Bahrain Update: Protests Continue, UN Team Finds Ongoing Rights Violations, Prominent Activist Beaten
Last Friday, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was hospitalized after being beaten by security forces in the capital city of Manama following a large demonstration. [BCHR; Washington Post] Mr. Rajab believed the security forces to be nationals of Bahrain and of other Middle Eastern and South Asian nations. [For more on the role of foreign troops in the Bahraini crackdown, see this Al Jazeera feature.] Mr. Rajab has been released from the hospital and has met with officials from the United States Embassy in Bahrain, leading to a U.S. State Department statement expressing deep concern regarding the incident and urging Bahraini officials to undertake an investigation. [Al Jazeera] This attack on Bahrain’s best known human rights advocate has again brought attention to the ongoing struggle between political and civil society groups – many representing the majority Shia population – which initiated calls for greater equality, rights and democracy and the country’s monarchy.
Last September, Mr. Rajab sat down with IJRC to discuss the challenges facing the human rights movement in Bahrain and the previous attacks against him, his home, and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Since protests began in February, 2011, at least 40 people have been killed in clashes with security forces due to use of excessive force or as a result of torture in detention. [Washington Post] Additionally, many employees and students have been ousted from their institutions for participating in protests, and the government has attempted to suppress dissent by charging protesters in military tribunals, harassing and attacking journalists, attacking and prosecuting medical personnel who treated protesters, and criticizing opposition and minority group members through the official media. [OHCHR; RSF; PHR]
Such allegations of human rights violations led to the formation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, headed by prominent international jurist M. Cherif Bassiouni. The BICI was established as an independent body in June 2011, through discussions that involved the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Royal Order establishing the body grants it investigatory powers, as well as the authority to adopt protective measures for witnesses and to make recommendations to the government. [BICI] In November, 2011, the Commission released its report, documenting and analyzing human rights violations committed since February and making recommendations for accountability and reform. [Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry]
The Commission’s investigations found that security forces engaged in arbitrary (warantless) arrests, unnecessary and excessive force “that sought to terrorise individuals, and to cause unnecessary damage to property”, torture and other abuse in violation of the Convention Against Torture and domestic law, and nearly 3,000 arrests mostly involving charges related to freedom of opinion and expression protected by the national constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [Speech of M. Cherif Bassiouni, November 23, 2011] In addition, the Commission documented many instances of violations of due process in proceedings in the National Safety Courts and in the extended preventive detention of protesters, systematic home raids, destruction of many places of worship, the firing of more than 2,000 public employees and 2,400 private sector employees for participating in protests, and the expulsion of many students.
The report called for the establishment of a committee to implement BICI’s recommendations, which included: creating an accountability mechanisms to sanction or prosecute State agents responsible for violations, training security forces and judiciary, reforming the National Security Agency, requiring the Attorney General to investigate claims of torture and inhuman treatment, reviewing convictions by the National Security Courts where due process guarantees were not respected, investigating all deaths at the hands of security forces, and annulling convictions related to exercise of freedom of expression.
Following the BICI report’s release, Bahrain’s King Hamad and other government officials vowed to pursue reforms and made changes in its prosecution of protesters, including transferring some cases from military to civilian tribunals and allowing appeal of military tribunal verdicts. [Al Jazeera; Telegraph] However, the report has been criticized as being too vague with regard to the identify of the individuals and agencies responsible for violations to require real accountability, and the government has been accused of delaying reform and of taking measures that are unlikely, or not intended, to improve the situation. [Guardian] Most recently, the government has charged five police officers for torture of a detainee who died in custody, and promised to establish a judicial panel to review some military court convictions. [Al Jazeera]
Allegations of rights abuses continue and protesters have continued to take to the streets to demand reform. [Al Jazeera] The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated last month that the criminal investigations initiated at that point had not lessened the impunity enjoyed by security forces for excessive use of force, torture, and deaths in custody. [UN] In December, a United Nations delegation visited the country to meet government representatives, opposition members, and detained protesters. [UN] In the past month, Human Rights Watch has criticized various official actions, including interference with the Bahraini Lawyers’ Society, a civil society organization; failure to immediately release hundreds of jailed protesters and investigate high-level officials [HRW]. Today, Richard Sollom, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights, was denied entry to the country to observe the ongoing proceedings against Bahraini doctors and nurses who treated protesters. [Washington Post] (See the Bahraini government’s response here).
Al Jazeera has attempted to draw increased attention to the struggle for rights in the island nation, through Shouting in the Dark, a documentary produced last year.
Human rights groups have also urged Formula One racing teams to boycott the Bahrain Grand Prix to be held in the country in April. [Guardian]