Your organization, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), has the following mission statement: “Our vision is a prosperous democratic country free of discrimination and other violations of human rights.” What kinds of human rights violations precipitated the establishment of BCHR? Are those violations commonplace in Bahrain?
These are the common human rights violations in Bahrain that BCHR continues to advocate against:
Violations to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and internet
Torture and inhumane treatment
Arbitrary arrests and unfair trials
Violations to freedom of assembly
Violations of women’s rights and discrimination against women
Violations of children’s rights
What has been the greatest obstacle in your struggle to promote democratic change and human rights in Bahrain, thus far? Is it a problem you see extending into the future?
BCHR members were subject to various attacks from the government. They have been victims of threats, smear campaigns and even violence, arrests, long detention periods, ill treatment in detention and torture, as well as unfair trials and prison sentences. BCHR has been dissolved in Bahrain since 2004, which makes it hard for it to receive any official support or grants, and its continued work depends on the personal dedication of its members and volunteers.
What kinds of reforms, if any, has the government instituted since the casualty-heavy, Shia-led demonstrations in 2011? Has there been a decrease in repressive policing?
Only superficially; we have a fancy report generated by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) that may look very nice in a museum, but actually its recommendations were not implemented. As a matter of fact, more people died after that report was released than before, and more people are in prison today than there were in 2011. Military trials stopped, but unfair trials continued in ordinary courts. More than ever, human rights defenders – the very people who document human rights issues and share relevant information about the topic with the world – have become targets of the government. Now most of the leaders of Bahraini NGOs are either in prison or in exile, like myself. BCHR’s own President, Nabeel Rajab, is back in prison only a few months after having served a two-year prison sentence. Demonstrations are not being granted official permission to assemble in the streets, including the non-political, annual Labour Day march that was banned this year. And if a demonstration takes place without permission, demonstrators can be sure they will be attacked with tear gas and shotguns, as well as targeted with arrests. There are more police cars on the roads than there are public transport buses.
The president of BCHR, Mr. Nabeel Rajab, is perhaps Bahrain’s most prominent international human rights activist; he is also currently imprisoned. Considering that Mr. Rajab was arrested on the grounds of insulting the Ministries of Interior and Defense with the following tweet:
“many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came
from security institutions and those institutions were the first
what is the state of political expression and free speech in Bahrain?
It is not allowed, and anyone who voices an opinion that the government doesn’t like risks arrest. On the Internet people prefer to use nicknames, but even with a nickname they have lowered their tones, and you won’t see as many critical tweets as there used to be in 2011. People have become cautious following the many arrests of online users. They are arrested not only for criticizing Bahraini authorities, but also for even tweeting about the Saudi king. Numerous photographers are in prison and some are sentenced for many years when their only “crime” is taking photos of the protests. The government doesn’t want the world to see photos of their repression, or that show there are still people resisting the repression. Its judicial attacks towards Nabeel, for example, are not only a form of revenge against his human rights work, but also a lesson intended to silence everyone else. All the leaders of important political groups in Bahrain are currently imprisoned.
Bahrain is a member of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Has the activity of the coalition affected the state of human rights in Bahrain? How has the presence of pro-democracy, Western governments been received by Bahraini citizens?
Although Bahrain is an ally of democratic Western governments, Bahrainis have yet to see that alliance have any positive impact on their lives. The West has to do much more than just sell arms to Bahrain, it has to put real pressure on the government to stop its campaign against pro-democracy protesters, and honor its commitment to the protection of human rights internationally.
Another aspect shared by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States of America is their retention of capital punishment (though Qatar is technically categorized as “de facto abolitionist” since it has not carried out a documented execution since 2003). In 2013, Bahrain expanded domestic laws to make more crimes punishable by execution. Which kinds of crimes are considered capital offenses in Bahrain? Are accused capital offenders afforded fair representation in the judicial system?
Bahrain punishes murder and crimes of terrorism with capital punishment. Crimes of terrorism are determined by a law that fails to precisely define terrorism, leaving the life of a human being to the subjective interpretation of a prosecutor. And because the courts lack a system to guarantee fair trials, people can be sentenced to death based solely on confessions taken under torture, or based on the statements of biased witnesses. At least 8 pro-democracy protesters have been sentenced to death in Bahrain in the last few years.
In comparison, just last month, the Court issued a death sentence in the case of a protester accused of killing a policeman, sentenced another seven to life in prison, and gave a few others ten years in prison; all of them also had their Bahraini nationality revoked. On the same day, a policeman was acquitted from the death of a protester who died in 2011 from a shotgun injury.
Although Bahrain abstained on the 2014 Resolution on a Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty at the United Nations General Assembly – rather than vote against the resolution as it had in previous years – it has made use of capital punishment as recently as February 2015. Three men were sentenced to death by a Bahraini court for allegedly killing three policemen last March. Is the death penalty in these sentences likely to be appealed or commuted? If not, how is capital punishment carried out in Bahrain?
The protesters have a chance to appeal the sentence. The appeal normally takes years during which the detainee and his family will be under significant pressure. As per previous reports we’ve had, the detainee could be subject to further ill treatment in prison by other prison guards who would punish him for the alleged crime of killing their colleague. There was one detainee – imprisoned since 2011 and sentenced to death – who had his conviction recently overturned, but had also already spent three years in solitary confinement causing him to develop a mental illness. He is still going through the appeals process.
Read more articles about capital punishment around the world in the new issue of International Affairs Forum available here.
Said Yousif AlMuhafdah is the Vice President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a non-profit organization based in Bahrain and Denmark. Mr. AlMuhafdah resides in Berlin, where he has been forced to live in exile since October 2013, after being a target of arbitrary arrests and torture for his human rights work in Bahrain. To read more about Mr. AlMuhafdah’s work and exile, please see: http://mic.com/articles/74665/i-ve-been-forced-into-exile-for-defending-human-rights-in-my-home-country-bahrain
Interview by Katherine Lugo