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World Report 2015: Bahrain

Events of 2014

Human rights activist Nabeel Rajab (left) speaks to his neighbor after his release from jail on May 24, 2014. Authorities arrested Mr. Nabeel again on October 1, 2014, after he criticized the government.

© 2014 Human Rights Watch

In 2014, the main opposition party continued to refuse to participate in the national dialogue process to protest authorities prosecuting some of its senior members and, with other opposition parties, boycotted November’s elections in protest at an unfair electoral system.

Bahrain’s courts convicted and imprisoned peaceful dissenters and failed to hold officials accountable for torture and other serious rights violations. The high rate of successful prosecutions on vague terrorism charges, imposition of long prison sentences, and failure to address the security forces’ use of lethal and apparently disproportionate force all reflected the weakness of the justice system and its lack of independence.

Human rights activists and members of the political opposition continued to face arrest and prosecution, and the government invested itself with further powers to arbitrarily strip critics of their citizenship and the rights that attach to it.

Judicial System

Bahraini courts sentenced more than 200 defendants to long prison sentences, including at least 70 for life, on terrorism or national security charges.

The number of prosecutions, the often vague nature of the charges, the high rate of convictions, and the length of the sentences imposed raised serious due process concerns.  Bahrain’s civilian criminal courts failed to provide impartial justice and frequently convicted defendants on terrorism charges for acts that amount to legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association.

In 2013, for example, an appeals court concluded that a lower court had been right to convict Abdul Wahab Hussain, an opposition leader, on terrorism charges and sentence him to life imprisonment because he had founded a group dedicated to establishing a republic in Bahrain. The same appeals court also upheld the terrorism convictions and life sentences for Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil al-Singace, members of the unlicensed opposition group Al Haq, because they had participated in meetings of the group that Hussain founded and possessed “publications advocating for the group.” The court declared that while unlawful means, such as the use of force, are required for an act to qualify as terrorism, such force “need not necessarily be military [askari],” because “moral pressure” could result in terrorism.

Fifty individuals were convicted on charges of establishing and joining a group known as the February 14 Coalition with the aim of “sowing chaos in the country, committing crimes of violence and sedition, attacking public and private property, intimidating citizens and harming national unity.” The court found that only one of the 50 defendants had committed an identifiable act of violence—assaulting a policeman during his arrest at his home, causing “cut and scratch injuries” to the officer. The defendants received sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years in prison.

Excessive Use of Force and Lack of Accountability

Security forces fatally shot at least three people in circumstances indicating that they used excessive force. Bahraini authorities and courts have rarely held members of the security forces accountable for unlawfully using force against protestors and detainees.

In January, security forces shot and killed Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon. Authorities said police officers shot him in self-defense as he drove an “oncoming car” towards them, but photographs of his body appeared to contradict this version and show that he had sustained a gunshot wound to the back of his head. In February, security forces shot Abdulaziz al-Abar at a funeral procession; surgeons removed shotgun pellets from his brain, but he died on May 18.

In May, security forces shot and killed Sayed Mahmood, 14, after police dispersed a funeral protest. A hospital death certificate, three witness accounts, images of the wound, and a forensic pathologist’s opinion indicated that his death had resulted from unlawful use of lethal force by security forces, to whom he had posed no threat when he was shot.

In 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), appointed to investigate official conduct during anti-government protests that year, concluded that “police units used force against civilians in a manner that was both unnecessary and disproportionate.”

In response to one of the BICI’s recommendations, the government established the Office of the Ombudsman within the Interior Ministry “to ensure compliance with professional standards of policing set forth in the Code of Conduct for the Police” and to report misconduct to the ministry and any criminal acts to the public prosecutor. The government created a Special Investigations Unit within the Public Prosecution Office as well.

The Office of the Ombudsman issued its first annual report in May, which listed 11 deaths under investigation, including that of Fadhel Marhoon, whom police shot and fatally wounded on January 8. The Ombudsman’s Office told Human Rights Watch that it had forwarded details of the deaths of al-Abar and Mahmood to the Special Investigations Unit for investigation.

The BICI also found that Bahrain’s security forces had killed at least 18 demonstrators and detainees without justification and recommended that the authorities investigate the deaths “with a view to bringing legal and disciplinary action against such individuals, including those in the chain of command, military and civilian, who are found to be responsible under international standards of ‘superior responsibility.’”

An analysis of court documents conducted by Human Rights Watch showed that the justice system has failed to hold members of the security forces accountable for serious rights violations, including in cases where their use of excessive and unlawful force proved fatal. The authorities have prosecuted only a few of the security personnel implicated in the serious and widespread abuses that the BICI documented, focusing  almost exclusively on low-ranking officers who, in most cases, have been acquitted or punished with disproportionately lenient sentences.

For example, a court convicted a police officer only of assault, although it accepted that he had shot and fatally wounded a man from a distance of one meter because it concluded that the officer did not open fire with an intent to kill. The court imposed a seven-year prison term in this case, which an appellate court later reduced to six months. In another case, an appeals court slashed to two years the ten-year prison terms that a lower court imposed on two police officers convicted of beating a detainee to death. The appeals court said that the two defendants deserved “clemency” on the absurd grounds that they had been “preserving the life of detainees, among them the victim.” These and similar decisions by courts threaten to undermine the ability of the Ombudsman’s Office to carry out its responsibility to ensure that police and other security forces comply with the law.

Human Rights Defenders

On August 30, Bahrain’s public prosecutor charged human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja with assaulting a police officer at Manama airport when she arrived from abroad to visit her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is serving a sentence of life imprisonment for his political activities. Authorities released her on bail on September 18.

Bahrain authorities arrested a prominent rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, on October 1. At time of writing he faced a three-year prison sentence on charges that he “offended national institutions” due to comments he made on social media. Rajab, who was released from prison on May 24 after serving two years for organizing and participating in demonstrations, criticized the government for using counterterrorism laws to prosecute human rights defenders and accused Bahraini security forces of fostering violent beliefs akin to those of the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS.  

Rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja spent five weeks in prison after her arrest on October 15 on charges that she insulted the king after she ripped up a photo of King Hamad during a court hearing. At time of writing, she faced six outstanding charges, five of which, according to information provided by her lawyer, clearly violate her right to free expression. She had been released in February 2014 after serving a one-year prison term for illegal assembly and insulting the police.

German authorities granted political asylum to a senior staff member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah, in March. Almuhafdah had been the subject of death threats on social media after the BCHR launched a campaign  that accused senior members of the ruling Al-Khalifa family of responsibility for serious rights abuses and called for their criminal prosecution. Almuhafdah sought asylum after he and his wife received summonses to appear before Bahrain’s public prosecutor.

Freedom of Expression and Association

In April, King Hamad ratified Law 1/2014, which amends article 214 of the penal code to provide for a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars (US$26,500) for offending the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem.

On July 10, the public prosecutor charged Sheikh Ali Salman and Khalil al-Marzooq, respectively leader and deputy leader of Al Wifaq, Bahrain’s main Shia opposition party, with violating the law on political associations. This occurred after they met the visiting United States assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, without the government’s permission. On July 7, the authorities declared Malinowski persona non grata and ordered him to leave Bahrain.

The year 2014 saw four award-winning Bahraini photographers either in jail or facing criminal charges, some or all of whom were apparently targeted by the authorities on account of their peaceful exercise of their profession. They included Hussain Hubail, sentenced by a court to a five-year prison term on April 28 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. His family and that of Ahmed Humaidan, another photographer whose 10-year sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court in August, alleged that authorities mistreated the men in pretrial detention.


The government published amendments to the 1963 Citizenship Law in the Official Gazette on July 24. Article 10 now permits the Interior Ministry, with cabinet approval, to revoke the citizenship of any Bahraini who “aids or is involved in the service of a hostile state” or who “causes harm to the interests of the Kingdom or acts in a way that contravenes his duty of loyalty to it.”

Authorities either obstructed the right of appeal or refused to justify their 2012 decision to arbitrarily revoke the citizenship of 31 Bahrainis, including 9 men and 1 woman who remain in Bahrain, for allegedly “damaging the security of the state.” Only 1 of the 31 was able to appeal against the Ministry of Interior decision to revoke his citizenship, but a court upheld the minister’s decision on April 29 and asserted, without citing evidence, that it was “intimately related to national security.” The court noted that the Interior Ministry was not obliged to justify its decision and that the ministry’s actions were “not subject to judicial oversight as long as its decisions are free from abuse of authority.”

Women’s Rights

Law no. 19 of 2009 on the Promulgation of the Law of Family Rulings regulates matters of personal status in Bahrain’s Sunni courts. It does not apply in the country’s Shia courts, with the consequence that Shia women, who comprise the majority of women in Bahrain, are not covered by a codified personal status law. Domestic violence is not specifically addressed in the penal code and marital rape is not considered a crime.

Migrant Workers

Approximately 460,000 migrant workers, mostly from Asia, make up 77 percent of Bahrain’s private workforce. Due to shortcomings in Bahrain’s legal and regulatory framework and the authorities’ failure to enforce relevant labor laws, they endure serious abuses, such as unpaid wages, passport confiscation, unsafe housing, excessive work hours, physical abuse, and forced labor. Conditions for female domestic workers are of particular concern. A regional Gulf Cooperation Council unified contract for domestic workers has yet to be approved, but early drafts fall short of the minimum standards outlined in the Domestic Workers Convention that the International Labour Organization adopted in 2011.

Key International Actors

Forty-seven states, including the US and the United Kingdom, signed a joint statement criticizing Bahrain and calling for the release of political prisoners at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in June. However, despite ongoing rights abuses and the expulsion of a senior US diplomat in July, Bahrain’s key allies—the UK, the US, and the European Union—failed to make explicit calls for the immediate and unconditional release of 13 high-profile activists serving long-term sentences in Bahrain.

In February, the European Parliament did, however, adopt a strong resolution condemning human rights violations in Bahrain and calling on the EU high representative and EU member states to develop a clear strategy setting out how the EU will, both publicly and privately, actively push for the release of imprisoned activists. No such strategy emerged.

Bahrain, along with its closest regional ally and benefactor, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, participated in US-led air strikes against Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria.