Playing cat and mouse with Bahrain’s political prisoners

By BahrainFeb14Bilad |Demotix

There are no prisoners of conscience in Bahrain — at least that’s what the government would like you to think.

A year ago today, eight opposition activists were given life sentences for their involvement in the country’s anti-government uprising. When NGOs and foreign governments call for the release of political prisoners, particularly those jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, the regime responds with “We have!”. The dictatorship continues to falsely claims that these individuals have been jailed for criminal or violent offences rather than acknowledging the truth, they are there for voicing their desire for change.

When voices from the international community call for all prisoners of conscience or all those charged solely for the expression of their views to be freed, it makes little dent in Bahrain’s obduracy.

Take the well-known case of the Bahraini medics. For merely doing their jobs, they were arrested, detained, tortured into making false confessions, subjected to an unfair trial in a military court and sentenced to long prison terms. But because that is not what it said on their charge sheet — which included allegations such as smuggling weapons and occupying the main hospital — the Bahraini government refused to admit that they were convicted for expressing their opinions.

Last week nine of the 20 were declared innocent on appeal, leading to awkward questions about why nine leading medical professionals with impressive careers and reputations would all have confessed to crimes they did not commit.

While various detainees are considered to be “prisoners of conscience” by the international community, the Bahraini government continues to insist on painting them as “traitors” and “terrorists”. Mahdi Abu Deeb, for instance, leader of the Bahrain Teachers Union, called for a strike during the start of the country’s uprising last year to call for reform in Bahrain’s education system, and to protest the brutal crackdown against demonstrators gathered at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout. For this, he was then handed a 10-year sentence for “halting the education process”, “inciting hatred of the political regime”, and “attempting to overthrow the regime by force”.

Similarly, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is one of the most famous human rights defenders in the region, and now the world. The founder of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), who peacefully called for change at Pearl Roundabout last year, has been branded a “terrorist” or “traitor” by state-owned media, much like other detainees. Alkhawaja was convicted of violent crimes — after documented torture and an unfair military trial — but the Bahraini government still refuses to class him as a political prisoner.

During the Universal Periodic Review process in Geneva last month, Bahraini Human Rights Minister Salah Bin Ali Mohamed Abdulrahman told the Human Rights Council that his country held no prisoners on political charges. “Any such charges have been withdrawn. The only [remaining] cases are criminal cases,” he said.

Instead of this ping-pong conversation between the regime and human rights organisations of “release prisoners of conscience” — “oh we already have”, it might be better to focus attention on the unfair military trials of last year, where 502 people were convicted of a variety of offences, both peaceful and violent. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for these convictions to be overturned. Last December she called on the Bahraini regime to “urgently take confidence-building measures including unconditionally releasing those who were convicted in military tribunals or are still awaiting trial for merely exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

This would mean the immediate release and dropping of charges against Abdulhadi Alkhawja and other prominent dissidents including Mahdi Abu Deeb and his deputy Jalila al Salman, and hundreds of others prosecuted in politically-motivated trials but officially convicted of criminal or violent offences. If the regime has real evidence that any of these people have commited violent crimes then it should retry them in a new, fair process.

Of course, this would not solve the problem of those who are being harassed through the civilian courts. Other prominent human rights defenders Zainab Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab, president of the BCHR, have been regularly detained over the last few months because of their success in drawing attention to the regime’s abuses. Rajab is currently being targeted for expressing his views on Twitter, where he has over 150,000 followers, and will be detained at least until 27 June. A new crackdown on those using social media is expected as Bahraini officials warn those promoting “sedition” on social networks.

The Bahraini regime should be denied the wriggle room of insisting it has released all prisoners of conscience when many of them were convicted on trumped-up charges of violence. Demanding the release of all those convicted by the kangaroo military court (on any charge) would be a start.

Brian Dooley is Director of the Human Rights Defenders programme at Human Rights First. He tweets at @dooley_dooley

Why is Bahrain keeping out the international community?

This week the departure lounge at Bahrain’s airport seems to be full of people who were turned back at the passport desk without being allowed into the country.  The authorities are incredibly sensitive about who’s going to see what and report what during the days around the 14 February anniversary of last year’s mass protests.

Bob Naiman, an American who was refused entry a couple of days ago, said that groups of British and Spanish business people were among the human rights observers and journalists being shut out.  I didn’t get that far myself this time. I’d planned to go to Bahrain at the end of January, but a week before I was going to leave I received the dreaded letter telling me not to bother, that I should wait until March before I tried to get into Bahrain, when a committee set up to implement reforms would have done its work.

The week before Rick Sollom from Physicians for Human Rights was turned away when he landed in Bahrain. Authorities told him that “all government officials are under tremendous work pressure” and that he should come back after the end of February when a trip would be “more beneficial.” Then last week some journalists were allowed visas to enter and others weren’t, notably Nick Kristof of the New York Times, whose brilliant coverage of Bahrain has made him persona non grata with the regime.

These are stiff reminders that the Bahraini government should be judged on its actions, not its words.  Denying (rather, “delaying”) access to human rights organisations is a hallmark of repressive regimes. Bahrain already ticked many of those boxes in 2011. Mass arrests? Check. Torture? Check? Deaths in custody? Check. Shootings of civilians? Unfair trials? Attacks on places of worship? Targeting of peaceful dissidents? Check, check, check, check.

Of course Bahrainis are more than capable of reporting what happens and distributing it everywhere, which makes the attempts to restrict access all the more farcical. Bahraini activists and journalists are among the most tech-savvy in the world, and events are being relayed at the speed of Twitter both day and night.  So why Bahrain thinks it’s a good PR move to keep prominent international human rights organisations and journalists out is anyone’s guess.  No-one really benefits from this — we don’t get in, and the Bahraini government looks bad. The only winner is the coffee shop in the departure lounge.

Brian Dooley is the director of the Human Rights Defenders programme at Human Rights First. He tweets at @dooley_dooley

Bahrain needs fewer words and more action from the government

Attempts to circumvent a protest ban in Bahrain’s capital were put to an end with rubber bullets and tear gas yesterday, according to opposition group Al-Wefaq. Small groups of protesters on their way to Ras Rumman, the diplomatic quarter were dispersed by security forces. Protesters were quick to circulate pictures and videos online of what seems to be the standard recipe for a protest in Bahrain: peaceful demonstrators, tear gas and rubber bullets. Authorities banned the protest, under the pretence of “security.”

On Sunday, King Hamad renewed his overtures for “progress and reform”— announcing plans for constitutional reform through the expansion of parliamentary power and limiting the executive branch. Promises for constitutional reform have been met with cynicism and criticism from opposition members, as reports of violence against protesters have continued after the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. Members of Al-Wefaq claimed that such changes were merely “cosmetic.”

In true bureaucratic fashion, the government also announced on Tuesday that preparations are now being made to implement the “national reconciliation programme” based on the findings of the committee on the findings of the committee appointed by the King to investigate the crackdown on protesters in February and March of last year. No word yet on whether or not officials plan to create a further committee to investigate the preparations for implementing the report.

Despite talk of reconciliation and moving forward, reports of a conflicted reality continue. The Ministry of Interior claimed that they found the dead body of Yousif Ahmed Muwali on 13 January, after he had been missing for five days. Officials declared that drowning was the cause of death, but family members of Muwali claim that he was tortured and imprisoned based on marks on his corpse. They have yet to see his autopsy. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was severely beaten by security forces at a 6 January protest. Members of the international community called for an investigation of the incident, and despite eyewitness reports, Bahraini officials denied beating Rajab, insisting that they actually helped the injured activist to an ambulance. Rajab, internationally renowned for speaking out against human rights violations in Bahrain, has experienced torture in the past.

Bahrain’s current climate is not promising — with reports of regular beatings and detention of peaceful demonstrators, tear gas, and intimidation of human rights defenders, which does not seem to stray far from the systematic torture and violations documented in the BICI report.

The civil unrest will not keep Bahrain from hosting a three-day International Air Show this week. The show is expected to garner 50,000 attendants from across the globe. While corporate jet setters are allowed into Bahrain, members of the human rights community are kept out of the country. Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders Programme for Human Rights First, was refused permission to enter Bahrain, and told that such visits should be delayed until March, once the work of the implementation committee would have been completed. Rick Sollom from Physicians for Human Rights was also denied entry, on the account of government officials being under “tremendous work pressure.” While Index was in Bahrain on an international mission with 5 other rights groups in November, government officials reassured us that they were interested in welcoming rights organisations, as long as they followed the procedure for entry, as a part of their commitment to transparency and creating dialogue with the international community. It is disappointing to see that a commitment emphasised in the time around the release of the BICI, in actuality, was an empty promise.