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July 18, 2016

Bahrain Hits Civil Society Leaders with Travel Bans

This blog is cross posted from the Huffington Post

Several leading figures in Bahrain’s civil society who have briefed the State Department on the country’s repression are among those now prevented from leaving the kingdom.

The United States really should react to these reprisals forcefully, publicly and quickly. Around 20 people have been hit with travel bans in recent weeks as Bahrain’s government chokes off voices of peaceful dissent.

Those targeted include Rula Al Saffar, president of Bahrain’s Nursing Society and one of the medics arrested, detained, and tortured in 2011 after treating injured protestors and telling the  media the truth about the regime’s violence. She spent 18 years training and working in the United States and has a PhD from Widener University in Pennsylvania. Although subjected to a sham trial in military court and sentenced to 15 years in jail, she was finally acquitted on appeal in June 2012. 

She tells me she hasn’t been given any explanation for her ban. “I was going to Saudi Arabia last week and was stopped at the border—they told me ‘You are banned from traveling.’ I asked by whom, and they said it was the public prosecutor.”

She has traveled to the United States several times since 2011 to brief members of Congress and administration officials in an effort to free her colleague Dr. Ali Alekri, who is still in jail, and about other concerns of Bahrain’s civil society. The ban appears to be an attempt to stop her from traveling to Geneva and sharing information with an international audience, although she had not been planning to go to Geneva because of work commitments.

Jalila al Salman is vice president of Bahrain’s Teachers’ Association and also a prominent figure in Bahrain’s civil society. She too was detained and tortured in 2011, and the American embassy sent an observer to her trial. She spent several months in prison. Since her release she has also visited Washington, D.C. to brief lawmakers about the attacks on labor and other activists.

“I found out about the travel ban on June 13th,” Jalila told me. “I was traveling to Oslo for a human rights award ceremony and where I had several meetings with labor officials. They stopped me at immigration without giving any reason—they called higher officers and kept me there for about an hour. I asked them to give me any reason for the ban—I said there are no legal charges against me and my work is well known to everyone, but they gave me no answer. Finally they told me to follow up with the general prosecution since it was that office which imposed the ban but they gave me no more information except to say the ban was issued on June 9th.”

Others first learned of their bans—including nurse Ebrahim Demastani who had been in the same trial with Rula Al Saffar in the group of 20 medics in 2011—when they tried to leave Bahrain on June 12 to attend the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Sheikh Maytham Al Salman had his passport withheld and so was unable to travel to take part in a fellowship program due to start this month at Stanford University, awarded in recognition of “the significant contributions that he has made to build more tolerant societies to counter violence and extremism in the Middle East.” 

Mohammed Al Tajer is a veteran human rights lawyer in Bahrain, respected for decades of legal representation of civil society figures. He too was detained and tortured in 2011, and has also visited the United States to brief lawmakers about attacks on civil society in Bahrain. Last year he spoke at an event in Congress with Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), Professor Amy Strobl, and myself about human rights abuses in Bahrain.

He was also stopped last week trying to leave Bahrain for Saudi Arabia. “Normally travel bans should be issued through civil courts,” he told me. “People are supposed to be informed if there is a ban on them and in theory they have a right to two appeals. In practice that’s not happening and there are three or four different authorities issuing bans without justification, including police stations and the National Security Agency. We understand that the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) is the main source of the travel bans, although under Bahraini law these issues are supposed to go through the judiciary, and these bans clearly contravene Article 19 of Bahrain’s constitution.”

Article 19 (b) says, “…nor shall the residence of any person or his liberty to choose his place of residence or his liberty of movement be restricted, except in accordance with the law and under the supervision of the judicial authorities.”

The three civil society leaders say they want the State Department to publicly urge their military allies to drop the travel bans. “The United States should publicly name those of us banned and say we should be free to travel—it’s a basic human right. And why now? How come we were free to travel a month ago but not now?” said Dr. Al Saffar.