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Human Rights Defenders Continuously Targeted by Bahraini Authorities, Despite Nonviolent Work

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On the occasion of the International Day of Non-Violence, on 2 October 2016, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) expresses grave concern for the continued targeting of human rights defenders and civil society activists by the Bahraini authorities. Fighting violence should start by embracing peaceful and nonviolent advocates, however, Bahrain has gone in the opposite direction by targeting human rights defenders with  imprisonment, exile and travel bans.

By relying on travel bans, citizenship revocations, arbitrary arrests, torture, show trials, forced confessions and an extensive surveillance apparatus, the government of Bahrain uses a mixed approach of structural and direct violence to curb dissent, and has thereby established systematic and institutionalized obstacles for political activists and human rights defenders, which not only limit them in their work, but also put them in extreme danger while following their advocacy work or peaceful protest.

In connection with the 33rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), several human rights defenders and delegates from across Bahraini civil society have been subjected to travel bans, rendering them unable to attend the UNHRC in Geneva. The systematic targeting of human rights defenders participating in the UNHRC has thereby emphasized the deliberate interference of the Bahraini authorities to curtail the work of human rights defenders. Additionally, it illustrates how human rights defenders in Bahrain are being deprived of - among other rights - their right to freedom of movement.

BCHR’s President Nabeel Rajabhas been subject to punishment in violation of his rights to freedom of expression and movement. In addition to a travel ban, he has been kept in detention since 13 June for being “offensive to the government” via the social media platform Twitter. His trial has been postponed three times by the High Criminal Court in Bahrain and is now scheduled for 6 October 2016. This violates article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which clearly states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression”.

Other activists and rights defenders have been subject to heavy reprisals, such as exile and torture. Zainab Al-Khawaja has been imprisoned eleven times since the pro-democracy protests in 2011. The jail sentences contravened her right to freedom of expression and assembly. In June 2016, she was faced with an ultimatum of an indefinite prison sentence or exile. Since then she has been exiled in Denmark, as a punishment for expressing herself freely in Bahrain. Similarly, her sister Maryam Al-Khawaja, Co-Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), was forced into exile after being sentenced to one year for allegedly assaulting airport security officers. Their father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, former President and founding member of BCHR, is serving a life sentence and was subjected to torture and an unfair trial for his leading role in the 2011 pro-democracy movement.

In addition, BCHR has documented reports of several cases of torture at the infamous Jau prison. According to an inmate, human rights defender Naji Fateel, who is serving a 15-year prison term, was treated “like an animal.” Also, blogger and academic Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace was subjected to torture, ill-treatment and solitary confinement in Jau prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his peaceful protest during the 2011 popular movement. These severe cases of reprisals conflict with the Bahraini constitution and with the ICCPR.

Various other activists have been punished with imprisonment, citizenship revocation, ill-treatment, and enforced exile in order to silence them. Hussain Jawad, chairman of the European Bahraini Organization for Human Rights, who was sentenced to two years in prison and subjected to ill-treatment, was eventually forced into exile. Sayed Alwadei, Advocacy Officer of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, was subject to verbal abuse, ill-treatment by the police, deprived of his citizenship and is now exiled to the United Kingdom. BCHR’s Vice-President Said Yousef Al-Muhafdha, has been a target of arbitrary arrests before he was forced into exile in Germany. Scholar and Bahrain Interfaith leader Sheikh Maytham Al-Salman was banned from travelling, arrested and charged over “illegal gatherings” for his participation in the Duraz sit-in in June 2016.

A frequently-used tool by the Bahraini authorities to interfere with the work of human rights defenders and activists is the imposition of travel bans, thus confining them in their own country in an attempt to prevent them from international advocacy work. Among the most recent victims of travel bans are BCHR’s Head of International RelationsNedal Al-Salman, teacher and unionistJalila Al-Salman, activistEbtisam Al-Saegh, and women's rights defenderGhada Jamsheer, who has also been repeatedly arrested and detained for her activism. Other BCHR members who fell victim to travel bans this year were Enas Oun and Hussain Radhi. Thus, all Bahrain-based BCHR members were prevented from travelling to Geneva to take part in the UNHRC session.

Travel bans on human rights defenders are considered a direct violation of freedom of movement, according to Article 12(1) of the ICCPR. As Bahrain is a signatory hereof, the government is violating the Covenant and depriving its citizens of their right to free movement and travel. This is however not the only article of the ICCPR which has been repeatedly violated by the Bahraini authorities. More specifically, freedom of expression, manifested in Article 19 of the ICCPR, has become extremely constrained by the authorities.

In light of the interference and punishment of human rights defenders, BCHR calls upon the Bahraini government to:

  • end interference with the work of human rights defenders;
  • ensure accountability for those who violate human rights in Bahrain;
  • guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of speech in Bahrain; and
  • end the criminal cases against human rights defenders which aim to punish their work
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