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Behind the Rhetoric: Human Rights Abuses in Bahrain Continue Unabated

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report reviews the current human rights situati on in Bahrain, a small but strategically located Gulf kingdom with a population of just under one and a half million, which has been ravaged by internal dissension since 2011.

Amnesty International has monitored human rights developments in Bahrain for many years but never more closely than in the past four years, which have seen widespread violations by government security forces. These have included torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, unfair trials, the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience – persons sentenced to prison terms for peacefully exercising their rights to free speech, association or assembly – and unlawful killings, with those responsible all too frequently escaping accountability. Anti-government elements have also carried out several bomb explosions and other violent acts targeting the security forces.

This report documents many of these human rights violations and recommends a series of measures that the government should take if, as it has repeatedly professed in UN and other fora, it is committed to ending abuses and upholding the rights of all Bahrainis without discrimination, and to ensuring accountability when abuses do occur. As the report shows, although the government has introduced a number of legal and institutional reforms in recent years to improve human rights, these have so far proved inadequate and have failed to ensurean end to serious rights violations, and justice and appropriate redress for the victims of abuses by state forces.

Four years ago, popular protests in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, sparked off a series of events that have polarized Bahraini society and opened deep divisions between the country’s ruling Sunni Muslim minority and an opposition that draws its strength mostly from the Shi’a Muslim majority, who make up some two thirds or more of the Kingdom’s predominantly Muslim population. The government’s heavy handed response to the protests that began in February 2011 as mass protests elsewhere swept aside longstanding Arab rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, saw protesters beaten and shot, a period of martial law, and opposition activists detained, tortured and imprisoned after grossly unfair trials, eliciting an outcry both at home and abroad. To its credit, the government responded by appointing a group of international lawyers and human rights specialists – the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) – to investigate alleged human rights violations, setting it a tight timetable to complete its task. In November 2011, the BICI submitted its report to Bahrain’s King personally, and he publicly committed the government to accepting its findings and implementing its recommendations. In essence, the BICI concluded that security forces had committed torture and other ill-treatment, unlawful killings and that Bahrain’s courts failed to deliver fair trials, and recommended far-reaching legal and institutional reforms to halt and prevent any repetition of such abuses and further investigations to ensure that those responsible for the human rights violations that had occurred were held accountable.

The King’s unconditional acceptance of the BICI findings and his stated commitment to ensure full implementation of the BICI recommendations engendered high hopes but more than three years on, these have all but evaporated and tension within the Kingdom remains critically high. The government has introduced reforms but these have been undermined by its imposition and use of other repressive laws and regulations to imprison peaceful critics, including human rights defenders, and ban peaceful protests in Manama. Meanwhile, compliant courts have sentenced political opposition leaders to lengthy prison terms and continue to jail those who take to the streets to show their defiance on charges of “illegal gathering.”

Bahrain, today, continues to go through a political and human rights crisis. The government proclaims its commitment to real and meaningful reform – indeed, it claims that it has already made improvements that exceed those that the BICI said were urgently needed. In practice, however, serious violations continue to occur and do so on an extensive scale, and the sense of grievance among victims, their families and their community remains acute. To date, Bahrain’s allies - the USA, the UK and other EU states – have generally refrained from publicly criticizing Bahraini human rights violations and have appeared to accept the government’s claimed commitment to reform at face value, perhaps while lending support for institution-building and human rights training. As this report shows, however, such quiet engagement has yet to produce real and sustained improvements in Bahrain and now warrants review. The Bahrain government should be left in no doubt that it cannot continue to count on the support of its allies unless it moves swiftly to institute genuine safeguards for the human rights of all Bahrainis, ensure proper accountability for human rights violationsand comply fully with its obligations under international law and human rights treaties to which it is party.

In order to address the current human rights crisis, the Bahraini authorities must, as a matter of priority, take the following steps:

  • Bring Bahraini laws in line with international law and standards and ensure these are respected and implemented in practice;
  • Release all those detained for lawfully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly;
  • Start a full and comprehensive legal reform of the judiciary to ensure its full impartiality and independence from the executive authorities;
  • Ensure thorough investigations, including where necessary re-opening closed investigations, into all cases of torture or other ill-treatment, death in custody and killings committed by the security forces with a view to delivering truth, justice and adequate reparation to the victims and their relatives;
  • Ensure fair retrials of all those convicted after unfair trials and without the use of “confessions” extracted under torture or other ill-treatment.
The international community, in particular the UK, US and EU governments, must:
  • Raise concerns publicly and in private about human rights abuses in Bahrain with a view to ensure full compliance with Bahrain’s international human rights obligations;
  • Push for a more comprehensive and prompt reform of the justice system in order to ensure accountability.

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