“My main objective is to tell about the truth and whatever is going on on the ground,” said Ebtisam Al-Saegh, a Bahraini human rights activist, through Jawad Fairooz, a former Bahraini MP and the executive director of the organization SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, who served as her translator. “This objective is what made me targeted.”
Al-Saegh’s story unfolds like a cautionary tale. A networking officer for SALAM and a member of the Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, Al Saegh first came under suspicion in November 2016, for a series of posts she made on Twitter. This was nothing out of the ordinary: Al Saegh said she could “give many examples of activists who use Twitter to express their views and opinions and have been targeted, some of them have been sentenced 1-3 years.” She was questioned by Bahrain’s Public Prosecution Office, accused of inciting hatred against the Bahraini regime and threatening public safety and security. She was questioned again before leaving the country in January 2017, and detained for seven hours at an airport in March 2017.
In May 2017, Al-Saegh was detained by Bahrain’s National Security Agency. While being interrogated, Al-Saegh was beaten, sexually assaulted, and physically and psychologically tortured. She bravely described humiliating and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Bahraini police, who even prevented her husband from bringing her personal clothing and food at night during the fast month of Ramadan, during which she was detained.
In July 2017, Al-Saegh’s family home was ransacked and she was detained yet again. Without a warrant, police confiscated every mobile phone in her home and took valuable items like cash and personal jewelry. She was again interrogated, tortured and sexualy assaulted. She recalls her abusers telling her, “We have enough reasons to keep you under custody, and you will be sentenced with between 10 to 15 years, and no one will defend you. No human rights groups, even the human rights council cannot defend you or you will never be released and there will never be any mercy for you.”
She was brought to Isa Town Women’s Prison, where fellow inmates reported that she looked visibly injured. For two months, she recalls being placed in solitary confinement and forbidden from interacting with fellow inmates. After a month-long hunger strike, she was finally permitted to interact with other inmates — at first, only non-Bahrainis, but she was eventually fully reintegrated into the prison.
She was also allowed to see her family, and document some of the conditions of her imprisonment. She remembers that as a result of horrifying treatment at the hands of the Bahraini authorities, her son had developed psychological problems. She was released pending trial for terrorism-related offenses. She was imprisoned for a total of four months, and suspects that media coverage and advocacy by international human rights organizations sped up her release, which was far sooner than the release of many of her friends and colleagues who remain incarcerated for similar reasons. Upon her release, she attempted to reclaim the property that had been stolen by Bahraini authorities. The authorities denied ever taking certain valuables, including jewelry, but forced her to sign a form declaring that all confiscated property had been returned.
“The detained and interrogated me so many times, and the accusation they’ve given is that I am fabricating stories or that I am threatening the civil peace within society,” Al Saegh said. “My crime was that I wanted to implement the mechanism of international human rights… and the principles of human rights within society.”
Bahrain was once the gold standard for media freedom among Gulf countries, permitting a relatively free press and government criticism from independent media. Yet following Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011, King Haman bin Isa Al Khalifa began cracking down on dissidents, specifically targeting those who spoke out against Islam or the current regime. The conditions for media freedom worsened in July 2016 when, according to Freedom House, “[Bahrain’s] information minister issued new regulations requiring newspapers to obtain annual, renewable licenses to publish online. It also prohibited live streaming video, as well as video clips longer than 120 seconds in length.”
Ever since a series of protests for Shi’a Muslim equality in 2007 became violent — Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni though the country’s religious majority is Shi’a — police violence, poor prison conditions and the torture of detainees have escalated. A report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in 2011 recorded several individuals killed under torture after abuse during detention. According to Al-Saegh, “The king issued a royal decree sentencing any activist that is retweeting or trying to follow any of the bloggers or Twitter activists who are writing anything against the policy of the government. The punishment for such actions can be up to five years.”
Al-Saegh’s experience is devastatingly common. Fairooz also mentioned torture and sexual abuse during his own imprisonment, and both he and Al-Saegh mentioned the case of Nabeel Rajab, another prominent Bahraini human rights activist who was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2018.
Even speaking out about experiences being tortured by Bahraini authorities can make activists like Al-Saegh and Fairooz vulnerable to more abuse. “Part of the reason for recording this story… is to encourage the rest to talk about it,” said Fairooz. “We want the act to be shameful not for the victims, but to be shameful for the torturers. By bringing up these stories, we encourage the victims to be healed.”
Al-Saegh believes that speaking out is worth the risk of losing even more than she already has. “I don’t think about any material things that have been taken away from me, no jewelry, no other items,” she said. “I think about justice and justice for the rest of the victims. Without that, I will not be ready to compromise at all.” [/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1562944045425-143d4185-08a4-1″ taxonomies=”716″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
As the 32nd Session of United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) opened in Geneva on 13 June, Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s most high profile human rights defender, was arrested after dozens of police officers raided his home at around 5am and confiscated his electronic devices. The day before, Bahraini human rights defenders and victims of violations were prevented from flying to Geneva.
Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Founding Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Deputy Secretary General of FIDH, was reportedly arrested under order from the Ministry of Interior’s Cybercrimes Unit. Bahraini officials had imposed a travel ban on Rajab a year ago, and since April 2015 have maintained charges against him for crimes related to freedom of expression online. Despite the submission of several appeals against the ban, authorities remained unresponsive. On 14 June 2016, Rajab was transferred to the public prosecution; and new charges were brought against him of allegedly “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state.” The public prosecution remanded him to seven days in detention pending investigation.
In a new and concerning escalation of its crackdown against civil society, Bahraini authorities have also banned human rights defenders from leaving the country. The bans were imposed as the activists were attempting to travel from the Bahrain International Airport to Geneva to participate in the 32nd Session of UNHRC. The undersigned organisations are seriously alarmed by Bahrain’s restrictions civil society especially the restrictions preventing them from engaging with the UN.
On 12 June 2016, the Nationality, Passport, and Residence Department officials at Bahrain International Airport prevented at least six individuals from boarding their planes to Geneva. Bahraini authorities imposed a travel ban on Hussain Radhi of BCHR, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, Ebrahim Al-Demistani, someone who does not wish to be named, and the parents of Ali Mushaima, a victim ofextrajudicial killing in 2011. The father of another victim of extrajudicial killing, Sayed Hashim, was stopped at King Fahd Causeway and told of the ban.
On 12 June, the authorities at the airport held the passports of Radhi and Al-Saegh for 45 minutes before informing them they were banned from traveling. They were referred to the Ministry of the Interior’s Nationality, Passport, and Residence Department to inquire about the reason for the ban. However, after inquiring at the Department, they were told that there are no travel bans imposed on them. Radhi and Al-Saegh then tried to travel through King Fahd Causeway but were again stopped for up to an hour and told that they cannot travel because of the travel ban.
Al-Demistani was also told that a travel ban – of which he had no prior knowledge – was imposed on him. An official at the Nationality, Passport, and Residence Department confirmed to him that there had been a notice on his name imposed by the public prosecution since 9 June 2016.
On 10 June 2016, authorities banned Dr. Taha Al-Derazi, a former political prisoner and activist, from traveling to the United Kingdom with his wife. He too was told to inquire at the Immigration, Passport, and Residency Department for more information but was also given no reason for the ban. Dr. Al-Derazi participated in the previous UNHRC session and it is believed that the ban is to prevent him from participating in the current session.
On 13 June 2016, Jalila Al-Salman, vice president of the dissolved Bahrain Teachers Society, was not allowed to leave Bahrain when she attempted to travel to Oslo. A travel ban has also been in place against human rights activist Maytham Al-Salman following his participation in various international human rights related conferences.
Preventing civil society from engaging with the UN is a relatively new tool being used in Bahrain to intimidate and silence freedom of expression. A pattern of reprisals against human rights defenders has emerged to prevent reporting on severe ongoing rights abuses in the country. As a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Bahrain has committed to uphold international standards of freedom of movement and freedom of expression. Article 12 of the ICCPR states that, “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” Both rights can only be restricted in limited circumstances.
On 06 June 2016, human rights defender Zainab Al-Khawaja and her two children, Jude and Abdulhadi, arrived in Denmark, where she is a dual citizen, after she was forced to leave the country. Al-Khawaja reported that after she was released from prison on 31 May 2016, she was threatened that if she did not leave Bahrain immediately, she would face new cases with lengthy sentences that would result in her being separated from both her children.
In light of this escalated attack on civil society in Bahrain, we call for the immediate release of all human rights defenders in Bahrain including Nabeel Rajab, and for the removal of the imposed travel bans which unfairly restrict activists’ freedom of movement. We also request that the President of the UNHRC, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly call on the Bahraini authorities to immediately and unconditionally lift the travel ban imposed on Bahrain’s civil society activists and guarantee Bahraini human rights defenders are free from intimidation and restrictions on their work, including at the UN. We also call on the international community to hold the government of Bahrain to its commitments and obligations to foster a safe environment for the peaceful enjoyment of universal human rights.
The government of Bahrain must immediately stop the ongoing reprisals against human rights defenders who are engaging with international mechanisms including the UN system.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD) Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation English PEN European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR) FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Front Line Defenders Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) IFEX Index on Censorship International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) Justice Human Rights Organization (JHRO) Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada (LWRC) PEN International Rafto Foundation for Human Rights Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Vivarta World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection