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Head of Protocol and representative of the King of Bahrain, Brigadier Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa (C) inspects an armoured military ballistic helmet during inauguration of Bahrain International Defense Exhibition and Conference at the Bahrain Exhibition Center, Manama.  © 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – Bahrain continued its downward spiral on human rights during 2017 as the government harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, and prosecuted human rights defenders and their relatives on charges that should have never been brought, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2018.

Bahrain’s preeminent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, is serving a two-year sentence for speech crimes, a punishment that a Manama appeals court upheld on January 15, 2018.  Rajab faces an additional 15 years in a separate trial on charges that include tweets criticizing the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen. A Bahraini court in May dissolved the secular-left National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) after the group condemned the January execution of three men. And in June, the government ordered the suspension of Al Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent newspaper.

“Bahrain’s tolerance for dissent is approaching vanishing point, erasing whatever progress it made after promising to make reforms following the unrest in 2011,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Bahrain’s authorities placed 20 rights activists, lawyers, and political opposition figures under a de facto travel ban in September that prevented them from attending Geneva meetings in connection with Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

According to one human rights group, Bahraini authorities also stripped at least 156 citizens of their nationality in 2017, leaving them de facto stateless. Authorities also enacted a law that allows for the prosecution of civilians in military courts. In 2017, Bahraini courts sentenced to death a total of 14 people, including Sayed Alawi, a civilian engineer, who was one of six sentenced to death by a military court on December 25, 2017, for alleged terrorist activities.

Two relatives of Sayed Alwadaei, a human rights defender exiled in the United Kingdom, were sentenced to three years and another relative to six years in prison, on terrorism-related charges, despite due process violations and allegations of ill-treatment and of coerced confessions. It was not the first time that Bahraini authorities have targeted relatives to pressure or punish activists in exile.

The oversight bodies that the government set up in 2012 in response to a recommendation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, failed to perform their stated mission of investigating credibly allegations of prison abuse. 

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