5-31-2012By Brian Dooley
Human Rights Defenders
It’s been more than six months since the Bahraini government received the report it had commissioned on the crisis of early 2011. The government promised to implement the reforms recommended by the report’s authors—a panel of international human rights experts—and to respect human rights.
There are vastly different accounts (or “narratives,” as the latest jargon has it) of what’s happening now. Human rights activists in Bahrain say that reform is superficial; the police continue to use excessive force against civilians, including astonishing amounts of tear gas, and people continue to be prosecuted in politically motivated trials. The government says it is reforming, but that the process takes time. It points to some protestors who are using violence against the police as justification for police actions.
One good way to assess how a country is doing on human rights is to look at how it treats its leading human right activists—if and how it protects them, defends their rights to free speech and association, and recognizes them as important figures in civil society.
In Bahrain the record is clear. Prominent activists remain jailed, judicially harassed and threatened. Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (the most prominent, though officially banned, human rights organization in Bahrain), is an internationally renowned activist. He has been in jail since April 2011 on politically motivated charges. He was tortured and convicted with 20 other leading dissidents in an unfair military trial and was given a life sentence. Last week he ended his hunger strike after 110 days but remains in detention while his “appeal” continues.
Nabeel Rajab, current President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was released from jail earlier this week after being arrested in early May for criticizing the government. He is due back in court June 24, as is Zainab Al Khawja, another leading activist also being prosecuted for peacefully protesting and criticizing the government. She was also released last weekend after several weeks in jail.
The following day Mahdi Abu Deeb and Jalila Al Salman will also be in court. Leaders of the Bahrain Teachers Association, they too were arrested, tortured and convicted after an unfair trial in a military court. Al Salman was sentenced to three years and Abu Deeb to ten. She is out of custody while the “appeal” proceeds; he remains in jail.
Last week Bahrain was among the countries assessed by the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). What normally happens is that the government under review presents its take on human rights in its country, and representatives of civil society from that country organize side events to give a more critical account.
Except last week threats started to appear in the Bahraini media, including on Twitter, against Jalila and others who had criticized the Bahraini dictatorship. In fact, when she saw the threats, the President of the Human Rights Council, Laura Dupuy Lasserre, commendably drew public attention to them and expressed her concern that there would be repercussions for the activists on their return home.
“… I wish to remind you that we are all duty bound to ensure that nobody is persecuted on his return to his country for having participated in meetings of the human rights council or other bodies,” she told the Bahrain government.
Lasserre’s intervention hit a nerve in Bahrain. Anwar Abdulrahman, editor in chief of the Gulf Daily News, part of the pro-government media, hit back with an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on May 29. He claimed with some degree of surrealism that in Bahrain “freedom of speech, participation in rallies, television and radio interviews by those calling themselves NGOs or opposition is so taken for granted here as to be almost out of control, even by European standards.” More ominously, he suggested that “many terrorist organizations today operate under the guise of human rights organizations…”
The harassment of prominent activists continues. Yousif Almuhafda of the BCHR was named and his photo featured in Bahrain’s media last week, often a precursor to arrest. “They put my picture in newspapers and said I told lies to the media,” he told Human Rights First.
Then on May 31 the Gulf Daly News ran a letter to the editor describing some of the activists in Geneva as “the disloyal bunch.” It named “Abudulnabi Al Ekri, Essa Al Ghayib, the infamous Mariam Al Khawajah, Dr. Nada Dhaif, writer Lamees Dhaif and Hadi Al Mousawi,”saying that “the bunch’s, in particular Mr. Al Ekri’s, mission to humiliate us [Bahrain]by further tarnishing Bahrain’s reputation.”
Persecuting human rights activists is a hallmark of repressive regimes, and as long as Bahrain refuses to free those in jail, drop charges against those it is still prosecuting and allow all activists to promote human rights without fear, it can’t be seen as serious about reform.