Bahrain in Amnesty International Report: Human Rights Defenders

In January 2009, Amnesty International issued public report under the theme: CHALLENGING REPRESSION: HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA1. The report covers, inter alia, a wide range of human rights violations suffered by human rights defenders (HRDs), and looks at certain categories of activists who are among those most targeted: media and legal professionals, women’s rights defenders, trade unionists, and those who promote the rights of cultural and religious minorities. The report ends with a series of recommendations to governments as well as national, regional and international actors aimed at protecting human rights defenders and promoting their work.

We are trying here to give general overview about the issues related to Bahrain. However, we strongly encourage readers to consult the report in order to have a wide picture about its content. Generally speaking the report is balanced and useful in dealing with the HRDs issues in Bahrain. The report featured concerns and challenges faced by HRDs in Bahrain, criticized specific laws particularly anti-terrorism and the Bahraini Gatherings Code, but at the same time the report did not ignore the positive steps taken by Bahrain to improve the human rights situation.

Political Context

The report acknowledged that several human rights NGOs have been established in Bahrain. Some organizations, including several women’s rights groups, have made a key contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights in the country, by campaigning for the rights of women and migrant workers, and against human trafficking. According to the report, they have also monitored, documented and campaigned against human rights violations in Bahrain. Some of these organizations are members of the global Coalition for the International Criminal Court. The report highlighted the successful campaigning role played by Bahraini human rights organizations and defenders for the release of detainees held for many years without charge or trial in Guant?namo Bay. According to the report, they have lobbied and encouraged the Bahraini government to take a number of positive steps including acceding to the ICCPR in 2006 and the ICESCR in 2007. It must be mentioned that the ability of local human rights organizations and HRDs to conduct such sorts of activities reflects the relatively positive atmosphere in Bahrain that allows and helps them to carry out their activities to promote the human rights situation in Bahrain.

Oppressive Laws

The report spoke about oppressive laws across the region, which restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. However, the report quoted the 'Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders of the UN Secretary-General' in saying that human rights defenders can only be subjected to limitations regarding “statements or actions that, by definition, are ncompatible with the status of human rights defenders”, such as the advocacy of violence.

The report found that in a few cases, the rights to freedom of association and assembly are severely undermined by national law. The report stated that human rights defenders in Bahrain can be prosecuted under provisions of the Penal Code that forbid acts such as “encouraging hatred of the state”, “distributing falsehood and rumours”, “insulting the judiciary” and “broadcasting abroad false information or statements or rumours about the internal affairs of the country…”. The report mentioned the case of Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, former executive director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was sentenced in November 2004 to one year in prison on charges that included “inciting hatred” and accusing the authorities of corruption, under provisions in the Penal Code. He was released after being pardoned by the King of Bahrain2. However, the report did not provide legal analysis, coupled with specific facts, to show the compatibility or incompatibility of some actions with the requirements of protecting HRDs. The report also failed to shed light on where does the line lie between protecting human rights and freedoms, on one hand, and “inciting hatred”, dissemination of ‘false information’ and ‘rumours’ that undermine integrity of a state, on the other hand.

The report criticized the Bahraini Law on Public Meetings, Processions and Gatherings (the Bahraini Gatherings Code), adopted in July 2006, which seriously restricts the rights to freedom of association and Assembly, and also imposes penalties for speech-related conduct where there is no threat of or incitement to violence or hatred. But the report did not say if the law is relevant where there is threat of or incitement to violence or hatred.

The report also criticized Bahrain for the anti-terrorism law, namely; Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts, ratified in August 2006. The report sees it as a threat to set back human rights progress due to its broad definitions and provision for the death penalty that might increases the risk of arbitrary detention. However, it is not clear in the report if its authors have sought clarifications or safeguards from Bahrain government as to the implementation of the said law in order to avoid any set back in the human rights situation in Bahrain.

Patterns of Repression

The report featured patterns of repression faced by HRDs in MENA. The report stated that across the region, human rights defenders suffer the full spectrum of human rights violations including enforced disappearances; arrest, detention and imprisonment; demonstrators attacked and prosecuted; prevention of international collaboration.

The Report did not score any incidents or reported cases against Bahrain regarding enforced disappearances; and prevention of international collaboration. In fact, regarding the latter, Bahraini NGOs and HRDs have been enjoying very good relations with international NGOs and institutions as mentioned in the report. It should be mentioned that this would not have happened without the margin of freedom Bahrain has been enjoying since the start of political reform in 2001. In the area of harassment and intimidation of HRDs, the report cited as example the case of Nabeel Rajab, the director of the banned Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. On 19 July 2005, Nabeel Rajab was reportedly harassed and physically attacked by policemen during a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with unemployed people. The report indicated that his wife Somaya had been targeted as well apparently because of the activities of her husband. The report also featured the case of Mohammad al-Jeshi, a lawyer and human rights activist, who was reportedly about to travel to Geneva to attend a training course when he was stopped by security men on 3 November 2008. They confiscated his mobile phone and laptop for more than an hour and questioned him before allowing him to board the plane.

The report did not refer to any cases regarding media workers and legal professionals in Bahrain.

It is inspiring to see the report dealing with ESCR. The report featured abuses suffered by defenders of economic, social and cultural rights. The report found that the absence of independent trade unions has particularly serious consequences for migrant workers in the Gulf. Bahrain has been flagged as the only notable exception for allowing non-citizens to join trade unions. It is worthy in this context to mention that foreign workers have established an organization called the Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS). The organization works on issues related to migrant workers and protecting their rights. The MWPS is unique not only to Bahrain, but to the entire Arab gulf region. However, we think that more needs to be done to allow non-citizens to take part in licensed demonstrations and meetings, in accordance with the law.