Bahrain: Human Rights Day 2023 Briefing: Government Must Adhere to ICCPR, Ensure Rights to Assembly and Public Affairs, and End the Death Penalty

The 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December, is an opportunity to rejuvenate the UDHR, and demonstrate how it can meet the needs of our time and advance its promise of freedom, equality and justice for all. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), developed from the UDHR, recognizes that:

… governance oriented toward the promotion and protection of human rights represents the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Universal and indivisible, anchored in fundamental values that span every culture, religion and continent, human rights are tools to address the world’s biggest challenges, from the triple planetary crisis, skyrocketing inequalities, gender discrimination and backlash, insecurity and conflict, as well as a rise in hate speech, disinformation and polarization. [1]

For the occasion, Salam DHR calls on the Government of Bahrain (GoB) to honour its commitment to the (ICCPR) so that it will end restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, repeal its Political Isolation Laws, and resume a moratorium on the death penalty.

The UDHR inspired more than 60 human rights instruments, including the ICCPR to which the Government of Bahrain (GoB) is a state party. It legally binds the GoB to respect the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and  due process rights. Despite this, the human rights situation in Bahrain continues to reflect challenges in these areas, as outlined in the following sections of this briefing:

Restricted Civil Spaces

Article 21 of the ICCPR provides that the right of peaceful assembly be guaranteed, save for in limited instances.[2] The GoB restricts freedom of assembly in Bahrain: it rarely permits gatherings  in the country. Despite these limitations, people continue to voice their concerns through peaceful assembly in various areas in the country.

The GoB monitors content on social media platforms and takes measures against those who express dissent. The GoBthreatens students at the University of Bahrain for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. Security forces deploy excessive force in the suppression of demonstrations with tear gas, sound grenades and batons.

Restrictions are often enforced by authorities more elastically, however, where unsanctioned protests are typically allowed to take place, within the following 24-48 hours of the gathering, GoB security officials may summon or arrest key activists for their participation in the event. The government routinely detains and interrogates community leaders, such as well-known activists and religious authorities, and young men engaged in gatherings.

This tactic allows the GoB to circumvent immediate criticism for the mass suppression of protests, instead opting for a strategy of surveillance, which enables the identification of participants, and post hoc harassment via summons or arrest and interrogation. Bahraini activists are frequently summoned or arrested for the posts made on social media. Posts criticising the government, the King or the royal family are arrestable offenses, but Bahrainis have also been detained for posts as innocuous as calling for democratic reform in the country.

Despite continuous promises of reform from the GoB, ill-treatment continues in Bahraini police stations, activists have reported being beaten by police in custody for partaking in pro-Palestinian protests this November, along with them being subjected to psychological torture. Residents of Bahrain, particularly from marginalised groups such as Shi’a Muslims and migrants, often understand that being summoned to a police station carries an inherent risk of violence, which further chills civic participation in physical and digital spaces.

On account of their international profile and connections to, for example, public figures in Europe or at the UN, a small number of activists are able to continue their activism for the time being. For example, Amnesty Internationaldocumented the assault and ill-treatment of a Bahraini human rights defender by the Bahraini National Security Agency while in custody in May 2017. The intervention of international organisations and actors enabled their release after they were detained and subjected to enforced disappearance by Bahraini authorities in June 2017. UN Special Rapporteurs have also advocated for the fair treatment of imprisoned activities, many of whom have been subject to forms of ill-treatment such as medical neglect, which has adversely affected their health.

Despite international advocacy, domestic activists have noted that they are under constant surveillance by security forces. In certain cases, their phones were hacked by Pegasus software. Most Bahraini activists do not have international notoriety and cannot rely on a network of international actors to work on their behalf if they are detained.

Consequently, activists and organisations outside of Bahrain cover gatherings in Bahrain. They cannot face reprisals from law enforcement in the same way. Actors who provide channels with this information, however, do so at risk of losing their freedom and being subjected to torture or ill-treatment at the hands of Bahraini security forces.

Banned Opposition and Controlled Elections

Article 25 of the ICCPR provides that every citizen has the right to take part in public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives, vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections. The GoB imposes sweeping restrictions on this right under its political isolation laws, passed in 2018. Law No. (36) of 2018 amending Article (43) of the Law on Associations, Social and Cultural Clubs and Private Bodies Working in the Field of Youth, Sports, and Private Institutions prevents leaders and members of dissolved political societies from joining boards of directors of charitable societies, civil organisations, and sports clubs, and these laws prohibit former MPs whom the GoB removed from office, who resigned, or who boycotted an election from running for political office, creating or joining civil societies organisations or running for the board of directors. There are no time limits on these bans. All citizens subject to them are effectively banned for lifeunder the current legislation, even if they have been pardoned. Bahraini law also retroactively criminalises participation in banned opposition groups and all other dissolved political societies. Even individuals who were briefly members of Al-Wefaq or Wa’ad, years ago, could be subject to the ban today. These laws and practices violate Articles 22 and 25 of the ICCPR.

The legislation does not provide any means for targeted individuals to challenge bans or seek remedies. Bahrain’s Ministry of Justice has not responded to requests from civil society for data on how many citizens are affected by these laws, but it is estimated that 6,000 to 11,000 Bahraini citizens have been banned, retroactively, from running for political office and sitting on the boards of associations. With thousands banned from running for office, the 2022 election, which was neither free nor fair, resulted in every elected member of parliament being an independent. Most are considered explicitly pro-government.

The registration of NGOs that operate in Bahrain is likewise restrictive. They are typically run and staffed by individuals who are loyal to the government and have previously been accused of being GONGOs, that primarily act as a form of public relations in Bahrain, both presenting an image of reform and whitewashing human rights abuses committed by the authorities. Human rights NGOs that are more critical of the GoB’s record are not generally permitted to operate within the country and fear of retaliation from authorities intimidates many Bahraini nationals from openly collaborating with them.

The GoB’s Political isolation laws have effectively silenced Bahrain’s largest political parties. They crushed international obligations in relation to freedom of assembly, association and expression. They have hollowed out civil society in Bahrain, where the government excludes peaceful opposition figures and dissidents from political and public life. They are unable to engage with the state in any meaningful way and restrictions on freedom of association discourage others from joining with them. The process results in an acute form of political marginalisation within the country, encouraging those affected to either withdraw from public life or emigrate. In both cases, their presence is exculpated from the public discourse.

Death Penalty and Torture

In 2017, the GoB ended a seven-year de facto moratorium by executing three individuals, followed by another three in 2019. There are currently 12 political prisoners and tens of other inmates at risk of execution in Bahrain.

In December 2022, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 9th resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. 125 of the world’s 193 states – or 65% – voted in favour of a moratorium. These states recognise that the death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. They oppose it in all cases regardless of who is accused, the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or innocence or method of execution. Despite recommendations for adoption from its own National Institute for Human Rights, the GoB voted against the resolution.[3]

Bahraini courts initially sentenced tens of people to death arising from the unrest. Each of the defendants in these cases alleged torture. The use of torture is banned under Article 7 of the ICCPR and Article 19 of the Bahrain Constitution. Regardless, defendants in most of the cases sentenced to death in Bahrain have also alleged that they were tortured by security forces. In 2019, SALAM DHR recorded that courts ‘reconsidered’ two death sentences; changed 10 to life imprisonment, while a further three were passed to the Court of Cassation, the highest court.

Under the current system, death row inmates, who have exhausted all the legal remedies, could be executed at any moment with no warning, a practice that violates both international law and Bahrain’s Constitution. Executions occurred this way in 2017 and 2019. Historically, many of these prisoners have been buried in unmarked graves, their treatment in both life and death being an act of collective punishment against their families. These state practices are usually political in nature, where dissidents and their families are primarily targeted under broad and ambiguously worded counter-terrorism legislation.

The GoB maintains that it imposes the death penalty ‘in accordance with international law and human rights standards including the United Nations Safeguards’.[4] However, in 2021, 12% of individuals facing imminent execution wereconvicted of non-lethal drug offences. No one has yet been executed for a non-lethal drug offence. Moreover, between 2011 and 2021, 29% of individuals sentenced to death for terrorism-related offences were convicted of non-lethal offences. The imposition of the death penalty for non-lethal offences is prohibited under Article 6 of the ICCPR. Regardless, the GoB continues to illegally implement the death penalty for non-lethal offences.

In application, the GoB’s interpretation of the death penalty does not appear to distinguish perpetrators for non-lethal drug offenses. Legislation is currently used to strengthen cases against defendants whose initial charges are often political in nature. Aware that the charge of terrorism is expansive and vaguely defined in Bahrain, drug-based charges can add to the severity of a defendant’s cases and potentially smear their reputations in the national and international press, adding to already existing threats from the state against political activists.


In order to remedy Bahrain’s severely restricted civil spaces, curtails on free expression and association, and to end political persecution of activists, Salam DHR calls on the GoB to:

  • End restrictions on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
  • Repeal Law No. (36) of 2018 amending Article (43) of the Law on Associations, Social and Cultural Clubs, Private Bodies Working in the Field of Youth and Sports, and Private Institutions issued by Decree Law No. (21) of 1989.
  • Abolish political isolation legislation, explicitly Law No. (25) of 2018 amending Article Three of Decree Law No. (14) of 2002 regarding the exercise of political rights.
  • Hold free, fair, and transparent elections and facilitate the observation of such elections by internationally recognised and credible observer bodies, in order to guarantee free and fair elections.
  • Abide by the spirit and letter of Article 25 of the ICCPR by enabling all people in Bahrain to have a voice in public affairs, including by opening and maintaining formal channels of constructive dialogue that end with a shift towards democracy and political pluralism.
  • Amend legislation to limit the scope of application of the death penalty; make its procedures more transparent, with a view to imposing, in 2024, a moratorium on executions; undertake a full, independent review of all death sentences, including those in which torture-tainted evidence or other human rights violations was reported.
  • On the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the UDHR, assert the GoB’s commitment to the right of life by commuting or taking steps to commute the death sentences of all individuals on death row, with the goal of advancing towards a total abolition of the death penalty.

[1] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Human Rights 75: Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 8 February 2023, , Last Accessed: 5 December 2023.

[2] A state may restrict the right to freedom of assembly for reasons of adherence to law, national security or public safety, public order, protection of public health or morals, and to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The GoB, like many other states, abuses permissible restrictions.

[3] United Nations Human Rights Council, Fourth Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Bahrain-based National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) stated that it ‘calls and strives for the implementation of the United Nations resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty’, November 2022; See: “Bahrain: Open Appeal to His Majesty, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa2, Kingdom of Bahrain, 11 August, 2020, ; Last Accessed: 27 November, 2023; The three executed in 2019 included: Ali al-Arab and Ahmad al-Malali. See: Human Rights Watch’s 2021 annual report , Last Accessed: 27 November 2023.

[4] Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain London, Statement, 8 July 2020, available at: Reprieve, .