Disappointment over the Outcome of the Visit by HRW

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) visit to Bahrain in February 2013 and its concluding statement sparked several reactions from the Government, media, Parliament and civil society organisations. The content and language of the statement surprised many and triggered harsh criticisms including calls to refrain from cooperating with HRW and holding those who invited it into the country accountable. What was said to cause this level of disappointment and what pushed some to suggest that HRW officials should not be allowed to enter Bahrain?

HRW’s statement

On 28 February 2013, HRW issued a statement regarding its delegation’s visit to Bahrain which lasted for five days. During that visit, HRW was allowed to meet officials, civil society activists and some prisoners in Jo Prison. The statement strongly criticised what it called Bahrain’s failure to fulfil its commitments towards dealing with human rights violations such as:

Failing to take any steps regarding accountability especially concerning officials.

Sentencing seven prisoners to life. The HRW also demanded the issuing of a general amnesty regarding all cases including those that have gone through the Court of Cassation.

HRW also criticised the draft association law as well as the Ministry of Social Development stating that ‘Fatima al Balushi is pushing a new law designed to cripple anything resembling an independent civil society, as if her authoritarian powers under the current NGO law are not bad enough, she’s now put forward a law that will give her unmitigated and arbitrary control over whether a group can even register as a legal organization.’

The excessive and unlawful use of tear gas against the protesters.

The detention of human rights activists and considering their activities, which HRW regards as freedom of expression, as inciting to violence.

The authorities in Bahrain objected to two main issues:

First: the statement failed to mention the positive efforts made with regards to human rights apart from praising the cooperation of the Ministry of Human Rights in facilitating the delegation’s visit to Bahrain. It also pointed to the fact that ‘Bahraini authorities had facilitated open and frank meetings with government officials’.

Second- the language used in the statement was described as blunt as in: ‘all the talk of national dialogue and reform mean nothing so long as the country’s most prominent human rights and political activists remain unjustly imprisoned while officials responsible for torture and murder remain in their positions’. Or in:

‘If Bahraini officials believe that an activist is inciting violence by tweeting a picture then it’s clear that all the human rights training sessions they’ve attended have been wasted’.

The Government’s Position

The Ministry of Interior issued a statement in which it stated that the HRW statement was contradictory and contained many mistakes such as quoting officials in the Ministry incorrectly and ignoring Government reforms. The Ministry also pointed out that the human rights delegation was eager to spend most of the time with officials in the Ministry of Interior presenting provocative comments and accusations. The delegation also deliberately ignored all the information given by leading officials in the Ministry.

The Ministry of Interior stated that it is untrue that there is a lack of accountability for officials and that in reality there have been investigations. The Ministry also refused to acknowledge the accusation regarding the use of excessive force and that it is not serious about making reforms. The statement of the Ministry concluded that it is disappointed with HRW’s statement as it is clear that the delegation had pre-conceived ideas before coming to Bahrain; and this suggests that they did not provide an impartial opinion.

The Ministry of Human Rights was also surprised by the statement and argued that it included information that is far from the truth and contradicts reality- despite the efforts made to facilitate the visit. The Ministry also referred to HRW as ‘ungrateful’ and questioned their agenda towards Bahrain. It also expressed its regret regarding what it considers to be HRW’s exaggerations and the fact that it ignored all the achievements that have been taking place on the ground. While stressing the principle of cooperation with international human rights organisations , the Ministry accused some international organisations of using inaccurate and partial sources of information. It then concluded by stating that the Government will reconsider its cooperation with any organisations which have biased stances and political agendas.

The Ministry of Social Development responded by saying that it does not understand the motives behind HRW’s accusations and partiality. It also added that ‘it was surprised to see the report contradict what was discussed with the Ministry’s officials, as well as the use of a language which does not suit the standing of a Human Right Organisations ’. The Ministry hoped that HRW’s reports will be impartial in the future. On 7 March 2013, the Minister of Social Development, Dr Fatima Balushi, stated in Bahrain news agency that HRW threatened to distort her name and the reputation of other officials in the Ministry if they do not cooperate with the delegation.

The Snow Ball grows

The General Director of the Gathering of National Unity, Abdualla Al Howahi, described HRW as having a political agenda and that its report means nothing to them. The General Director of the National Action Charter, Mohammed Al Boainain, repeated the same accusations and demanded that the Government should not allow such an organization to enter Bahrain and described it as suspicious and partial. Fareed Ghazi a member of the National Institution of Human Rights described the report as disappointing and that it was partial and unprofessional. Abdualla Al Dosary the President of Human Rights Principles described the level of the report as low. MP Abdualla bin Howail commented on the report stating that it is far from reality and filled with lies and described the organization as politicised and as having bad intentions. He also added that the purpose of the organization is to blackmail the Government, help in overthrowing the regime and cause political and ethnic unrest. He also believes that Iran and Zionists have penetrated international human rights organizations and called upon the Bahraini Government to stop cooperating with them in the future and to prevent their delegation from entering the country under any pretext; especially as they are continuing their agendas and serving the interests of specific countries and sects.

The Shura Council issued a statement in which it expressed its regret over HRW’s report and said that it takes away from its credibility and professionalism and that the Council was surprised about the false information used which clearly shows an unjustified partiality. Furthermore, MP Hasan Bo Khamas regarded the report as direct political interference which could lead to very dangerous outcomes. He also called upon the Government to not allow human rights organizations and the media to visit Bahrain and insult it. MP Mohammed Al Emadi also criticised the unprofessional and one sided nature of the report- as he put it. Moreover, Alsaaf Islamic Society called for prohibiting international human rights organizations from visiting the country as they distort Bahrain’s reputation with their fabricated reports and interfere in the internal affairs of the country. It also added that these ‘politicised’ organizations should be fought and defamed. The President of Karama Society Ahmad Al Maliky also stated that ‘allowing HRW to visit Bahrain was a bad decision’.

The Position of the Media

Many journalists expressed their anger regarding HRW’S report and called upon the Government to not allow them to enter the country and to hold all the ministers involved accountable. On 3 March 2013, Sayed Abdulqader wrote ‘what is the point of opening the doors for organizations which claim to protect human rights, and providing them with information and allowing them to visit prisons and meet anyone they want , then they issue fabricated reports that were previously written before the visit? What is the point of respecting organizations which forge the truth and inflame the problem? These bodies only want schism, so close the doors on their faces as they are not worthy of any respect’.

On 3 March 2013, Fawzyah Rasheed wrote an article entitled: ‘When will Bahrain put an end to the politicised international organizations?’ In it she wrote ‘if the State knows the reality of these organizations, why does it continue to allow them entry? Why give them legitimacy and credibility especially when they meet some officials? They should be treated like the tools of foreign interference’.

On 4 March 2013, Ibrahim Al Sheikh stated that ‘the Bahraini people have the right to know who gave these organizations permission to visit the Kingdom’. Jamal Zowaid also wrote on the same day that ‘there is no reason for countries to welcome these organizations. Under the title ‘they are intelligence agents and not human rights organizations’, Abdulmenim Ibrahim wrote on 5 March 2013: ‘these organizations are biased and unfair to the people and to Governments. They are merely tools for foreign intelligence agencies and their members are spies and not human rights defenders’. He also added ‘we have allowed a thief into our house and then we complain that we’ve been robbed.’

On 7 March 2013, Mohammed Mubark Juma criticised the performance of the Ministry of Human Rights and held it politically and administratively responsible for inviting the human rights delegation. On 3 March 2013, Yusif Binkhaleel saw that the Bahraini Government gave the delegation credibility when it allowed its members to enter Bahrain and visit some institutions and meet some figures. He also demanded that human rights organisations should not be allowed to enter Bahrain on the basis of protecting the sovereignty of the state. On 5 March 2013, he criticised the American ambassador in Bahrain for being overly enthusiastic about HRW’s visit to Manama and exerting efforts to convince the officials about the importance of dealing with this organization.

On 4 March 2013, Hisham Al Zayany stated ‘who allowed HRW to enter Bahrain? is it the Minister of Human Rights? If Minister Salah Ali is responsible for this, he should be held accountable and we should think twice before allowing biased organizations to enter the country’. On 9 March Najat Al Modheky presented her advice: ‘the more we open the doors for these organizations, the more stubborn they become’.

HRW responded to both the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Social Development by saying that their claims are unfounded. Human Rights Watch said in its news release that the meeting with officials from the Social Development Ministry was highly unsatisfactory, based on responses to questions Human Rights Watch raised about the draft law on associations.

Finally, HRW hopes that Bahrain will soon resume its policy, discontinued in 2011, of allowing independent human rights monitors to enter the country and to monitor human rights developments, including getting the perspective of officials and others about progress in meeting human rights obligations.