In the Light of the Recent Incidents:

Are Human Rights Deteriorating in Bahrain?

International and regional human rights organisations were surprised by the recent arrests of individuals who have been accused of inciting violence and terrorism in Baharain. The surprise related to the performance of the security forces during the first days of their detention and the public statements regarding what had occurred. However, for close observers the arrests were expected for some time because of the political dimension of the escalation of violence and riots. Hence, there had to be a time when the Government would take firm steps to put an end to it.

This escalation attracted the attention of many international human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the British Bar Association, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation for Human Rights, the World Organisation Against Torture, the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists and Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies. All the statements of these organisations are similar in content and objectives, although some were stern and inaccurate. For example, Amnesty International stated on 18 August 2010 that the ‘The latest arrests mark an increased clampdown on opposition and civil society activists’.

The reactions of these human rights organisations raised several questions including:

1-The legal framework for detention:

Since the first days of the arrests, there has been discussion over the Government’s violation of the law when dealing with the detainees. The statements of both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch highlighted that the detainees must be released or be brought before the Public Prosecutor within 48 hours of arrest as required under the penal code.

No one expected that the recent security measures were based on the Law ‘to Protect Society from Acts of Terrorism’ which was passed by the Parliament in 2006. This Law was criticised by human rights organizations inside and outside the country. According to this Law, the security forces have the right to detain individuals for a maximum period of 15 days before bringing them before the Public Prosecutor or releasing them. Hence, the fact that the detainees were prohibited from contacting their families or legal representatives was covered by this Law.

What caused a misunderstanding is that the security authorities failed to clarify the law it based its procedures on. Human Rights Watch stated that the authorities did not point to the Law for Combating Terrorism regarding the recent arrests. However, after some delay, on 21 August 2010, a security source announced that the arrests were in fact based on this law. Within the required legal period of 15 days, on 26 August 2010, Abdul Jalil al-Singace was brought before the Public Prosecutor, allowed to meet his lawyer and his detention place was revealed. This was the issue which was raised by Amnesty on 18 August 2010, which called upon the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the detainees.

2- The relations between human rights organizations and the authorities in Bahrain:

International human rights organizations expressed their concern regarding the future of human rights and providing detainees with their legal rights in Bahrain. Although Bahraini authorities have constantly announced that they will adhere to the law and guarantee fair trials, this has not had a positive effect on the reactions of human rights organisations. This has made Bahraini officials feel that these organisations do not accept information provided by them. And since these organisations do not search for varied information sources, this renders their prospective inaccurate and imbalanced. Therefore, the Government considers their reports to be biased and exaggerated.

It is feared that the Government’s increasing sense of disappointment will reflect badly onto its relationship with international human rights organisations. If the policy of openness and cooperation with international human rights organizations has been neglected by some actors from within Bahrain, this will weaken relations with such organizations and will eventually lead to ignoring their reports. According to the Government and some observers, the international human rights organizations did not understand the nature of the political change taking place in Bahrain as well as the available margin of freedom. They also did not understand the aggressive nature of the opposition’s work and the harm that they could inflict upon the country. This issue is not related to freedom of expression or with practicing peaceful political activities.

3- The future of human rights:

There are many questions relating to what has already been discussed such as: are human rights going to deteriorate in Bahrain, especially if relations with international organizations are weaken? Is the Government less keen on adhering to international human rights standards, the Constitution and the local law? Will the existent security campaign continue for a long time and stop human rights from developing and improving?

These are some valid and worrying questions and not merely hypothetical. Some of these questions have been raised by prominent human rights figures during the last three weeks and by those who have been following the current situation closely. We would like to emphasize that the worsening of the relations between the Government and human rights organizations is not in the best interest of the country. We do not think that human rights in Bahrain are deteriorating or that Bahrain is moving towards becoming a police state or to retract the achievements it made at the political and human rights arenas. We also do not think that the stability of the country can only be maintained if its accomplishments are undermined.

Moreover, despite the Government’s disappointment regarding the lack of appreciation of international organisations for its accomplishments, we think that there is a strong will to continue with the reforms started a decade ago. The excitement over the reform project is probably not going to be the same as before due to the constant violence and the limited trust between politicians and between the Government and international human rights organisations. A mature performance by all politicians and activists will play an essential role in developing Bahrain politically and on a human rights level in the near future.

This time, it is most likely that the Government will not be lenient with violence advocates. However, it is also likely that it will not decrease the available margin of political and civil freedoms. Human rights activists inside and outside Bahrain are demanding more adherence to human rights standards when confronting violence and riots.