10-19-2011By Brian Dooley
Director, Human Rights Defenders Program
Standing up for human rights in Bahrain is difficult and dangerous. Dozens of medics who helped treat injured protesters in Bahrain in February and March and who told international media what was happening are back in court in the coming days. Some have already had unfair trials in the military court and their appeal is set for Sunday, October 23. They were sentenced – 20 of them – to terms of between five and 15 years in prison. The trial of dozens of other medics starts the following day.
Although much of the media attention has been focused on the medics, hundreds of others have been abused in detention and given unfair trials. The Bahraini regime has detained around 1500 people since it cracked down on democracy protests in February, and I have met many people who give credible reports of having been mistreated or tortured in detention.
Not all the human rights violations are committed in courts, police stations or prison cells. Those who join the almost daily demonstrations for democracy continue to be shot at by security forces that target them with tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets and birds shot. Several protesters have been killed in recent weeks.
Others defy the obvious danger and continue to expose the truth about the violent crackdown in Bahrain. Bahrainis who stand up publicly to promote human rights risk harassment and arrest. Human rights defenders remain in constant jeopardy from the Bahraini dictatorship. Despite those threats, they continue to document human rights abuses and work for political freedom. Below are some of their stories:
- Even though Mohammed Al Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights has spent most of this year under the shadow of arrest, he continues to publish details of human rights abuses. He has provided the international media – few of whom are allowed access to the country – with details of court cases and sentences. He has been prominent in fighting for dismissed students to be reinstated and has defied harassment and threats to speak out week after week for many months about the violent government crackdown.
- Abdulla al-Durazi heads the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS). Last September, after the organization published allegations of torture of 23 activists, its board of directors was dissolved due to “irregularities.” This year, after the calls for reform in Bahrain, authorities accused Al-Durazi of taking part in protests and disseminating false information.
Al-Durazi has also paid a price professionally. Until this year, he taught English at the University of Bahrain. This past summer, he told Human Rights First that he and 18 other academics were suspended in April and ultimately dismissed in August. The University ignored all the normal disciplinary procedures as it carried out their dismissal. The school subsequently turned in al-Durazi and his colleagues to the public prosecutor, who then accused them of taking part in peaceful protests. In addition to al-Durazi and his colleagues, the university has dismissed hundreds of students in recent months. Across the country, an estimated 2,700 people have been dismissed or suspended from their jobs during the crackdown.
- Local journalists at Al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, have also been targeted. A founder of the newspaper, businessman Kareem Fakhrawi, is one of four people who have died in custody. His stepdaughter, Fatima, told Human Rights First that he was arrested on April 3. Ten days later, Fatima was called to the Salmaniya Hospital, where she was met by a policewoman and six men wearing masks. She was told that her father was dead in the hospital morgue. They said he was sick when he was detained and had died of kidney failure. His family denies that he was ill when he went to the police station on April 3.
Fakhrawi’s stepdaughter also says that when his body was returned to the family they were warned not to take pictures of it. Despite that threat, dozens of pictures were taken and appeared on the internet. His body shows cuts and severe bruises on his arms and legs. His death certificate says he died at 1 p.m. on April 11 from kidney failure arising from heart problems, a claim strongly denied by his family.
Mansoor Al-Jamri, the Al-Wasat’s editor, as well as managing editor Walid Nouihid and local news editor Aqil Mirza, have been prosecuted on charges of disseminating false information and undermining the country’s image. All three were forced to resign in April when the newspaper was temporarily banned.
Al-Jamri, a respected journalist in the region and beyond, has been awarded an International Press Freedom Award this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists. He admits that several news articles that appeared in the paper contained false information, but he notes that all of this information was thought to be credible and was sent from the same IP address. Al-Jamri suspects that the newspaper was set up, especially as it has been target of a major smear campaign in the government media in recent months.
Al-Jamri told me, “We presented our case to the court and provided all the information that showed how Al Wasat was targeted and how it was set up during the critical period which Bahrain underwent after the declaration of National Safety Law (martial law) on 15 March 2011. It was on 15 March 2011 that the Al Wasat printing press was attacked and damaged, and the staff of Al Wasat had to stay at home and work outside their offices. At this time, some pieces of news were planted in the newspaper system and got published as part of a set up. … The government forced me out of my position on 3 April 2011 but the majority of the investors voted to reinstate me on 4 August 2011.”
- International journalists have also been attacked for their coverage of the crackdown. Mazen Mahdi, a photojournalist with the German press agency DPA, and Nazeeha Saeed, a reporter for France24 and Radio Monte Carlo, both said they were blindfolded, handcuffed and beaten.
- There have also been attempts to slander other Human Rights defenders, including Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), and Maryam Al Khawaja, Head of the Office of Foreign Relations at the BCHR. An anonymous defamatory campaign against Rajab and Al Khawaja surfaced in early May 2011. It was promoted by the Bahraini authorities. A print document called “Crimes never reported by Nabeel Rajab & blessed by AMNESTY Int.,” authored by an anonymous source, accuses the two of 27 crimes and grave violations. The alleged offenses include forced disappearance, torture, and murder against civilians and members of the Bahraini security forces. Rajab has also been arrested, physically assaulted, and had his house attacked. Later this year, he is to receive the prestigious Ion Ratiu Democracy Award for 2011 from the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
- Other Human Rights Defenders face harassment when trying to leave or enter the country, and some are prevented from traveling altogether. Yousef Al Mahafdha, a member of the Board of Directors of BCHR, says he has been repeatedly subjected to harassment in an attempt to impede his travels when leaving and returning to Bahrain through Bahrain International Airport.
Many Bahrainis – celebrated and unknown – face constant harassment from the government. They assume their phones are tapped and their emails read by security force agents. They endure abuse and work despite the threats. They continue to show enormous courage in calling for democracy and human rights, in asserting their freedoms of expression and association, and in doing many of the things people in the United States take for granted.