Wide-scale government and security force violations of the civil and political rights of the citizens of Bahrain have been a major factor underlying the unrest now in its third year, Human Rights Watch charges in Routine Abuse, Routine Denial: Civil Rights and the Political Crisis in Bahrain, released today. Human Rights Watch is highly critical of the refusal of the United States government to speak out publicly about abusive practices in Bahrain, a major naval port for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
"Washington's silence in the face of flagrant human rights violations by its Persian Gulf allies is inevitably read as tacit acceptance," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The absence of any public reproach to Bahrain for its shameful policies stands in disappointing contrast to the Clinton administration's lofty pronouncements about human rights and democracy in general."
The 109-page report, based on interviews with Bahraini residents, including lawyers and prominent businesspeople, and with persons whom the government has forcibly exiled, also analyzes Bahrain's laws and legal practice. "We found two basic categories of violations," says Joe Stork, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. "The first, relating to law enforcement and administration of justice, includes arbitrary detention, physical abuse of detainees, and special security courts that deny elementary due process rights. The second category covers basic political rights such as the freedom to speak out and to hold meetings, form political parties and criticize government policies. Bahrainis risk arrest and physical abuse, and even exile, for demanding that the government abide by the 1973 constitution."
Bahrain's constitution guarantees many of these rights and freedoms, and provides for a partially-elected National Assembly, but the ruling family, headed by Amir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa and his brother, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, unilaterally dissolved the National Assembly in August 1975. In 1976, the government decreed a new penal code that substantively nullified many of the civil liberties and political rights protected by the constitution and criminalized a wide range of non-violent political activities. Abuses such as torture, which are categorically outlawed by the constitution as well as international law, are common and go unpunished. Uncorroborated confessions, secured in the absence of legal counsel, are sufficient for security court convictions, which cannot be appealed. Arbitrary detention and forced exile are practiced as matters of state policy.
Human Rights Watch concludes that the contention of the government of Bahrain, that the unrest of the past two-and-a-half years can be wholly ascribed to Iranian-sponsored "terrorism," lacks credibility. Human Rights Watch urges the government of Bahrain to amend the 1974 State Security Measures Law, the 1976 Penal Code, and all other laws and decrees to eliminate or modify provisions that violate Bahrain's constitution and that unduly restrict the ability of Bahraini citizens to exercise peacefully their rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression. Stressing the need to end the practice of forcibly exiling Bahraini citizens, Human Rights Watch recommends that the government annouce that all Bahrainis living in exile are free to return, and that those individuals whom the authorities believe to be responsible for a crime be formally charged and tried before a court of law operating in accordance with international fair trial standards. The report also recommends that the government appoint a special public prosecutor, without ties to the Ministry of Interior, to investigate and publicly report on deaths and alleged acts of torture at the hands of security forces, and to bring charges against any officials implicated in such acts. Finally, Human Rights Watch urges the government to grant visas to independent human rights monitors to conduct research and to attend trials inside Bahrain.
Human Rights Watch strongly urges the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom to use their close and longstanding military and political ties with Bahrain to press the ruling Al Khalifa family publicly to end abusive practices that are recurrent, systematic, and matters of state policy, and to take steps that will make clear to the government of Bahrain that persistent human rights violations will affect negatively the depth and quality of overall relations, including military and security relations. The group also urges the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to put Bahrain's human rights record on the agendas of hearings dealing with U.S. policies in the Middle East.