By Sayed Yusuf Almuhafdha
I appreciate the opportunity provided by Salam for Democracy and Human Rights to speak on the issue of the deprivation of civil and political rights, as well as the criminalization of guaranteed rights under restrictive laws, legislation, and other unjust statutes in Bahrain.
I personally participated in the peaceful uprising in 2011 in Manama. Having witnessed the events firsthand, I can say that it was a peaceful movement, where the majority of people in Bahrain went out and called for democracy, an end to the discrimination to the Shi’a majority, equal citizenship, the release of political prisoners and the advancement of the civic and political rights. The government brutally suppressed the protests. The Bahraini people did not achieve their demands and Bahrain has been transformed into a police state, where the government has eliminated all forms of civic movement and expression and anyone who opposes them will be imprisoned or forced into exile like myself. Most remain silent, it often being the easiest, most pragmatic option. To answer the question of the event: do Bahrainis have a voice? Absolutely not. Only the King, the government, the military, and the police have agency, no one else.
Allow me to represent my paper, where I demonstrate that three fundamental rights are systematically violated by the government of Bahrain, contrary to its obligations as part of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
- Freedom of Assembly and Association
The freedom of assembly in Bahrain is significantly constrained by the government, with permission rarely granted for gatherings. Over the past year, numerous demonstrations were suppressed, with excessive force sometimes applied by security forces. However, not all protests were met with overt force; the government has adopted new tactics.
Following any unauthorized demonstration, security officials often summon or arrest key activists within 24-48 hours of the event. The government consistently detains both participants and organizers of these gatherings. This approach allows Bahrain’s government to sidestep immediate criticism for the mass suppression of protests. Instead, it employs a surveillance strategy for participant identification, followed by post-event harassment through summonses, threats, arrests, and interrogations, along with other forms of reprisals.
The Right of Association
Following the arbitrary dissolution of the Alwefaq Society, Wa’ad and the Amal society, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, and the shuttering Shia faith-based organizations, a new tactic is being utilized for depriving individuals of their political rights. Law 25/2018 Isolation Law targets members of previously dissolved political groups as well as former convicts. Even if individuals are pardoned for convictions related their exercising of political and civil rights, they are banned from becoming board members of any society and prohibited from running for political office in Bahrain.
Additionally, the government employs economic sanctions on individuals and groups by withholding “good conduct certificates” from them. Issued by the Ministry of Interior, these certificates are crucial for various aspects of civic life in Bahrain. Former prisoners, such as Fadhel Abbas, Ali Haji, and others, have waited for months or even years for these certificates to be issued.
The Isolation Law has severely impacted the operations of civil society organizations and charity organizations such as the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Bahrain Women’s Union, and the Bahraini Society for Resisting Normalization, all of which have struggled to maintain their activities in the face of these restrictive laws.
- Freedom of Speech and Expression
Numerous laws in Bahrain severely violate freedom of speech and expression, effectively silencing critics of the government. These laws include the penal code, counter terrorism legislation, press and publication regulations, and cybercrime statutes.
The Bahraini government actively monitors content shared on social media platforms and takes punitive action against individuals who express dissenting opinions. Consequently, a significant number of individuals are currently imprisoned on charges related to what they say and how they say it.
The government applies these laws indiscriminately against all forms of opposition and human rights defenders. Cases such as those of Nabeel Rajab, Najah Yusuf, Ebrahim Sharif, Mohammad Alghasra, and Ali Muhana are well-documented examples where individuals have been prosecuted for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.
However, the government tolerates online and offline hate speech and racist speeches against the Shi’a in Bahrain and opposition groups, including tweets that call for violence against them, despite official complaints made by lawyers and individuals. Unfortunately, these sectarian actors enjoy impunity, reflecting a de facto state policy that divides communities.
- Right to Life
Since 2011, Bahraini courts have handed down death sentences to 51 individuals, with six executions carried out. As of February 2024, 26 men remain on death row, all having exhausted their avenues for appeal.
All these individuals were subjected to unfair proceedings. The courts relied heavily on testimonies obtained through confessions made under torture, which violate several articles of the ICCPR, such as Article 6 which safeguards the right to life; Article 14, which outlines fundamental rights to a fair trial; and Article 7, which prohibits torture and ill-treatment.
Bahraini courts have failed to uphold the fundamental right to a fair trial, guaranteed in international conventions, international human rights law, and Bahraini constitutions.
To conclude, these restraining laws should not be used as a pretext to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and the right to life.
Recommendations to the Government of Bahrain:
- Bahrain should abolish its 2018 political isolation legislation;
- The Bahraini Ministry of Interior should end the practice of rejecting certificates of good behavior in order to punish perceived opponents;
- All Bahraini individuals should be provided with full legal political and civil rights;
- Previously dissolved political and human rights societies should be restored;
- All restrictions imposed on opposition figures regarding candidature in the parliamentary and municipal elections should be lifted;
- The Government of Bahrain should end the restrictive measures that are harming the basic functioning of civil associations;
- All people jailed for their peaceful political activities should be released;
- The death penalty should be abolished, with Bahrain adopting the abolition of the death penalty as part of the ICCPR’s Optional Protocol; and
- Restore the nationality of all individuals whose nationality was arbitrarily revoked by the King, the court, and/or the Minister of Interior.