Human Rights Developments
On March 6 Sheikh Hamad Bin `Issa Al Khalifa succeeded his late father Sheikh `Issa Bin Salman Al Khalifa as amir. The change of government brought a mild respite from the political unrest that began in December 1994, as all involved waited for a government-imposed three month mourning period to end. While there was no repetition of the widespread street clashes of 1994 to 1997, restrictions on freedom of association and expression continued to be severe, and Human Rights Watch continued to receive reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces, arbitrary arrests and detention, and unfair trial.
The government maintained its policy of providing no information to the public concerning the numbers or identities of persons arrested, tried, convicted, acquitted or released under the State Security Law or brought before the State Security Court, where procedures did not meet basic fair trial standards and verdicts were not subject to appeal. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported in June that in 1998 it had visited 1,327 persons detained for security reasons in thirteen places of detention.
On June 6 the amir announced the phased release of three hundred and twenty untried detainees and forty-one convicted prisoners, and the pardon of twelve individuals living in exile. Days later he also announced that those released would receive assistance finding jobs; previous security detainees had reported that Ministry of Interior policies made it nearly impossible to find employment in public or private sectors after their release. As of this writing the government had not responded to requests by Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations for the names of those released, or for information about their convictions, making it impossible to evaluate the true extent and terms of the pardon. Bahraini press accounts and reports by opposition groups suggested that many if not most of those amnestied were youths who had been held for months or years without trial, including Ahmed `Ali Ahmad Hussain, an intermediate school student held for one year and four months, and Jaffar `Ali Hassan, a seventeen-year-old who had been held for two years and nine months.
The amir pardoned Sheikh `Abd al-Amir al-Jamri on July 8, one day after State Security Court had sentenced him to ten years in prison, a 5,000 Bahraini Dinar fine, and an unprecedented 5,709,247 Bahrain Dinar (more than U.S.$15 million) in damages for property losses incurred during several years of political unrest in Bahrain. The sixty-two-year-old Shi'a religious leader had been detained since January 1996 (see Human Rights Watch World Report 1999), and was only brought to trial in February 1999 after the expiration of the maximum administrative detention period allowed in Bahraini law. The four court sessions together lasted a little more than three hours and were closed to the public. As in other security court cases, Al-Jamri's lawyers had only very limited access to their client. Al-Jamri's pardon came after he had signed a statement apologizing for his actions and undertaking not to carry out acts against the state or incite others to do so. The government did not make public the text of the undertakings, but individuals who met al-Jamri immediately after his release said that it included a ban on all public speaking, including religious sermons. Family members alleged that the statement was coerced, as al-Jamri was in poor health and had been returned to solitary confinement for three weeks prior to his release. As of this writing he remained restricted in his movement and in his contacts with those outside his immediate family. Six of the seven opposition leaders arrested at the same time as al-Jamri remained in prison without charge or trial: Hassan Sultan, `Ali `Ashur, Hussayn al-Daihi, Hassan Mishma'a, Sayyid Ibrahim Adnan al-Alawi, and `Abd al-Wahab Hussayn. `Ali Bin Ahmad al-Jedhafsi was released on July 26, 1999. According to the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO), family members reported that al-Daihi and `Ashur were denied medical treatment for injuries in June, and Hussayn was hospitalized in early September.
Individuals, associations, and trade and professional organizations continued to face severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Trade unions remained banned and in August security forces raided and reportedly confiscated documents and computer files from the offices of the General Committee of Bahraini Workers, a registered organization that had asked for the right to bargain collectively. Membership activities and cultural publications of the `Uruba cultural club continued to be heavily monitored, and a seminar on "Women and Political Participation" planned for June 9 was banned. In a December 21, 1998 letter, the president of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sport, the agency with oversight powers over cultural and sport associations, accused the club of violating the 1989 law governing associations by inviting other clubs to meet to discuss sanctions against Iraq. The letter threatened actions to "return [the club] to its proper place" and "force it to respect" the council.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs had used the 1989 associations law to remove the elected board of the Bar Society in 1998. After lengthy negotiations with the government, the Bar Society was finally allowed to hold elections on March 3 in exchange for agreeing to drop its court case challenging the board's removal, and members voted out of office the government-appointed board. Shi`a religious charitable societies were also closely monitored, and had to report all expenditures, as well as the names of all volunteers, donors, and students enrolled in training programs. Some charities reported being warned not to provide monies to particular families or individuals.
The practice of forced exile of perceived dissidents continued, despite the June pardon of twelve exiles. According to the BHRO, in July at least seven Bahraini citizens and their families, a total of thirty-two people in all, were refused entry when they attempted to return to Bahrain. In some cases they were interrogated prior to deportation, and some individual with expired passports were issued with one year extensions.
Defending Human Rights
No human rights organizations were permitted to operate in Bahrain. Defense lawyers in state security court cases faced harassment for fulfilling their legal duties, as in the case of attorney `Abullah Hashim, who was prevented from traveling abroad immediately following his filing a habeas corpus appeal on behalf of his client, Sheikh al-Jamri, in January. Several lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they had been warned by security personnel not to provide information about arrests and security court trials to the press or to international human rights monitors.
Security personnel closely monitored the movements and telephone conversations of a Human Rights Watch delegate who visited Bahrain in April. From June 28 to July 2 Amnesty International (AI) delegates met judges and senior government officials during its first visit to Bahrain in twelve years. AI noted with regret that "its delegates were not permitted to meet privately with other sectors of society concerned with human rights promotion and protection" and said that it had "sought assurances that similar restrictions will not be imposed in future visits."
Outside of Bahrain the BHRO and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Bahrain (CDHRB) compiled information on detainees, deaths in custody, and other issues, and campaigned for resolutions critical of the government's practices at meetings of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and in other fora.
The Role of the International Community
On August 4 Bahrain withdrew its reservation to article 20 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which allows the committee to conduct confidential investigations of allegations of torture (see Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 ). As of this writing it had not acted on its August 1998 promise to allow a visit by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 1999, nor had it responded positively to requests by U.N. special rapporteurs on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to visit Bahrain.
The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination canceled the special review of Bahrain's implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) scheduled for its March session after Bahrain submitted its initial report in late February. Bahrain had not submitted any of the five periodic reports due since it ratified the treaty in 1990, and the special review was to have responded to the absence of a report. The review of Bahrain's report was scheduled for the committee's March 2000 session.
In an October 14, 1998 note verbale to the U.N.'s secretary-general Bahrain said that statements by Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues in their submissions to the fifty-forth session of the Commission on Human Rights were "groundless and blatantly political allegations," but did not address the specific concerns raised.
Iran and Bahrain resumed diplomatic relations on January 26, 1999. Both countries had recalled their ambassadors in 1996.
The headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain continued to enjoy strong U.S. support. In March Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, who was in Bahrain for meetings with Amir `Isa the day of the amir's death, described the amir as "a strong and loyal friend to the United States and particularly to the U.S. Navy," whose "care and concern for the people of Bahrain made him an effective and beloved leader." Shortly after the visit the Department of Defense also announced the sale of a U.S.$110 million air-to-air missile system, and said that it would install a special telephone line to facilitate communication between the Pentagon and the Bahraini defense ministry.
On September 29, 1999 the U.S. and Bahrain signed a bilateral investment treaty, the first such treaty between the U.S. and a gulf state.