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(Geneva) United Nations member states should scrutinize Bahrain’s deplorable human rights record during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council on May 21, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The international community should push Bahrain to adopt specific measures to ensure free expression and peaceful assembly, end torture, free political prisoners, and establish credible accountability mechanisms for continuing abuses.

Under the UPR process, the Human Rights Council examines the human rights record of each UN member state once every four years. The process began in 2008, and Bahrain is the first country to undergo a second UPR round.

“The UPR should focus on Bahrain’s routine suppression of basic political rights like freedom of association as well as the grave human rights violations committed in the brutal 2011crackdown against pro-democracy protesters,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries should ask Bahrain why it hasn’t released scores of prisoners whose only crimes were to call for greater political rights.”

The voice of the international community has been subdued regarding Bahrain’s manifold violations, especially compared with the international response to abuses in Syria, Libya, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries, Human Rights Watch said.

Bahrain’s second UPR will follow more than a year of violent suppression of what began as peaceful protests. In mid-March 2011, as the demonstrations continued, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a “State of National Safety” and established special military courts. These courts convicted and sentenced to prison hundreds of protesters for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, despite statements by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifaon state television that, “It is among the rights of citizens of Bahrain to gather and march peacefully.”

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), appointed by King Hamad and consisting of five renowned international jurists, concluded that the government’s security forces had violently crushed pro-democracy demonstrations and documented widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law, as well as Bahraini law by Bahraini forces.

The commission recommended voiding all convictions based on people’s peaceful statements or protests, investigating allegations of torture against ranking officials, and revising laws that criminalize speech and peaceful assembly.

But Bahrain has conducted few reviews of the military court sentences and released even fewer prisoners. None of the accused protest leaders, whose convictions were based solely on their political statements and associations, have been freed, Human Rights Watch said.

Bahrain’s own UPR report to the Human Rights Council claims that the government has carried out or is still working on nine recommendations that Bahrain accepted following the 2008 UPR and 37 voluntary pledges made at that time.

The government’s report completely ignores the serious human rights violations committed by security forces during the 2011 crackdown. It also ignores the government’s routine violations of freedom of expression and association since 2008, such as taking over the Bahrain Human Rights Society in 2010 and voiding the elections of the Bahraini Bar Association in 2011.

New rights violations are taking place. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested on May 5. He is on trial for “offending an official institution” – namely, the Interior Ministry, which Rajab claimed had failed to investigate attacks against Shia protesters and Shia-owned businesses.

In another politically motivated arrest, authorities detained Zainab al-Khawaja on April 21 on charges of “holding up traffic, illegal gathering, and assaulting a public employee” after she conducted a one-person sit-in on the main road to the Formula One Grand Prix race. She was seeking the release of her father, the prominent protest leader and rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison in June 2011 for his role in the 2011 anti-government protests.

Both Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja remain in custody.

Human Rights Watch has documented the frequent use of torture by Bahraini authorities, usually for the apparent purpose of securing confessions. The BICI also documented numerous cases of torture and said that the failure of authorities to investigate and punish those responsible had led to a “culture of impunity.”

A Human Rights Watch investigation in April found that while treatment inside police stations and formal detention facilities appears to have improved following release of the BICI report in November, police instead are beating suspected protesters at the time of arrest and in various unofficial locations before transferring them to police stations.

Despite numerous promises to grant international organizations unrestricted access to Bahrain, authorities have been highly restrictive and unwilling to give human rights organizations and the international media access to the country. The government has imposed unduly restrictive measures such as a five-day visa. It is permitting only one international rights group to visit the country each week and often rejects visas for human rights defenders.
“The Human Rights Council needs to hold Bahrain’s UPR presentation up to the harsh light of its systematic repression of civil society and its often excessive use of force to suppress demands for basic rights,” Stork said. “It is essential for all UN member states who say they are committed to human rights to hold Bahrain to account during the UPR session on May 21.”

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