Bahrain in Human Rights Watch Report 2009

Human Rights Watch is among the most important international human rights organizations, striving to promote human rights in Bahrain, through its extensive follow ups and its continued announcements and reports. It is obvious that all these efforts as well as the efforts of other international human rights organizations and activists, have contributed largely towards making a genuine development on the human rights situation in the country in the last few years. However, Bahrain is still in need of more efforts in order to maintain a close contact with these organizations at both official and public levels, the latter being represented by civil society organizations. These efforts are vital for improving the human rights situation, preventing any violations that may occur and developing legislations and local institutions in order to ensure the systematic and institutional protection of citizens’ rights in Bahrain.

The latest Human Rights Watch's report, regarding the events of 2008, covered a range of topics such as: freedom of expression, freedom of press and assembly, impunity, freedom of associations and civil societies, the rights of foreign workers, women's rights and measures to combat terrorism. The report concluded that the human rights situation in Bahrain has deteriorated throughout the year 2008, and that despite the important reforms adopted by the King of Bahrain between 2001-2002, the government (has done little to institutionalize the protection of human rights in laws), and that there are (arbitrary restrictions) on the practice of fundamental freedoms.

In the area of freedom of expression and information, undoubtedly, the current margin of freedom in Bahrain is wide and does not seem to have decreased in recent years. However, Human Rights Watch's report observes that the parliament did not discuss or pass any new laws regarding the freedom of press law despite the fact that the government had presented them with a project which aims to replace the previous law (number 47 for 2002).

The report highlighted two cases in 2008 that represented a breach of the law: the first regarding the arrest of six individuals working in a monthly journal and a website. But in fact these journalists had only been breifly interrogated and no one had been detained. The interrogation was in relation to the publishing of certain provocative material against the government which incited violence. The website was then blocked, but was resumed after the provocative material was removed.

The second case is related to the Ministry of Information's blocking of at least 22 internet discussion forums in accordance with official circular from the Ministry of Information. This censorship is unacceptable in principle. However, it should be mentioned that some of these forums do not practice their freedom of expression in a balanced manner, do not comply with the law and at times encourage the use of violence and incite sectarian strife.

The report also covered 'freedom of assembly' and observed that there is a problem in defining the concept of 'public order’ and ‘public morals' included in law 32 for 2006 which regulates assembly and protest issues. In principle, it is well established in Bahrain that there is a large margin of freedom for people to demonstrate and protest, which occurs throughout the year. The real problem in this regard, and one which the report does not make note of is the fact that most clashes between demonstrators and security forces mentioned in the Human Right's report occurred due to two basic reasons or at least one: firstly, on the legality of demonstration and assembly without taking the permission from the authorities concerned. This is not due to the fact that the authorities refused to grant the right of assembly, demonstration or sit-in, so some people resorted to express their legitimate rights to protest. The issue here is strongly connected to the legitimacy of the regime and the rule of law. Some of the organisers do not believe in the concept of obtaining permission from the authorities because they do not recognize the legitimacy of the political system or the country's law. This, therefore, goes beyond the fact of depriving some individuals or societies of their right to assemble and protest, to a deeper and more radical issue which concerns the very existence of the regime and law. For this reason, the issue is in need of a more holistic approach which takes into account political and legal aspects.

Although the security forces in the country do not confront illegal protests most of the time, in some cases they have attempted to stop them in accordance with the law. In the past, many political and legal parties have urged such organisers to obtain the permission to assemble and protest in order prevent any clashes with the security forces, among them the head of the largest parliamentary opposition bloc 'al Wifaq'.

Secondly, concerning the use of violence during demonstrations, and this has only occurred in protests with no permissions, where politically incited teenagers have burned car tyres, rubbish bins and have vandalised public properties. This has been accompanied by clashes with security forces in which police cars have been burned and some policemen have been seriously assaulted, sometimes up to death.

The report also covered the subject of establishing civil society institutions and has criticised the government for not legally recognizing the Bahrain Centre of Human Rights, dissolved in 2008, despite the fact that it has remained active, albeit unofficially. It is well known fact that Bahrain, a country of about a million or more inhabitants and residents, has over the last eight years been home to about 452 organisations and societies covering most fields and activities; and according to the government the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights is the only case in which it had resorted to dissolving a civil society. This is because the Centre had become a quasi-political society, which adopted a provocative attitude towards the government and its members as well blatantly breaching the country's law. Furthermore, there are now five basic human rights societies which are fulfilling a similar role.

It is obvious however that the government has adopted a more sensitive approach towards human rights organisations affiliated to political parties or institutions or those of a political nature using a legal cover; and this seems to apply to the National Committee for the Unemployed and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights which are mentioned in the Human Rights Watch report. The authorities have not yet responded to requests for official registration made by them.

There is no doubt that the report of Human Rights Watch has pointed out many of the deficiencies and included significant criticism of the practice and legislation, but in the end the report acknowledges the fact that Bahrain has become a popular destination for local and international non-governmental organizations and this is obviously due to the margin of freedom and official support for human rights in the country.