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Events of 2023

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in London.

© 2023 Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP

More than 800 inmates in Jau prison, the country’s largest detention facility, participated in a hunger strike from August to September 2023 to protest abysmal conditions and Bahraini authorities’ denial of adequate health care. Many of those on hunger strike were being held unjustly following manifestly unfair trials

Ten 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 Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace, the spokesman for Al-Haq. All four are serving life sentences following manifestly unfair trials. Al-Khawaja and Al-Singace continue to be denied adequate medical care.

On March 8, Bahraini authorities revoked the entry visas they had issued on January 30, 2023, to two Human Rights Watch staff members to attend the 146th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Human Rights Watch holds permanent observer status with the IPU granting access to the parliamentary organization’s Assemblies, which IPU’s senior leadership failed to publicly criticize.

Closure of Political Space, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom of Association

The government of Bahrain continued imposing restrictions on expression, assembly, and association. Elections are neither free nor fair, and opposition voices are systematically excluded and repressed.

Many members of Bahrain’s political opposition, as well as activists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, continue to be imprisoned for their roles in the 2011 pro-democracy protests and for more recent political activism. They have faced brutal treatment, including torture and denial of medical care. Authorities failed to hold officials accountable for torture and ill-treatment in detention.

Human Rights Watch, along with several other human rights organizations, addressed a joint letter on March 6 to delegates to the IPU highlighting human rights abuses in Bahrain and urging them to use the assembly to raise concerns about the serious repression of human rights in Bahrain and avoid using the assembly to whitewash Bahrain’s dismal rights record.

Bahrain’s “political isolation laws,” introduced in 2018, barred former members of the country’s opposition parties from running for parliament or sitting on boards of governors of civil society organizations. These laws also target former prisoners, including those detained due to their political work. Those affected by these laws routinely experience delays and denials when applying for a Good Conduct Certificate, which Bahraini citizens and residents need to apply for a job or university admission or even join a sports or social club.

Two of Bahrain’s former parliament members are in prison for exercising their freedom of expression, and the government has forced many more into exile and stripped them of their citizenship.

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.

Death Penalty

Since 2017, Bahrain has executed six people. As of September 2023, 26 others remain on death row with their appeals exhausted. 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.

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 Religion

The Bahraini government has discriminated against its Shia majority population for years, including by targeting Shia clerics and arresting and prosecuting human rights defenders from Shia backgrounds, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in 2011. UN experts have expressed concern that members of the Shia community are “clearly being targeted on the basis of their religion.”

In June, Bahraini authorities imposed restrictions and set up checkpoints in and around Al-Diraz village where Imam Al-Sadeq Mosque—the main mosque for the Shia community in Bahrain—is located, blocking worshippers from attending Friday prayers there. The access restrictions followed the Bahraini authorities’ brief detention of a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Sanqoor, who often gave sermons at Imam al-Sadeq Mosque. 

Women’s Rights

Under the unified 2017 Family Law, women are required to obey their husbands and not leave the marital home without a “legitimate excuse.” She can lose her right to spousal maintenance (nafaqa) from her husband if she is deemed disobedient or recalcitrant by a court.

A woman cannot act as the guardian of her child even if her child’s father has passed away or following divorce in which a court orders that her child reside primarily with her (custody). The 1963 citizenship act prohibits women from conferring their nationality to their children from a non-Bahraini father. Women have had problems trying to obtain passports for their children particularly when their child’s father is abroad.

Women also face discrimination in practice. Some universities may require women to have parental consent to live in campus accommodation.

In February, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women published their findings on women’s rights in Bahrain, which included concern about the “shrinking space for women human rights defenders and reports of reprisals against them, including intimidation, harassment, threats, physical abuse, sexual violence, travel bans and arbitrary detention.” The committee also noted the absence of a timeline for adopting a draft law amending the Penal Code to remove the exemption from criminal liability if a perpetrator of rape marries the victim.

Bahrain’s parliament has voted to abolish a law exempting rapists from punishment if they marry their victim.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

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.

Migrant Workers

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 (at least 30 days) to their employer. 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 some protections, such as weekly rest days, a minimum wage, and limits on working hours.

Online Surveillance and Censorship

Bahraini authorities continued to block websites and forced the removal of online content, particularly social media posts criticizing the government. While social media remains a key space for activism and dissent, self-censorship is high due to the fear of online surveillance and intimidation from authorities.

In March 2023, Bahraini authorities arrested four men over social media posts. Ebrahim Al-Mannai, one of the four men arrested, was a lawyer and prominent activist who made a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, stating that the Bahraini government should reform its parliament if it is interested in highlighting the Bahraini parliament to the world.

Bahrain has purchased and used spyware, including NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, to target government critics and human rights defenders.

Key International Actors

In September 2023, Bahraini crown prince and prime minister Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa visited Washington, DC, and signed the Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement (C-SIPA), which aims to enhance cooperation between the two countries in various areas, such as defense, security, trade, investment, and emerging technology. The agreement was signed just after several human rights organizations urged the White House to use their diplomatic relations with Bahrain to push for the release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.

In July, the United Kingdom prime minister also hosted the crown prince to sign a Strategic Investment and Collaboration Partnership, which “aims to facilitate additional investment of more than £1 billion into the UK.” The UK Government continues to fund Bahrain-led and owned reform and capacity-building programs for agencies involved in egregious human rights violations through the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF). The GSF has supported Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior and its ombudsman, Special Investigations Unit, and security bodies implicated in the abuses of at least eight men currently on death row.

In February, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations released a joint statement responding to the 2021 human rights and democracy report of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), in which the UK government gives Bahrain unreserved praise for its Restorative Justice Law for children as a “progressive step” without acknowledging the failures of this law to protect key rights enumerated by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.