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Events of 2020

Bahraini prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab wears a face mask after he was released, at his house in Budaiya in Manama, Bahrain June 9, 2020.

© REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed

The human rights situation in Bahrain did not improve in 2020. There are 27 individuals currently on death row, of whom 25 are at imminent risk of execution. The government has put six people to death since it ended a moratorium on executions in 2017.

Authorities arrested, prosecuted, and harassed human rights defenders, journalists, opposition leaders, and defense lawyers, including for their social media activity. All independent Bahraini media have been banned since 2017 from operating in the country and all opposition groups dissolved.

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders, was released from prison on June 9 to serve the rest of his five-year sentence under the alternative sanctions law.

Health and hygiene conditions in Bahrain’s overcrowded prisons remain extremely serious. Although Bahrain released 1,486 prisoners in March due to the health risk posed by Covid-19, the releases have excluded opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders—many of whom are older and/or suffer from underlying medical conditions.

Authorities failed to hold officials accountable for torture and ill-treatment. Oversight mechanisms are not independent of the government.

Bahrain continued to deny access to independent rights monitors and the UN special procedures, including the special rapporteur on torture.

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Peaceful Assembly

On June 9, 2020, authorities released from prison prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab to serve the rest of his five-year sentence on speech charges under the alternative sanctions law. Rajab’s conviction arose from his 2015 tweets alleging torture in Jau Prison and criticizing Bahrain’s participation in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The 2107 law allows courts to impose “alternative” sentences after a detainee serves half of their sentence, which Rajab completed on November 1, 2019.

Thirteen prominent dissidents have been serving lengthy prison terms since their arrest in 2011 for their roles in pro-democracy demonstrations. They include Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as well as Abduljalil al-Singace, a leader in the unrecognized opposition group Al Haq, both serving life terms.

Shaikh Ali Salman, leader of Al-Wifaq, Bahrain’s largest but now forcibly dissolved opposition political society, is also serving a life term after the Court of Cassation upheld his sentence in January 2019 on trumped-up charges of allegedly spying for Qatar.

In 2020, Bahrain escalated its suppression of online and social media activity and prosecuted several public figures solely for their posts on social media, including prominent lawyers Abdullah Al Shamlawi and Abdullah Hashim. In May 2019, the Interior Ministry declared that it will prosecute people who follow “inciting accounts” or share their posts on Twitter.

No independent media have operated in Bahrain since the Information Affairs Ministry suspended Al Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, in 2017. Foreign journalists rarely have access to Bahrain, and Human Rights Watch and other rights groups are routinely denied access. International wire services, when they cover Bahrain, do so from Dubai or elsewhere outside the country. Six journalists are currently imprisoned.

Death Penalty

There are 27 individuals currently on death row, of whom 25 are at imminent risk of execution, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

On July 13, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences on Mohamed Ramadan and Hussein Ali Moosa, despite unfair trials and credible evidence that their convictions were based on confessions coerced under torture.

The Special Investigation Unit’s (SIU)’s investigation into Moosa and Ramadan’s torture allegations found “suspicion of the crime of torture … which was carried out with the intent of forcing them to confess to committing the crime they were charged with.”

However, the investigation failed to comply with the Istanbul Protocol, the internationally recognized legal and professional standards for effective investigations of torture allegations.

Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, warned that Moosa and Ramadan’s “conviction resulting in the death penalty would be arbitrary and a clear violation of their right to life.”

In 2017, Bahrain ended a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In July 2019, Bahrain executed three men, including Ali al-Arab and Ahmad al-Malali who had been sentenced to death in a mass trial marred by allegations of torture and serious due process violations.

Security Forces and Prisons

Bahrain released 1,486 prisoners in March due to the health risk posed by Covid-19, but the releases excluded opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders – many of whom are older and/or suffer from underlying medical conditions.

Overcrowded conditions in Bahrain’s prisons compound the risk of Covid-19 spreading. The lack of adequate sanitation led to scabies outbreaks in Jau Prison—Bahrain’s largest prison—and the Dry Dock Detention Center in December 2019 and January 2020.

Authorities continue to deny Bahraini prisoners adequate medical care, causing unnecessary suffering and endangering the health of some unjustly imprisoned persons with chronic medical conditions, such as Hassan Mushaima and Abdel Jalil al-Singace.

Authorities in 2020 failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed serious violations, including torture.

Arbitrary Citizenship Revocations

Almost 300 persons whom the authorities have stripped of their citizenship in recent years remain without Bahraini nationality, rendering most of them stateless.

In 2019, King Hamad reinstated the citizenship of 551 individuals and courts restored the nationality of another 147 individuals. Bahrain also amended its citizenship revocation laws, restricting the power to strip nationality to the cabinet. Under the amendments, the king and the judiciary no longer have the power to unilaterally strip Bahrainis of their citizenship for national security or terrorism crimes. All known citizenship revocations since 2012 have been handed down by the courts, or by royal decree, or by order of the Interior Ministry.

Human Rights Defenders

On March 5, authorities released Hajer Mansoor, the mother-in-law of prominent exiled human rights defender Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei. Police arrested Hajer in March 2017 and a court convicted her in October 2017 on dubious terrorism charges that appear to have been filed in reprisal against al-Wadaei’s human rights work. The judicial process was marred by due process violations and allegations of ill-treatment and coerced confessions. Two other members of al-Wadaei’s family remain imprisoned.

Migrant Workers

Migrant workers faced a range of abuses that worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. While the authorities attempted to ease overcrowding by offering migrants accommodation in schools, the authorities are also reported to have forced workers to leave the accommodation by cutting off electricity and water during the peak of the summer and without providing them alternative accommodation. The authorities paid salaries of 100,000 citizens working in the private sector between April and June but did not provide similar benefits to migrant workers who form the majority of Bahrain’s workforce. Migrant workers reported facing dismissal, reduced pay or unpaid wages, and faced eviction from their accommodation by landlords.

In 2017, Bahrain introduced a unified standard contract for domestic workers, which requires detailing the nature of the job, work and rest hours, and weekly days off. But the standard contract does not limit working hours, set out the minimum wage or rest days to which workers are entitled, and lacks enforcement mechanisms to ensure the rights of domestic workers are respected. There is no law setting out more extended rights and decent working conditions for domestic workers. Migrant domestic workers faced further risks of abuse during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Women’s Rights, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation

Bahraini family laws discriminate against women’s right to divorce, inherit, and transmit Bahraini nationality to their children on an equal basis to men, and deprive their children of the right to obtain citizenship on an equal basis with children of Bahraini men.

Article 353 of the penal code exempts perpetrators of rape from prosecution and punishment if they marry their victims. Bahrain’s parliament proposed a full repeal of that article in 2016, but the cabinet rejected the proposal. Article 334 of the penal code reduces the penalties for perpetrators of so-called honor crimes.

Bahrain’s penal code criminalizes adultery and sexual relations outside marriage, a violation of the right to privacy, which disproportionately harms women and migrant women. Although no law explicitly criminalizes same-sex relations, authorities have used vague penal code provisions against “indecency” and “immorality” to target sexual and gender minorities. There is no law that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation.

In December 2018, Bahrain amended its labor law to ban discrimination based on sex, origin, language or creed, and sexual harassment in the workplace, but the law does not refer to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Key International Actors

Bahrain continued to participate in Yemen military operations as part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which is responsible for serious laws of war violations. The coalition has failed to credibly investigate potential war crimes, and coalition members, including Bahrain, have provided insufficient or no information about their role in alleged unlawful attacks.

The US maintains a major naval base in Bahrain.

On September 15, Bahrain established formal diplomatic ties with Israel. The head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, visited Bahrain at the end of September to meet Bahraini intelligence and security officials.

In June, the European Union welcomed the partial release of Nabeel Rajab. In July, the EU expressed concerns about the death sentences of Mohamad Ramadan and Hussein Ali Moosa and urged Bahrain to halt their executions and re-introduce a moratorium on executions as a step towards abolition. In September, the European Parliament reiterated its call to halt the export of equipment that can be used for internal repression to Bahrain.

Bahrain has not responded to a visit request by the special rapporteur on human rights defenders sent in 2012 or a reminder sent in 2015. Bahrain has also not responded to visit requests in recent years by the special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.