Bahrain: Urgent action on prisons, Bahrainis citizens requiring repatriation and adherence to human rights principles needed to uphold public health standards and human rights in the fight against Covid-19 virus

SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR) encourage the Bahraini government and community efforts to fight the Covid-19 virus and urges the authorities open a new chapter in the administration  of justice in light of Covid-19 crisis by implementing fair and equitable measures across all parts of society.

The organisation expands on its 29 March joint statement concerning the implementation of the Mandela Rules in prisons by calling for greater fairness and transparency in the administration of prisons. SALAM DHR calls for urgent efforts to repatriate Bahraini nationals abroad and sets out broad principles to which the government should adhere during this public health crisis.

SALAM DHR urges the government to release, immediately and unconditionally, all those imprisoned for the legitimate exercise of their right to peaceful expression.

In relation to widespread public concern over the Coronavirus epidemic, SALAM DHR urges fellow Bahrainis to closely follow the advice of health professionals, such as the World Health Organisation and Bahraini medical professionals. We will do everything in our power to assist the Bahraini people and government in combating this brutal virus, including by reflecting legitimate concerns received or assessed by the SALAM DHR team.

Prisons – a vector of infection

SALAM DHR welcomes decree 10/2020 issued by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, publicised 12 March. It authorised the release of 901 prisoners in response to concerns over the impact of Covid-19 amongst the prison population. A further 585 detainees were released as part of the alternative penalties provisions under which those who have served half their sentences could be released in lieu of non-custodial penalties. A total of 1486 prisoners were released.

Interior Minister General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al-Khalifa reportedly stated that his ministry “thoroughly studied the conditions of the reform and rehabilitation inmates who are serving their sentences, with a view to determining those who meet the objective and legal conditions”, and that “the ministry took into account in its study ‘abstract criteria to determine those who are entitled to amnesty for humanitarian reasons’ under the current circumstances”.

In contrast to this assertion, SALAM DHR preliminary research indicates that of the 901 persons released, 93.6% comprised criminal cases while 6.4% were of a political nature, in which the government imprisoned the individuals concerned on grounds relating to the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression. Of those released for “alternative punishment”, 60% appeared to be cases of a political nature; 40% criminal. Taken together, of the 1486 released, 73% were cases of a criminal nature while 27% were of a political nature. 

On 29 March, SALAM DHR, the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR) and the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights (BFHR)  called on the Bahraini authorities to take specific measures to protect the health of detainees and free all prisoners of conscience in light of the Coronavirus pandemic

SALAM DHR has repeatedly expressed its dismay at the many miscarriages of justice witnessed in Bahraini courts. In recent years, hundreds of peaceful political and community rights activists and human rights defenders have faced arbitrary arrest, unfair trial and imprisonment. SALAM DHR urges the government to immediately release all those arrested for the peaceful expression of their conscientiously held beliefs and to halt this practice, notably Naji Fateel, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Hassan al-Mushaima, Nabeel Rajab, and Sheikh Ali Salman, and rest of opposition leaders.

Bahrainis stuck abroad – lax government responsibility 

SALAM DHR likewise expresses its profound dismay that the authorities have not acted in a timely or resolute manner to repatriate 1630 Bahrainis who had travelled to Iran to visit venerated religious sites, notably in Mashhad. Through no fault of their own, they became stranded there as flights were cancelled amidst growing public health crisis linked to the Coronavirus and there are currently no direct flights between the two countries.

On 11 March, Bahrain had repatriated 165 individuals via Oman, of whom 85 tested positive for Coronavirus. On 27 March, the Omani authorities, apparently acting on a Bahraini request, prevented a further 76 individuals from boarding a flight to Manama, after they had reached Oman from Iran by themselves. On 28 March, they are reported to have returned to Bahrain via Doha after an initial rejection of Bahraini authorities to welcome them. As of 30 March, 31 Bahrainis eportedly stuck in Qatar had returned to Bahrain. There are nevertheless around 3000 Bahrainis outside the country awaiting repatriation. The government has announced that it will take up to two months in order to return them home. This is nowhere near good enough, mainly because there are many elderly and sick individuals re among them.

With respect to those who had visited Iran, the government had earlier stated that a firm through which it had leased aircraft for four flights to repatriate them had withdrawn from the agreement to do so on account of the infection. As of 27 March, 30% of those whom the government repatriated were infected and at least six of the 1630 had died in Iran.

Background – Principles at stake

The United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on 16 March which urged states not to abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights. The UN experts’ statement acknowledged the legitimate use of emergency powers in response to the public health crisis and how restrictions on some rights can be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. But they reminded states that “any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory”.

Citing work by the the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a body that assesses state compliance with the treaty of the same name, the statement reminded states of rights to food, housing, work, education, human dignity, life, non-discrimination, equality, the prohibition against torture, privacy, access to information, and the freedoms of association, assembly and movement. These and other rights and freedoms address integral components of the right to health. This means that health facilities, goods, and services should be:

  • Available in sufficient quantity;
  • Accessible to everyone without discrimination, and affordable for all, even marginalized groups;
  • Acceptable, meaning respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate; and
  • Scientifically and medically appropriate and of good quality.

In its comprehensive review, entitled Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response, the US-based human rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) drew attention to the Siracusa Principles. Adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, its content is also found in the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment no. 29, on Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on states of emergency. The HCR adopted it at the 1950th meeting, on 24 July 2001; UN reference CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11. It provides authoritative guidance on government responses that restrict human rights for reasons of public health or national emergency. The issues flagged by HRW, drawing on these principles are those to which the government of Bahrain, and indeed, every state party, must adhere. We urge the government to Bahrain to engage with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in implementing these measures. 

Background

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as set out in number 67 of its daily, global Situation Reports, as of 27 March, Bahrain had reported 458 confirmed cases of Coronavirus infection. SALAM DHR received information on 28 March that it was 470. The WHO reported 39 new cases and four deaths. This does not appear to comprise Bahraini nationals who may have died in other countries. The government reports having checked 31,526 individuals. Sky News Arabia reported on 28 March that 11 people under treatment were moved from isolation and that the total number of those known to have been infected and who recovered is 265. One report also indicated that the government has 1667 potential isolation beds, of which, as of 27 March, 225 were occupied.

The entire SALAM DHR team joins all Bahrainis in commending the efforts of first responders and dedicated medical personnel, but also those working to keep supermarkets and other food retailers; pharmacies and banks open, along with restaurants and those making deliveries of food, following the closure of non-essential shops on 26 March. Reports indicate that around 6,000 calls a day are being made to the dedicated hotline for Covid-19 and that personnel working on the 444 line have been working round-the-clock.

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