Bahrain: A Human Rights Crisis - Briefing paper

On 21 April 2911, Amnesty International (AI) launched a brief report on the human rights situation in Bahrain since the outbreak of the recent events last February. The report came under the title (Bahrain: A Human Rights Crisis), and pointed to a worrying decrease in the human rights situations. These developments mark a dramatic and deeply worrying trend. Until 2010, Bahrain was widely seen as the Gulf state that had made the greatest progress on human rights

The report pointed that Bahrain was caught in the grip of a spiralling political and human rights crisis and that Bahrain has witnessed an intensifying cycle of human rights violations. These include large-scale arbitrary arrests of government critics, opponents and protesters. More than 500 people have been arrested in March including many who called for changes to the political system. In all cases, weeks after their arrest, their whereabouts remain unknown; the government has refused to disclose this information to their families or lawyers or, in most cases, allow any contact or visits, prompting great anxiety as to the safety and welfare of the detainees. At least six detainees, all prominent opposition leaders, have been referred to the military prosecutor and were reportedly questioned in the presence of their lawyers concerning their role in the protests.

The AI report mentioned the names of some of the prisoners and detainees including politicians, doctors, nurses, university lecturers. However, the whereabouts of around 85 persons recently reported to have been released have yet to be disclosed by the government. Furthermore, at least 18 women have also been detained in connection with the protests. They include medical doctors, nurses and teachers and some of them were held incommunicado in undisclosed locations. AI considers that some of those detained are prisoners of conscience imprisoned solely on account of their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or other human rights.

On the other hand, AI´s report criticized allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, at least four of whom have died in custody in suspicious circumstances since the beginning of April. Methods of torture included punching with fists, kicking with boots, beatings with wooden batons and in some cases, the use of electric shocks were applied. AI highlighted testimonies of victims who had been tortured. The report also criticized the use by the security forces of excessive and deadly force as well as the dismissal of hundreds of employees from their jobs, apparently because of their involvement in or support of the protests. In this regard, the Bahraini government responded to the report in a letter sent to the Secretary-General of AI by Dr. Fatima Al Balushi, Minister of Social Development and in charge of the human rights file. She emphasized in the letter that the (disciplinary and legal proceedings had been taken in accordance with relevant legal standards, and only in relation to specific violations of the law, such as absenteeism. The Government has no hand in the decisions of private sector companies with regard to their workforce, while any individual who believes they have been treated unfairly can bring a case before the Labour Courts). The Minister also emphasized that cases of detention of some doctors, nurses, lecturers are not directly related to their professions or their legitimate professional activity, because the legal investigations showed evidence of involvement in criminal activities such as incitement to violence or hatred, and refusal to provide medical service for political and sectarian reasons. (Bahrain News Agency, 26 April 2011).

AI’s report referred to the prevailing climate of fear and signs of an increasing sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shi’a, and the recurrence of attacks on foreign migrant workers, notably from the Indian sub-continent, by elements affiliated to the militant opposition. Meanwhile, Bahrainis who support the government claim that its clampdown on the opposition and the protests was necessary to “pull Bahrain from the abyss”.

The report criticized the imposition of the State of National Safety – SNS - (State of Emergency) since 15 March for three months subject to renewal by Parliament, which the report described as weak, especially after the withdrawal of the 18 members of the Al Wefaq Society in protest at the government crackdown. The provisions of the SNS are broadly drawn and vague, and contain no explicit human rights guarantees. The SNS gives enormous powers to the security forces, which allow them to ban all public gatherings that are deemed harmful to national security; to prohibit individuals from travelling outside Bahrain; and to conduct searches of places. The SNS also allows the authorities to close down NGOs, trade unions, social clubs, and political associations. The SNS established special courts to try people accused of crimes against the State, but there is nothing said about human rights safeguards for detainees held under the SNS, including how long they can be detained in pre-trial detention. Furthermore, the final verdicts of the special courts cannot be appealed against in Bahrain’s ordinary courts.

The AI report concluded that the SNS provisions directly contravene Bahrain’s obligations as a state party to international human rights treaties, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and appear also to contravene provisions contained in the Bahraini Constitution, the Penal Act and the Criminal Procedure Act.

In this regard, the Minister of Social Development again assured AI that (the Kingdom of Bahrain is dedicated to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, despite being faced with a security situation that included extreme and premeditated violence, often against unarmed and vulnerable civilians, compounded by outside interference. As a result of these challenges, Bahrain had been left with no option but to declare the State of National Safety, in order to restore peace and security and ensure the protection of the rights of all components of society). (Bahrain News Agency, 26 April 2011).

AI’s report covered the events of last March adequately and pointed to the background that led to the continuation and growing of demonstrations and protests against the government following the withdrawal of military and security forces from the Lulu Roundabout on 18 February 2011. The report noted anti-government protesters had stepped up their demands, with many calling openly for an end to the monarchy and its replacement with a republican system. By contrast, the seven legally-registered political associations, including al-Wefaq, the largest Shi’a political group, were calling for the establishment of a genuine constitutional monarchy and for the resignation of the government as a precondition for their engagement in negotiations with the Crown Prince. On 12 and 13 March, violence erupted between protesters demanding an end to the monarchy and government supporters in the Royal Court in al-Riffa’ and the University of Bahrain in Hamad Town areas.

The report pointed to the closure of the main roads in Manama and the occupation of the Financial Harbour area by the protester causing considerable disruption in these areas, in addition to attacking Asian immigrant workers, causing three deaths and injuries to others. On 15 March, the Saudi Arabian government despatched its troops to Bahrain, reportedly at the request of the Bahraini government and to assist in guarding key government installations in Bahrain. As Saudi Arabian troops entered, Bahrain declared the State of National Safety (SNS). Next day, the government sent in the security forces, backed by helicopters and tanks, to storm the Lulu Roundabout area and forcibly evict the protesters. In the ensuing clashes, at least two protesters and two police officers were reported killed and dozens of people were injured by the security forces that violently cleared the protesters away. The security forces also took similar action to forcibly evict protesters from the nearby Financial Harbour area.

AI’s report was based on the findings of the AI delegation that visited Bahrain on 1-8 April 2011, previous visits in February 2010 and the end of 2010, in addition to AI’s ongoing monitoring of developments in Bahrain. AI’s delegates met with officials from several government ministries and victims of human rights violations and their relatives and eye-witnesses, human rights activists, representatives of diverse religious and ethnic communities, lawyers, journalists, medical practitioners, and others

The main recommendations of the Amnesty International report are as follows:

AI urges the Bahraini government to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, and to ensure that all other detainees are released unless they are to face recognizable criminal charges and be tried in full accordance with international standards of fair trial and without recourse to the death penalty.

AI urges the Bahraini authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of all those currently detained, allow the prompt and regular access to their lawyers and families and ensure that they have access to and can receive all necessary medical treatment.

AI expresses the need that any members of the security forces or other officials responsible for abusing detainees’ rights must be held to account and removed immediately from any position where they can continue to commit abuses against detainees.

AI reminds Bahrain that the international conventions on human rights, such as the United Nations Convention against Torture, also ratified by Bahrain, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the laws of Bahrain, prevent the use of torture.

AI calls upon the Bahraini government to immediately establish an independent and impartial investigation into the deaths in custody that have occurred and into all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, and to bring to justice any members of the military and security forces or other officials, however senior, who are responsible for torture or other abuse of detainees.

AI urges Bahrain to give greater priority to its obligations under international law.

AI calls upon governments that have long maintained close diplomatic, trade and other ties with Bahrain to remind the Bahraini authorities of their obligations to uphold and respect human rights.