Bahrain’s 2022 parliamentary elections, held in November, were neither free nor fair. All members of previously dissolved political groups were barred from running in the elections. Authorities also have sought to restrict former opposition members from participating in civil society organizations. Independent media has been banned since 2017.
Twenty-six Bahrainis remain on death row. At least eight of these men were convicted and sentenced following manifestly unfair trials based primarily, or in some instances solely, on coerced confessions.
Prominent opposition figures and human rights defenders, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Abdel-Jalil al-Singace, remained in prison without access to adequate medical care. Authorities failed to hold officials accountable for torture and ill-treatment in detention.
Closure of Political Space and Freedom of Association
Bahrain’s November 2022 parliamentary and municipal elections took place amid serious restrictions on political and civil rights, free speech, and assembly.
Political isolation laws, passed in June 2018, explicitly ban members of previously dissolved political parties from running for parliament and from sitting as members on the boards of directors of civil society organizations. The laws also ban formerly convicted felons, even if pardoned or convicted on abusive speech or assembly-related charges, and those previously deemed to have “disrupted” constitutional life in Bahrain. In 2016 and 2017, Bahrain’s judiciary dissolved the country’s two major opposition parties, Al Wifaq and Waad.
On January 31, 2022, the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), one of Bahrain’s oldest human rights organizations, learned that three candidates nominated to run in the society’s board of directors’ election—Abdul-Jalil Yousef, the organization’s secretary-general, Issa Ebrahim, and Mohsin Matar—were banned from the board because of the political isolation laws. All three are former members of Bahrain’s now-dissolved National Democratic Action Society (Waad).
The government also expanded practices that limit economic opportunities for former opposition members and political prisoners through the routine delay or denial of “good conduct certificates,” a document required for Bahraini citizens and residents to obtain employment, apply for university, or even join a sports or social club.
Bahraini courts have convicted and sentenced defendants to death following manifestly unfair trials, based solely or primarily on confessions allegedly coerced through torture and ill-treatment.
Since 2017, Bahrain has executed six people and, as of June 2022, 26 others are on death row with their appeals exhausted. Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) examined the cases of eight men facing the death penalty, based primarily on court records and other official documents. The defendants were convicted and sentenced following manifestly unfair trials based primarily, or in some instances, solely on coerced confessions. The trial and appeal courts in these cases dismissed credible allegations of torture during interrogation, relied on secretly sourced documents, and denied or failed to protect fundamental fair trial and due process rights, including the rights to counsel during interrogation and to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Bahraini authorities also violated their obligations to investigate allegations of torture and abuse.
Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly
Thirteen prominent opposition leaders have remained behind bars for more than a decade for their roles in the 2011 pro-democracy protests. They include Hassan Mushaima, the head of the unlicensed opposition group Al-Haq; Abdulwahab Hussain, an opposition leader; Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights defender; and Abdel-Jalil al-Singace, the spokesman for Al-Haq. All four are serving life terms following manifestly unfair trials.
No independent media has 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 international rights groups are routinely denied access.
Security Forces and Prisons
Authorities continue to deny Bahraini prisoners adequate medical care, causing unnecessary suffering and endangering the health of prisoners with chronic medical conditions. In May, prison authorities did not respond adequately to a tuberculosis outbreak in Jau prison. Two prisoners with symptoms of tuberculosis were ignored by prison authorities for more than a week. Prison authorities failed to provide hospital care to a prisoner, Ahmed Jaber, for 11 months. Jaber became sick in prison in April 2021 but was not transferred to a hospital until March 2022.
Abdel-Jalil al-Singace began a hunger strike in July 2021 that continued throughout 2022. In 2022, Bahraini authorities delayed or denied the delivery of multiple necessary medicines to al-Singace, including medications necessary for his nervous system and bodily functions, and eye drops. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has been denied adequate medical care since he chanted solidarity slogans with Palestinians in the prison yard in February 2022.
Authorities have failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed serious violations, including torture, since the 2011 protests.
Bahrain authorities arbitrarily detained six boys, ages 14 and 15, in an orphanage in Seef district, after summoning and arresting them in December 2021 and January 2022. Authorities did not provide the boys or their families with any written justification for their detention and they first learned about the alleged legal basis from a public statement issued in February by the Office of the Public Prosecution that accused them of throwing a Molotov cocktail. Authorities also denied parents’ requests to be present during their sons’ interrogations and to visit them. The children’s alleged offenses appear to have occurred in December 2020 or January 2021, when they were 13 and 14.
Bahrain’s 2021 Restorative Justice Law for Children sets the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 15 but permits authorities to “place the child in a social welfare institution” for renewable weekly periods “if the circumstances require.” The law fails to guarantee children access to a lawyer and their parents during interrogations and provides that children may be detained if they participate in unlicensed protests.
Online Surveillance and Censorship
The Bahraini government continued its use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target activists and human rights defenders in Bahrain. In February 2022, a joint investigation by Red Line 4 Gulf, Amnesty International, and Citizen Lab found that critics of the Bahraini government, including Mohammed Al-Tajer, a prominent Bahraini lawyer, Dr. Sharifa Siwar, a mental health counselor, and an online journalist were targeted with the spyware between June and September 2021.
Bahrain has purchased spyware to target government critics and human rights defenders for over a decade.
Bahrain continues to enforce the kafala (sponsorship) system that ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, which means if they leave their employer without their employer’s consent, they lose their residency status and can face arrest, fines, and deportation for “absconding.” In 2009, Bahrain allowed migrant workers to terminate their employment contracts after one year with their first employer if they give reasonable notice to their employer of at least 30 days. However, in January 2022, the parliament voted to extend this to two years. The workers are also expected to bear their own fees for the two-year work permit, which has been too onerous for many, resulting in little up-take.
Bahrain’s Labor Law includes domestic workers but excludes them from protections within it such as weekly rest days, a minimum wage, and limits on working hours.
Women’s Rights, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation
Bahrain passed a unified family law in July 2017, but it continues to discriminate against women’s rights to marry, divorce, and inherit on an equal basis to men. Women are required to obey their husbands as the head of the household. The 1963 Citizenship Act prohibits women from conferring their nationality to their children from a non-Bahraini father.
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.
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, gender identity, disability, or age.
Key International Actors
In July, US President Joe Biden met Bahrain’s King Hamad in Jeddah and underscored “the United States’ appreciation for the longstanding strategic partnership with Bahrain, including its hosting of the US Navy Forces Central Command/5th Fleet.”
The United Kingdom government funded Bahrain-led and owned reform and capacity-building programs involved in egregious human rights violations through the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF). The GSF has supported Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigations Unit and other security bodies implicated in the abuses of at least eight men currently on death row.
The European Union's Joint Communication on a partnership with the Gulf failed to highlight the poor human rights situation in Bahrain and made no attempt to link progress in bilateral relations to specific human rights benchmarks.
Serbia extradited a Bahraini political dissident to Bahrain on January 24 despite an order by the European Court of Human Rights that specifically prohibited his extradition pending more information. Bahraini authorities had previously subjected the dissident, Ahmed Jaffer Muhammad, 48, to torture and ill-treatment. Serbia initiated extradition proceedings after Interpol, the international police body, issued a Red Notice alert at Bahrain’s request.