“Bahrain: 5 Years on, Hope remains”
3rd March 2016 16:00 -18:00pm Room XXII Philip Belau, SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights
Thank you Madame Chair (Loubna Yehya, Khiam Center-Lebanese Journalist and Human Rights Activist)
I would also like to thank the coordinator of this event, Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, and our fellow co-hosts from the International Council Supporting Fair Trial and Human Rights
I am honored to be here, with my colleague Mohammed Serkal, to represent SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights.
It is our aim today to present to you information and recommendations useful for your work in the Human Rights Council.
As Mr Ferman has already begun explaining, since February 2011 we have seen human rights activists and organisations calling for reform in Bahrain, and for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Bahrain’s government committed to introduce the reforms recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in 2011, yet insufficient progress has been made. Repression remains the norm in Bahrain, and torture and mistreatment of human rights activists is rife.
While the government may point to changes and reforms that have been put in place, the reality on the ground is very different – these reforms are not really being implemented in practice, and the situation pre-2011, before the handing down of the report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry remains largely the same.
The recommendations that this Human Rights Council made to Bahrain, and which Bahrain accepted, in its UPR of 2012 remain largely unimplemented.
As the government of Bahrain prepares for future engagement with the UN, particularly its upcoming UPR early next year, it is aware of the need to promote its good image and strong performance to the international community. It is time to implement the already outstanding recommendations, and time for the international community to hold Bahrain to account.
As members of civil society we fear there is a whitewashing of the true picture of what is happening in Bahrain. Not only is information about the real situation being withheld, but those who do dare to speak out are being punished for doing so, and face torture, mistreatment and imprisonment.
These are not random incidents. They are the actions of a regime systematically quashing and repressing the human rights of its people.
Today I would like to address two key issues – first, I would like to review three key human rights violations that should be of particular concern to the international community and which have been verified by credible national and international sources. Second, I would like to present some recommendations for the Members of Human Rights Council and other stakeholders:
Criminalization of human rights defenders
In general, there is a culture of repression and fear surrounding speaking out on human rights issues in Bahrain – simply tweeting about human rights issues can be considered “inciting hatred against the regime” and can result in criminal charges and harsh sentences. This has led to UN experts Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, to say:
“Criminalizing, prosecuting and imprisoning human rights defenders for carrying out their vital human rights work and enriching public debate are unacceptable under international law. Human rights defenders in Bahrain must be able to carry out their legitimate human rights work without fear of retaliation or imprisonment.”
This was part of a statement issued by the UN Special Procedures when prominent Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was released from jail for medical reasons earlier this year. He is still facing charges that carry up to fifteen years of imprisonment.
Mr. Rajab, who is the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was jailed in October 2014 in connection with statements made on his Twitter account and was initially charged for ‘publicly insulting official institutions.’ This was only months after he had completed a two-year prison sentence after calling for and participating in peaceful demonstrations.
Despite his recent release, Mr.Rajab’s pending charges include ‘disseminating false rumours in the time of war,’ ‘insulting public officials’ and ‘disseminating false news causing damage to the public security.’
Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
This criminalization of human rights defenders for speaking out illustrates one particular human right that is not freely enjoyed in Bahrain – that is the freedom of expression.
One of the most well known examples of this is Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition group in Bahrain, currently imprisoned for his speeches and his political activities. Sheikh Ali Salman claims that in his speech, he “did not insult any official or non-official institution”. He says “My criticism was less than what was stated in the Bassiouni report and what was mentioned in the UPR recommendations … and in various international human rights reports. I did not go beyond the right to criticism that is legitimized by universal covenants and charters approved by Bahrain and included in its Charter and Constitution.”
Another of our colleagues, Sheikh Maytham Al Salman, has been another human rights defender who has been the victim of repeated use of such or similar charges against human rights defenders and political opponents.
On January 6, 2016, Bahrain’s authorities charged Sheikh Maytham Al Salman, a human rights defender and cleric, with incitement of hatred towards the system of government and expressing views on an ongoing trial with the intent to change public opinion. The charges were based on a speech Sheikh Maytham delivered on December 27, 2015, at a public event held in solidarity with Al-Wefaq’s imprisoned Security General, Sheikh Ali Salman. Sheikh Maytham is currently not imprisoned, but has had to surrender his passport to the authorities.
Legal analysis conducted by Colombia University’s Global Freedom of Expression Program in 2016 concluded that Bahrain’s Government, by subjecting Sheikh Maytham Al Salman to repeated detention, interrogation and unsubstantiated charges, is creating in terrorem conditions, aimed at instilling fears and self-censorship, and amounting to harassment.
Torture and mistreatment
Many human rights defenders in Bahrain find that while imprisoned for their defence of human rights, they face torture and mistreatment.
While on the face of it the government may claim that some efforts have been made to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, particularly in relation to the issue of torture, the reality on the ground is very different.
Information gathered by Human Rights Watch shows that:
‘Torture of detainees continued due to the failure of authorities to implement effectively recommendations for combatting torture that the Independent Commission of Inquiry put forward in 2011.
Individuals detained at the Criminal Investigations Directorate between 2013 and 2015 described a range of torture methods used there, including electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, forced standing, exposure to extreme cold, and abuse of a sexual nature.
In 2011, the BICI report had identified all of these methods of torture and concluded that the authorities “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.”
The institutions that the authorities established in response to the BICI report findings and recommendations, in particular the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, are still failing to hold security forces and high officials accountable for torture and serious mistreatment of persons in custody.
The SIU has not conducted investigations or prosecutions that have led to the conviction of any individuals for acts of torture in cases relating to Bahrain’s political unrest. The ombudsman, who accepts individual complaints and directs them to the appropriate investigatory authority, did not provide details concerning the 83 cases his office referred to the SIU, so it is unclear how many may have related to allegations of torture.”
SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, along with other human rights groups working on the promotion and protection of human rights in Bahrain, therefore would like to make the following recommendations:
To the government of Bahrain, we call for:
– the full implementation of the recommendations of the 2011 Independent Commission of Inquiry and the Human Rights Council
– the immediate release of all Bahraini activists, as well as political dissidents, detained for peaceful exercise of their rights
– a review of domestic laws and practices to ensure compliance with Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law
– standing invitations to be issued to the UN Special Procedures to visit Bahrain
To the Members of the Human Rights Council, we call for:
– a thorough review during the 2017 UPR process, particularly on issues such as civil society consultation and the protection of human rights defenders in Bahrain
– continued support, encouragement and pressure to ensure Bahrain implements the legal and policy changes needed to ensure the real promotion and protection of all human rights for all people in Bahrain, and to hold the government of Bahrain fully accountable if this does not take place in a prompt manner
To the Special Procedures mandate holders of the Human Rights Council, we call for:
– their continued support and active investigations into violations of human rights in Bahrain
– missions to be conducted to Bahrain, to investigate the human rights situation and report back to the Human Rights Council with specific recommendations, in particular by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Special Rapporteur on minority rights; Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.