Human Rights Developments
The end of 1995 and beginning of 1996 saw a resumption of widespread street demonstrations and clashes with security forces, mainly over issues of political reform. Serious, extensive and recurrent human rights abuses continued in the form of arbitrary detention, abusive treatment of prisoners, and denial of due process rights. Virtually all of those detained in connection with the political unrest belonged to Bahrain=s majority Shi`a community. However, the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family=s broad denial of basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, affected all Bahraini citizens.
Bahrain=s current political crisis goes back to the second half of 1994, when demonstrations protesting high unemployment rates in Shi`a villages and neighborhoods intersected with a island-wide campaign for political reform, initially manifested in a series of petitions calling for restoration of the parliament that was disbanded by decree in 1975, freedom for political prisoners, and permission to return for hundreds of Bahrainis forcibly exiled or prevented from returning because of their political activities. Widespread street demonstrations erupted following the December 1994 arrest of Shaikh Ali Salman, a young preacher active in the unemployment and political reform campaigns. The government, without disclosing evidence or specifying any legal offense, summarily and forcibly exiled Salman and three other activist clerics in January 1995, in violation of international law and Bahrain=s constitution.
On April 1, the government detained five prominent Shi`a community leaders, including Shaikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, the informal head of the main opposition grouping, the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement, and an elected member of the disbanded parliament. The five were held for between five and six months without charge and without access to legal counsel.
Jailhouse negotiations between the government and Shaikh al-Jamri and his colleagues produced an Aunderstanding@ that led to the release of hundreds of detainees beginning in mid-August 1995, signaling a period of relative calm. On September 26, a day after his own release, Shaikh al-Jamri reiterated that A[t]he parliament comes at the top of our [list of] demands,@ but that Adialogue between the opposition and the government@ was continuing around demands for the release of all detainees and permission to return for those exiled. The government, however, publicly denied the existence of any agreement.
By late October 1995, new petitions were announced and the atmosphere again grew tense. Clashes erupted again in December 1995 and January 1996, following the late November Supreme Court affirmation of a death sentence in the case of a security force member murdered in March 1995. Shaikh al-Jamri and seven other community leaders were arrested on January 22. A Ministry of Interior official, referring to demonstrations and attacks on property as well as the deaths of about two dozen citizens and three security personnel, told Reuters that A[t]here is proof, evidence and documents supported by pictures which prove the group=s involvement in the incidents and would be submitted to the legal authorities.@ As of October 1996, the prisoners were still being held without access to counsel, none had been formally charged with any offense, and no evidence had been disclosed. Al-Jamri was allowed a brief family visit for the first time in September 1996; over the course of 1996 several of his close relatives were also picked up for lengthy periods of interrogation and detention without charge.
On February 7, 1996, Ahmad al-Shamlan, a defense lawyer and longtime leftist critic of the government, became one of the very few Sunni opposition activists to be detained. His arrest followed the distribution to Agence France-Presse of a statement of the Popular Petition Committee demanding the reinstatement of the elected parliament. The same week the government banned a seminar organized by the Uruba Club, an elite cultural association, entitled ADemocracy and Shura,@ in which Shamlan was to participate. Through the state-dominated media the government accused al-Shamlan of being a conduit for foreign funds in support of the protests. But when he was finally brought before a State Security Court panel in mid-April, his charge sheet dealt with an article he had written one year earlier, faxes found in his office from the Bahrain Freedom Movement in London, a record of a London phone call from Mansur al-Jamri inquiring about his jailed father and sister, and the statement of the Popular Petition Committee in his possession. The court, in an unusual move possibly related to al-Shamlan=s high profile in the region and internationally, released him on bail and in May acquitted him of all charges.
An undetermined number of Bahrainis were detained in 1996 for authoring or possessing documents relating to the political demands of the opposition, and several journalists working for international agencies were called in for interrogation. Another figure associated with the Popular Petition Committee, Sa`id Abdallah Asbool, was detained without charge for one week in April 1996, during which time he was interrogated about contacts with a visiting BBC reporter. In May, a Bahraini taxi driver and an Omani resident married to a Bahraini, were detained and reportedly tortured under interrogation for accompanying a BBC television reporter. The Omani, Abd al-Jalil al-Usfur, was released after three months and deported; the Bahraini, Sayyid Hussain, is believed to be still in detention.
Numerous arrests and preemptive closings of mosques and other meeting places early in 1996 confined demonstrations and street protests to Shi`a towns and villages, which were heavily patrolled and frequently subject to nighttime raids by security forces. Large-scale street demonstrations for a time gave way to attacks, including some with small explosive and incendiary devices, against public installations, banks, luxury hotels, and shopping centers. There were also unclaimed arson attacks against restaurants and shops frequented by expatriate workers. In the most serious of these, in March, seven Bangladeshi workers were killed.
In early June, the government announced the discovery of a previously unknown organization it identified as Hizballah Bahrain-Military Wing, charging that the unrest of the previous eighteen months was part of an Iranian-inspired and financed plot to overthrow the government. The government=s claim was received with skepticism, since no evidence was presented other than Aconfessions@ obtained from detainees who had been held for weeks or months without access to lawyers.
The State Security Law, decreed in 1974 over the nearly unanimous objection of the elected National Assembly, allowed the Ministry of Interior to detain persons for up to three years without trial. At least 3,000 persons were arrested between December 1994 and October 1995, of whom about 800 were formally charged. According to Bahraini defense lawyers, the majority of these were tried before the State Security Court; some were charged under the penal code and tried in ordinary courts. Many of those not charged had been released by the end of 1995, but an unknown number continued to be held in detention. Large-scale and indiscriminate arrests resumed in January 1996.
Human Rights Watch, on the basis of interviews with persons who had been detained and with defense lawyers, identified a pattern in which warrantless arrests were carried out in night raids on homes of suspects involving some ten to fifteen armed members of the security forces. Community leaders and middle-aged professionals suspected of involvement in the petition campaigns, as well as young men suspected of organizing or participating in demonstrations or attacks on property, were seized from their homes in this manner, typically between midnight and 4 a.m. Young men, and often members of their families, were often beaten and their homes ransacked.
Bahraini defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that persons charged with offenses were typically brought before the State Security Court months and often as much as a year after their arrest. In these cases, the accused got to see a lawyer only on the day they first appeared in court, and uncorroborated confessions were often the sole basis for conviction. Defense lawyers and former detainees told Human Rights Watch that beatings and other forms of physical abuse were commonly used to secure confessions and information. Defense lawyers also said that over the past year the confessions on which defendants were convicted became increasingly formulaic, using the same wording and phrasing.
There were no known instances of officials being held accountable for human rights abuses.
In March 1996, the government decreed that offenses specified in fourteen additional articles of the penal code, such as arson, use of explosives or firearms, and physical or verbal attacks on public officials, would henceforth be considered offenses punishable under the State Security Law. Between March and October, 156 persons were sentenced to prison by the State Security Court. The number of those held without charge at any one time in 1996 was estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000.
Article 134 of the penal code, one of the articles currently under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court, targeted acts of speech by making it a punishable offense to Areveal news or statements or false hearsay on the internal situation of the state, thus weakening the financial confidence of the state or undermining its posture.@ It further restricted freedom of assembly by making it a punishable offense to Aattend without official permission a conference, meeting or public debate held outside, or participate in any form in its work, with the purpose of discussing the political, social and economic affairs of the State of Bahrain, such that it weakened the financial confidence of the state....@
The Right to Monitor
Bahrain had no locally-based human rights organizations. Two Bahraini groups based outside the country and made up of exiled and expatriate critics of the governmentCthe Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO) and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Bahrain (CDHRB)Ccompiled information on detainees and other issues. The BHRO said its request to the Bahraini government for permission to operate inside the country was not answered.
The government of Bahrain denied repeated requests by Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations to conduct formal missions and to meet government officials in the country. A Human Rights Watch researcher did visit Bahrain informally in 1996, and found persons there eager to discuss human rights issues but at the same time extremely apprehensive about the consequences should their contact with Human Rights Watch become known. Responding to an article published by the researcher after the visit, Bahrain=s ambassador to Washington wrote on October 30 that the article was Afull of misinformation and false accusations,@ but did not identify these inaccuracies. He added that Aterrorist actions are a direct threat to and violation of the basic human rights of the Bahraini people,@ and that Athe government of Bahrain...will use all means available to it within the law to protect its citizens.@
The Role of the International Community
The Arab World
The government of Bahrain enjoyed the unreserved public support of Arab governments of the Persian Gulf, particularly in the forum of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia in particular indicated support for the government with regard to the internal unrest. Prince Nayif, the Saudi minister of interior, said in November 1995 that, ASaudi Arabia will not hesitate at any time in responding to any request from Bahrain...and the security of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain together will be for the service of the Bahraini people.@ Prince Sultan, the Saudi minister of defense, told the BBC in March that, AWe are prepared to stand forcefully by Bahrain if the need arises.@
In February, a delegation of eight Kuwaiti parliamentarians attempted to visit Bahrain to petition Amir Isa to negotiate with the opposition, but they were turned back at the airport.
Among Arab governments outside the Gulf, notably Jordan and Egypt, Bahrain also found considerable support. Jordan was widely reported to have seconded security personnel to the Bahraini government.
Bahrain was the operational headquarters for the U.S. Navy=s Fifth Fleet, and some 3,000 U.S. military personnel and dependents were stationed there. The U.S. maintained complete public solidarity with the government of Bahrain on the latter=s dismal record, with the sole exception of the Bahrain entry in the State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995. That entry was reasonably comprehensive and candid, although it understated the extent to which people have been detained for exercising the right of free speech as distinguished from participation in demonstrations and clashes with the authorities. It asserted misleadingly that Shaikh al-Jamri had been accused of Aa wide variety of security-related crimes@; in fact such accusations consisted of unattributed statements in the government-controlled press and reflected a highly expansive definition of Asecurity-related.@
The State Department report also gratuitously denigrated the human rights monitoring of the BHRO and the CDHRB by grouping them with the Bahrain Freedom Movement and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which made no claim to being human rights organizations, and by dismissing them all as Aviewed by many local observers as espousing a political, rather than a purely human rights, agenda.@ The entry further mischaracterized them as Asmall numbers of emigres living in self-imposed exile,@ thus downplaying the government=s use of forcible exile to punish political dissidence. Rather than assessing directly their allegations of abuse, the report attacked the BHRO and the CDHRB by innuendo as having Areportedly received funding from sources hostile to the Al Khalifa regime.@
The U.S. consistently skipped opportunities to criticize Bahrain=s abusive record. Defense Secretary William Perry made several visits to Bahrain during 1996 but, as of October, had made no public comment on the human rights situation. On January 25, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau said that unrest in Bahrain Ais brought about by a fairly high level of unemployment and some unrest in Bahrain=s Shi`a community. It is urged on and promoted by Iran, across the Persian Gulf.... [Bahrain=s leaders] are dealing with it, in my view, in a responsible way that deserves our support.@ On May 7, Pelletreau, at the United States Information Agency Foreign Press Center, reiterated that Bahrain=s difficulties Aare sometimes fanned by flames from Iran.... We believe that the government is taking steps to address this situation and that the government deserves the support of its neighbors and other friends as it tries to deal with an ongoing difficult problem.@ In early March, during a visit of Crown Prince Shaikh Hamad bin Isa to Washington, State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns stated that human rights did not arise in Secretary of State Christopher=s meeting with the Crown Prince, but that A[t]he issue has come up numerous times in our relationship with Bahrain through Ambassador David Ransom and others.@
The U.S. accounted for US$700 million in arms deliveries to Bahrain in the 1988-1995 period, out of total deliveries of $800 million. The State Department congressional presentation for fiscal year 1997 estimated U.S. military sales to Bahrain at $160 million in fiscal year 1996 and $330 million in 1997. These military supplies were mainly for the use of the Bahrain Defense Forces, which was not acknowledged to have been involved in internal security operations. Expatriate residents of Bahrain told Human Rights Watch, however, that tear gas and other projectiles were fired from foreign-supplied helicopters into villages during clashes.
In late May 1996, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Bahrain, where he said, AWe support Bahrain=s efforts to ensure its stability, and we continue to accuse Iran as a threat to the stability of the region.@ Two weeks later, following the purported confessions of alleged Iranian-backed coup plotters (see above), Bahrain released portions of a letter from President Clinton to the Amir which stated, Athe U.S. fully supports Your government and sovereignty and safety of Bahrain=s territories,@ and praised his expansion of an appointed Consultative Council as reaffirming Ayour government=s commitment to economic and social development and political reconciliation.@ In September, Secretary Perry returned to Bahrain to arrange for the basing of twenty-three additional U.S. Air Force F-16s for use in patrolling the southern Iraq Ano-fly@ zone. Former President George Bush also visited Bahrain in March, and publicly commended the authorities for their handling of the protests: AI salute the government of Bahrain for preserving order and for guaranteeing for every Bahraini citizen a secure environment.@