Release Peaceful Critics; Hold Senior Officials Accountable
Bahrain should urgently carry out the key recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The outcome of Bahrain’s UPR, through which all UN member countries are examined once every four years, was adopted by the Human Rights Council on September 19, 2012.
Many UN member countries called on Bahrain to set a time frame to carry out the recommendations from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which documented serious and systematic human rights violations by Bahraini authorities in crushing peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
“Bahrain’s acceptance of most UPR recommendations needs to be quickly followed by releasing leaders of peaceful protests, holding accountable high officials responsible for policies of torture, and adopting broader reforms to uphold human rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has been claiming for months that it accepts the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry but continues to stall on the core issues and to deny that political detainees are still in Bahraini jails.”
In its response to the UPR recommendations on September 12, Salah Ali, Bahrain’s minister of state for human rights, said the government fully accepted 143 of the 176 recommendations, and rejected 20 others. Thirteen were accepted with conditions.
The recommendations Bahrain accepted included more than a dozen calling on the government to hold security forces accountable for rights abuses, including wrongful deaths and mistreatment of detainees in government custody. Other recommendations called for the immediate release of prisoners convicted solely for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and free speech during pro-democracy demonstrations in February and March 2011.
Bahrain also asserted in its response to the UPR recommendations that it had dropped all charges related to freedom of expression and that the authorities have taken steps to investigate past and present human rights abuses.
But Bahrain did not respond to concerns that its Penal Code and law regulating associations fall short of international human rights standards. Nor did it respond to concerns that the penal code and associations law also allow for detaining people solely for exercising their rights to free speech and association.
Despite its denials, the government continues to imprison people convicted solely for participating in peaceful protests. On September 4, a court of appeal upheld a military court’s convictions of 21 protest leaders for offenses related to their exercise of the rights freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found that many defendants were “ill-treated” to secure their confessions.
Bahraini authorities have taken some steps to hold security personnel accountable for abuses. In an August 23 response to a Human Rights Watch letter, the Public Prosecution Office said that a Special Investigative Unit created to investigate unlawful deaths and allegations of torture had charged 22 people. Earlier, in June, a criminal court sentenced a corporal - the highest ranking security official known to have been convicted - to five years in prison for “unintentionally causing a permanent disability.”
However, those investigations and prosecutions have not included any high-ranking official at the Interior Ministry or the National Security Agency. No official from the Bahrain Defense Forces is known to have been investigated, although the military played a leading role in the 2011 campaign of repression.
The Independent Commission of Inquiry’s November 2011 report concluded that the security forces had committed serious violations against protesters during their suppression of pro-democracy protests in February and March 2011. Those violations included thousands of arbitrary arrests; systematic torture and ill-treatment of detainees; and routine denial of fair trial guarantees. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pledged to implement the commission’s recommendations.
The fact that many countries on the Human Rights Council felt the need to call on Bahrain to implement the independent commission’s recommendations indicates that the government has still not addressed the most serious violations raised in the report.
Bahrain accepted four recommendations calling for an end to the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, as well as policies restricting international rights organizations including Human Rights Watch from visiting Bahrain. In its response to the UPR recommendations, the government claimed misleadingly that, “There are no restrictions on the activities of non-government organizations,” and that it “doesn’t prohibit [NGOs’] entry into Bahrain.”
Many Bahraini human rights defenders face routine harassment, arbitrary arrest and threats by government officials. On August 16, Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was sentenced to three years in prison for organizing and participating in peaceful demonstrations without permits in early 2012.
“The Bahraini government’s failure to carry out key recommendations of the BICI report raises concerns it won’t fulfill the UPR recommendations either,” Stork said. “Bahrain should take this opportunity to free people convicted for engaging in free speech and peaceful assembly, hold accountable officials of all ranks responsible for abuses, and give international rights groups access to visit Bahrain without unnecessary restrictions.”