“Not Closing, It’s Closed” No Space for Civic Freedoms in Bahrain ahead of UPR Session
On September 20, 2017, held just the day before Bahrain was set to discuss progress made towards addressing human rights violations, members of civil society gathered and shared testimony of persistent problems in the country. The event, entitled “Bahrain’s 3rd Cycle: UPR Adoption” was held as a side event to the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Panelists included Jawad Fairooz the founder of SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, Khalid Ibrahim from the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Sara Brandt from Civicus, and Zahra Albarazi from the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, with moderation by Hussain Abdulla, the ADHRB’s Executive Director. This event was organized by Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), and supported by SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, FIDH, BIRD, Article 19, Reporters Without Borders, Gulf Center for Human Rights, and ISI.
Mr Abdulla began by sharing evidence of a crackdown on basic freedoms in the country. He commented on the over 200 recommendations that Bahrain had received during their UPR session, a UN mechanism where countries provide commentary about the state of human rights in a certain country. He noted that Bahrain outright rejected about 10% of their recommendations, and continued to act in ways that go against many other recommendations. He called for an end to the discrimination against youth, the use of capital punishment, and reprisals.
Mr Jawad Fairooz followed. A prominent former member of the Bahraini parliament, who has now been stripped of his citizenship, he spoke about the huge spike in the number of recommendations made to Bahrain since its first UPR session. He discussed how many of the current recommendations are simply reiterating past recommendations, showcasing how little progress has been made. He spoke about the case of imprisoned human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who may face additional charges. As well, he spoke about how proud the government was when it limited the national security agency’s powers, but how in January 2017 the king gave power back to the NSA and a huge amount of human rights violations followed. Since 2006, he pointed out, a Special Rapporteur has not visited the country.
Ms Sara Brandt referenced recent ratings of civil freedoms made by CIVICUS and pointed out that Bahrain received the lowest rating, as being listed a ‘closed’ society. The ratings are based on measurements of 3 freedoms: freedom of association, assembly, and expression. She mentioned how the government failed across the categories, and the only instances where individual cases were changed was under strong pressure from the international community and suggested that this strategy may work again. She mentioned issues such as citizenship revocation, the terrorism act, and how Whatsapp users can be punished if they are suspected of “spreading rumors.”
In a video address, a Bahraini human rights activist who was not able to attend in person, Ebrahim al-Demestani spoke of his own detention and torture, but, as well, of his determination to keep going as a human rights defender. He spoke about Diraz and attacks on activists, the use of live ammunition, and of the fear some felt to call an ambulance as it would lead them to a private hospital which would refuse protestors unless notice was given to the government. He spoke as well of Ebtisam Al-Saegh, and the renewed powers of the NSA.
Joining via phone, Zahra Albarazi spoke of citizenship as the legal link between an individual and the state and how alienating is it for someone who identifies as Bahraini not to have citizenship. She spoke about how Bahraini women and men do not have equal citizenship rights when it comes to passing nationality onto their children. She spoke of interviewing someone who, because her mother and not her father was Bahraini, didn’t have the same rights as their cousins and felt a “sense of incompleteness.” She stated that the arbitrary stripping of nationality was often based on political ties and shrouded in a discourse of terrorism.
The next speaker, Khalid Ibrahim spoke about bloggers, activists, and human rights defenders in general and the need to give them space to do legitimate and peaceful work. On many cases, the speaker noted, they were not able to come to the UN, to Geneva, to speak about the situation based on first hand experiences. He stated that serious action is needed to address the chronic torture that is seen in the country.
In an ending note, Sara Brandt from CIVICUS noted that it is clear that many governments in the Arab region have taken a step back on human rights since the uprisings of 2011. She stated that we can’t allow the sentiment to continue that increased rights didn’t work and repressive regimes are therefore the way to move forward.