The situation for human rights defenders in Bahrain is extremely difficult and dangerous. The atmosphere in Bahrain is one of a tense standoff between the government and its critics. While the government appears to have quelled large-scale protests, security forces continue to make arrests and intimidate. The government has begun show trials where death sentences have been passed.
Bahraini authorities have detained, tortured, and threatened human rights defenders. Human rights defenders have been beaten up, their homes attacked, and some are banned from leaving the country. It is commonly believed that their phones are tapped.
“Civil society is in paralysis,” said one. Relatively few human rights defenders remain at liberty to continue their work, but some show remarkable courage in the face of constant intimidation and harassment.
“The time of most risk is between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.,” said Mohammed Al Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. “That’s when the security forces usually come and arrest people in their homes. After 4 a.m. we can sleep normally because we think they won’t come that night.” While some human rights defenders were unconcerned about being seen talking to Human Rights First, others were extremely nervous, making elaborate arrangements to meet in obscure places, or insisting that we remove the batteries from our mobile phones to prevent conversations being recorded remotely. Victims of human rights violations took serious risks to tell us what had happened to them.
The U.S. embassy website in Bahrain features the introduction to the 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices published by the U.S. State Department on April 8, 2011. It notes that “In places like Tunisia and Egypt, we are witnessing popular demands for meaningful political participation, fundamental freedoms, and greater economic opportunity,” and recognizes that citizens in the Middle East “seek to build sustainable democracies in their countries with governments that respect the universal human rights of their own people. If they succeed, the Middle East region, and with it the whole world, will be improved.” The report also acknowledges the role played by human rights activists willing to face great personal risk. Secretary Clinton highlighted the importance of these organizations in a speech she gave in July 2010 in Krakow, Poland, to the Community of Democracies. As she said, “Societies move forward when the citizens that make up these groups are empowered to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good.”
Without mentioning Bahrain in this context, the report makes a more general point. “In closed societies, where repressive governments seek to control and stifle the debate on sensitive political and social issues, governments view these independent local citizens’ organizations as a threat rather than a resource, and democracy and human rights defenders are singled out for particularly harsh treatment.”
But in Bahrain, human rights defenders told Human Rights First that they felt unsupported by the United States in their human rights work. Several human rights defenders voiced disappointment that the U.S. embassy and other embassies had appeared to become detached from them since the February protests began, and were not engaging with them as often as before. Some said the U.S. embassy should call the families of prisoners detained for peaceful activities to show their support, and embassy representatives should ask the Bahraini authorities to attend the military trials as observers. They also suggested that the United States speak out against the unfair trials and the death sentences, though one conceded it was difficult for the United States to do that “when it still has the death penalty itself.”
A common complaint from human rights defenders was that the United States was not as forceful or clear in its statements about human rights violations in Bahrain as it had been on other countries in the Middle East, that there was a “double standard” on Bahrain, where criticism of the Bahraini government had been relatively muted, too vague, and unspecific. Several noted that while the United States had shown vigorous support for a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to discuss human rights violations in Syria, it had not shown similar enthusiasm for a special session on Bahrain.
They also noted that tear gas canisters and rubber bullets used by the Bahraini authorities against civilians were supplied to the Bahraini security forces by the United States.