(Beirut) – Authorities in Bahrain are arbitrarily detaining photographers who have covered protests and convicting them in unfair trials. Four award-winning Bahraini photographers are either in jail or facing criminal charges in what appears to be part of a policy that violates photographers’ right to freedom of expression.
On June 22, 2014, Hussain Hubail, who won a 2013 award for his photographs of anti-government protests, will appeal a five-year sentence for taking part in an “illegal gathering” and inciting hatred of the government. On June 25, Ahmed Humaidan, who also took award-winning photos of protests and recently won the 2014 John Aubochon Press Freedom Award, will appeal a 10-year sentence for allegedly attacking a police station. Family members told Human Rights Watch that both were mistreated in pre-trial detention.
“The images that Ahmed Humaidan and Hussain Hubail captured portray a reality that the Bahraini government would prefer that the world – and other Bahrainis – not see,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Throwing photographers in jail isn’t going to keep either the protests or the accounts of what happens in Bahrain out of the world’s sight.”
Authorities have targeted two other award-winning photographers in the last year, and two videographers are also in detention. Other photographers have told Human Rights Watch that security forces targeted them because of their profession and then subjected them to serious mistreatment in custody. The appeal courts should ensure that any allegations that the photographers were tortured in detention are properly investigated and throw out evidence secured by torture, Human Rights Watch said.
Ahmed al-Fardan, a photojournalist whose photograph of protests in Bahrain won first prize in Freedom House’s “Images of Repression and Freedom” competition in April 2013, faces charges of participating in an “illegal gathering” on December 16, 2013, at which 60 people allegedly attacked police vehicles.
Security forces arrested him in the early hours of December 26. “The first question they asked me was, ‘Where is your camera?’” he told Human Rights Watch. He said that police in civilian clothes confiscated two cameras, hard drives, and flash drives from his room. The police took him to Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) headquarters, where police blindfolded and handcuffed him in a cell known as “the freezer,” because it was kept so cold, he said. CID officers and a public prosecutor asked him about his photography awards during interrogations. His first trial session is scheduled for September 14, 2104.
Plain-clothes officers arrested Sayed Ahmed al-Mousawi, another award-winning photographer, and his brother Mohamed at 5 a.m. on February 10. They did not present a warrant. Their father, who visits his sons every week, told Human Rights Watch that the two did not make contact with the family for six days. He said that Sayed told him then that interrogators humiliated and beat him and that he signed a confession to avoid further physical and psychological punishment.
Al-Mousawi’s father said that police questioned his son about his work as a photographer. Sayed al-Mousawi began by taking pictures of wildlife, but started taking pictures of protests after the anti-government uprising of February 2011. On May 29, 2014, a judge authorized his detention for a further 45 days, although he has yet to be formally charged.
Another professional photographer who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch that police arrested him and three other men in the aftermath of a funeral in the town of Jidhafs on January 21, 2012, at which he had been taking photos. He said that police took them to an empty building and beat them with sticks and pipes. He claims that his beating was especially severe because he had been seen taking photos of the funeral. “This will teach you not to take photos,” he said one officer told him.
Videographers Jaffar Marhoon and Qassim Aldeen have also been in detention, since December 26, 2013, and August 2, 2013, respectively. It is not clear what charges Marhoon is facing, although his family told a local source that they believe it to be illegal gathering. Aldeen was sentenced to six months in prison in December on a charge of illegal gathering and to three months in January 2014 on another similar charge.
The former head of the photography department of Al Watan newspaper, Abdullah Hassan, told Human Rights Watch that authorities have been targeting photographers because “photographers have played a leading role in challenging the authorities’ version of events” during and since the anti-government protests of 2011. Hassan said he was fired by the pro-government daily in April 2011, along with three other photojournalists, none of whom have been reinstated.
In May 2011, officers at Riffa police station detained Hassan for six days, during which time he was beaten with a hose and interrogated about his work as a photographer. “Why do you take pictures? Where do you publish them?” an officer who identified himself as “high-ranking” asked Hassan, then told him, “you will never find another job.” Police held him for six days without charge, then released him.
On November 3, 2013, Hassan was hired by Al Ayam newspaper but fired four days later. He was told by the newspaper that the firing was on “orders from above.” He said he has not worked as a photographer since. “I still take photos, but not of demonstrations,” he told Human Rights Watch.
A local journalist, who requested anonymity, said that security forces have detained at least 25 photographers or cameramen since 2011, including the five currently in detention and Ahmed Fardan.
Humaidan’s father told Human Rights Watch that plain-clothes police officers arrested his son as he went into a movie theater on December 29, 2012. Humaidan’s lawyer, Fadel al-Sawad, told Human Rights Watch that he did not see his client until January 14, 2013, two weeks later. At Humaidan’s trial, prosecutors offered no proof linking his client to an attack on Sitra police station and refused to divulge in court the source of their information that Humaidan was involved, the lawyer said. On March 26, 2013, Humaidan was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the alleged attack.
Plain-clothes officers arrested Hubail on July 31, 2013, as he was preparing to board a flight to Dubai. His mother told Human Rights Watch that her son had told her that in the days following his arrest, officers at the CID headquarters blindfolded and handcuffed him behind his back and left him exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time. He told her he signed a confession under duress. On April 28, 2014, he was sentenced to five years in prison on charges that included using social media networks to “incite hatred of the regime,” calling on people to ignore the law, and calling for illegal demonstrations.
The 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented that authorities arrested and interrogated an unspecified number of media personnel during the events of February and March 2011, and that two journalists died in police or National Security Agency custody. In April 2012, Ahmed Ismail, a videographer, was fatally shot while filming protests in the town of Salmabad. Later that month, authorities deported a Channel 4 film crew, and in April 2013, they deported another film crew from ITV.
Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, also protects this right and indicates that the scope of protection covers photography: “[E]veryone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”