By Annisa Essack
Today is the second day of the “Peace to Prosperity” Workshop in Manama, organised by the Trump administration as part of the Middle East peace plan.
In a bitter twist of irony, Bahrain has regularly stamped out dissent with arbitrary detention, censorship, and torture has been selected to host a workshop on peace to prosperity. Foreign and independent journalists are rarely allowed access to Bahrain and international rights groups are routinely denied access. Most international wire services, when covering Bahrain, do so from outside the country. In fact, the United Nations has not received a response to requests to visit and the special rapporteur on torture that had been accepted for 2013 was postponed indefinitely.
That said, we need to question the Bahrain government on the issues which it has deftly swept under the carpet and kept hidden from the world. Scores of prominent human rights defenders, journalists and opposition leaders have been arrested and harassed, often on dubious national security grounds and mostly for acts of peaceful protests.
Head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, has been imprisoned and serving a five-year sentence arising from his tweets alleging torture in the Jaw prison and criticising the Saudi and UAE-led military campaign in Yemen. Rajab was charged with disseminating false news and insulting a foreign country. Rajab appears at times to have been subjected to treatment that may amount to arbitrary punishment, and his family has reported that his health has deteriorated in detention.
Another peaceful dissident, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is serving a life sentence for his role in organising peaceful protests calling for political reform during the 2011 Arab Spring. In June 2011 he was convicted by a military tribunal on charges of financing and participating in terrorism to overthrow the government, as well as spying for a foreign country. During his detention, al-Khawaja was tortured, spent two months in solitary confinement, and was denied access to lawyers.
Najah Yusuf, an activist and blogger, in April 2017, was arrested by the authorities after she released a series of posts critical of the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix. In a written statement, Yusuf said that the National Security Agency interrogated her, subjecting her to physical abuse, sexual assault, and psychological torture. She said they forced her to sign a prepared confession. In June 2018, she was sentenced to three years in prison for her social media activity.
Widespread torture has been documented by Human Rights Watch in Bahrain’s detention facilities, especially during interrogations but the judiciary has repeatedly failed to hold people responsible accountable. The few prosecutions have almost exclusively involved low-ranking officers and have resulted, without exception, in acquittals or disproportionately light sentences.
Independent media is banned from operating in the country, all opposition groups have been dissolved and a crackdown on critical discourse, as well. In March 2018, authorities said they were tracking social media accounts that “departed from national norms, customs and traditions.” On May 30, 2019, the Bahraini Interior Ministry declared that it will prosecute people who follow “inciting accounts” or share their posts on Twitter. Twitter agreed with activists that such statements “post a significant risk to free expression and journalism.”
Citizens have been stripped of their citizenship for alleged terrorism offences. In 2012, more than 900 people were stripped of their citizenship and their often mass trials, have been marred by allegations of due process violations. Most of these people were left stateless. In April 2019, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa reinstated the citizenship of 551 people whose citizenship was stripped through a court order. It is not clear on the criteria used to decide the reinstatement of the people’s citizenship. However, more than 400 people remain stateless.
Bahrain has restored the death penalty after it ended a de facto seven-year moratorium in January 2017, when it executed three Shia men for a bomb attack that resulted in the deaths of three police officers amid allegations that they had been tortured into confessing. Again, on May 6, 2019, the Bahrain Court of Cassation upheld the death sentence for two men convicted of terror offences in a mass trial on January 31, 2018, that was marred by allegations of torture and due process violations.
As of June 2019, 10 people were on death row who have exhausted all legal remedies.
Bahrain has not joined the many countries already committed to the United Nations General Assembly’s December 18, 2007 resolution calling for a moratorium on executions – a move by UN member countries toward abolishing the death penalty.