page 307). While some prisoners have been released, many remain in prison, and a cycle of ongoing arrests is still taking place.

The Director of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, is currently serving a three year sentence for charges of organising illegal protests.19 According to his legal defence team, his case has been riddled with legal inconsistencies, infringing on his right to a fair trial.20 Human rights activists risk being arrested on various charges related to free expression. Activist Zainab Alkhawaja has been arrested multiple times for charges of illegal protest, and for ripping up a photograph of the King.21 BCHR member Said Yousif has also been arrested and now released for participating in protests.

Human rights defender and BCHR founder Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is currently serving a life sentence for his role in last year’s protests.22 The activist, who previously worked for Frontline Defenders in Dublin, was considered to be a prisoner of conscience, and despite high-profile campaigning for his release, along with other prisoners of conscience, Alkhawaja and others remain in prison.

Member of the commission and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Sir Nigel Rodley said shortly after the release of the BICI report that it was the commission’s understanding that prisoners of conscience would be released, in compliance with international standards on free expression and assembly. These international standards are not being met, and nor have prisoner releases been in line with this agreement.23

5. Social Media

Discussions on Bahrain online are heavily monitored by the government, with netizens and citizen journalists facing aggressive “trolling” campaigns on social networks.24 In addition to harassment, Bahrain has taken measures to crush free expression online, most recently arresting four activists for their comments online. One of the four activists was sentenced to six months in prison for “defaming public figures” on Twitter.

6. Britain’s Role in Bahrain

Bahrain spends a significant amount of money on PR and lobbyists in the UK—and has spent an estimated £15 million on promoting its regime’s reputation since March 2011—through contracting the work of firms such as Bell Pottinger, Big Tent Communications, Gardant Communications, G3 Good Global Governance, Hill and Knowlton, M&C Saatchi and YouGovStone.25 It also spends considerable sums on taking British politicians over to Bahrain on “fact-finding” missions of questionable merit. A March 2011 survey by the Guardian found British parliamentarians took 18 trips paid for by the Bahraini government, at a total cost of £42,700.26 Research by John Horne, Director of Community, EA Worldview found that in March 2009, The Gulf Policy Forum organised a trip to Bahrain sponsored by the government. The delegation included Lord Lothain (Michael Ancram), Alan Duncan MP (then Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Minister) and Keith Simpson MP (then Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister). Two months later, opposition leader David Cameron registered gifts from King Hamad of cufflinks and a fountain pen.27 In August, Liam Fox MP took a three-day trip, also paid for by the Bahraini government, “to meet with the King of Bahrain as Shadow Secretary of State for Defence”.28 In October 2010, Gardant Communications organised a trip to Bahrain, paid for by the government, for three members of the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Committee: chair Conor Burns MP, Priti Patel MP and Thomas Docherty MP.29 This list is by no means comprehensive.

7. Conclusion

“The United Kingdom’s silence places it in danger of being seen as complicit in Bahrain’s human rights abuses, particularly when the UK has a direct method of influencing Bahrain: through its economic relationship. If it doesn’t halt arms sales, the United Kingdom is ostensibly giving permission to the Bahraini government to violently silence its people. A serious commitment to human rights from the United Kingdom means that a serious conversation about economic and diplomatic sanctions is necessary and important to do.”—BCHR acting president, Maryam Alkhawaja30

Free expression is under attack in Bahrain, and this situation will only continue to worsen if Bahrain is allowed to behave with impunity. Rather than reforms, Bahrain has only succeeded in an aggressive campaign to mask human rights abuses and maintain a facade of reform and human rights, and the UK must follow through on its commitment to aiding its partner in making important reforms. Members of the mission last year met with UK Ambassador Iain Lindsay, and he emphasised that the UK would “regard the report as credible”.31 Since most of the proposed reforms have not been made, the UK must place pressure, using its strong relationship, on its partner such is the gravity of the situation.

7 January 2013

1 Index, ‘Index and rights groups report condemns ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain’

2 The implemented recommendations according to the POMED report are: 1722c, which recommends that security forces be trained in compliance with “UN best practise”, 1718 recommends that the NSA be stripped of any power to arrest, and 1722f, which states that security forces should be trained to avoid “torture and ill-treatment”

3 Not published. See: International Mission to Bahrain Report: ‘Justice Denied in Bahrain: Freedom of Expression an Assembly curtailed’ on Index on Censorship website.

4 BCHR, ‘List of people killed in Bahrain since 14 February 2011’

5 Index on Censorship, ‘Index spotlight on 14 February’

6 BCHR, ‘Formula 1 Second day: a protester killed, activists arrested, dozens injured’,

7 Index on Censorship, ‘Bahrain bans all protests amid violence’,

8 BICI Report, p. 425

9 International Mission to Bahrain report, p. 11-12

10 UNHCR, ‘Bahrain cracks down on news around Formula One races’,,CPJ,,BHR,,4f9a933a2d,0.html

11 Index on Censorship, ‘Bahrain: journalist arrested’

12 Index on Censorship, ‘Bahrain: Journalist Ahmed Ismael Hassan al-Samadi dies as violence continues’

13 Index on Censorship, ‘Bahrain: Journalists deported’ ???????

14 Sara Yasin, ‘Journalists denied entry to Bahrain as anniversary of unrest approaches’, Index on Censorship

15 ‘International mission to Bahrain report’, p. 18

16 Sara Yasin, ‘Why I won’t be going to Bahrain next week’, Index on Censorship

17 BCHR, ‘No progress, no peace’

18 Sara Yasin, ‘Bahrain revokes citizenship of 31 activists’ Index on Censorship

19 Index on Censorship, ‘Bahrain activist Nabeel Rajab sentenced to three years in prison’

20 Human Rights Watch, ‘Bahrain: Free rights activist jailed for illegal gathering’

21 Index on Censorship, ‘Bahrain activist jailed for tearing up picture of King’,

22 ‘International mission to Bahrain report’ p. 7-8

23 ‘International mission to Bahrain report’, p. 22

24 Marc Owen Jones, ‘Bahrain activists’ trouble with trolls”, Index on Censorship

25 Andrew Gilligan, ‘Graeme Lamb: British general's company paid to support Bahrain dictatorship’, (March 2012) NB: Public relations and consultancy firms New Century Media and Dragon Associates both worked for the Bahrain International Circuit, which is state owned

26 The Guardian, ‘MPs accepted Middle East regimes' hospitality 107 times in a decade’ (March 2011)



29 The Guardian, ‘Bahrain government funded MPs' trip’ (February 2011)

30 Maryam Alkhawaja, ‘Bahrain is Britain’s shame’,

31 International mission report to Bahrain, p. 25

Prepared 21st November 2013