Bahrain bars human rights groups as unrest escalates

When Index on Censorship visited Bahrain on a fact finding mission late last year, officials repeatedly pledged to maintain a transparent relationship with the international community. Now that undertaking seems just another broken promise. Three international rights organisations have been denied entry this year.

The fact-finding mission investigated the state of free expression in Bahrain. We detailed our findings in a  report released this week. In meetings with officials from the Ministry of Human Rights, the mission was  promised that as long as the correct procedures were followed, we (and other organisations) would be allowed to enter Bahrain.

Earlier this month Bahrain refused to grant the visas to staff from Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First, asking that they delay until March. Despite having visas and a scheduled meeting with the US Embassy, a delegation from Freedom House was barred from entering the country on 19 January, only days before they planned to travel. Authorities asked that the organisation delay their trip until the end of February.

“I was very disappointed that I was unable to go”, Freedom House’s Courtney Radsch told Index. According to Freedom House, the mission’s was not related to political unrest in the county but part of a programme monitoring the empowerment of rural women started in 2010. Radsch said that the decision showed the “complete hypocrisy” of officials. In a blog post, Radsch quoted King Hamad assuring the international community that they would have any open door, saying  “any government which has a sincere desire for reform and progress understands the benefit of objective and constructive criticism.”

A violent crackdown on daily protests continues, and despite the BICI committee’s recommendation that prisoners be released or employees be reinstated, many Bahrainis have been unable to resume their daily lives. Even the chair of the BICI commission, Cherif Bassiouni, who previously commended the King for commissioning the report, said that critics would be justified in calling Bahrain’s sluggish implementation of their recommendations a “whitewash“.

Meanwhile, members of the opposition are growing restless, and this week things took a bloody turn. Violence escalated between protesters and security forces Wednesday, as some younger opposition members attacked police officers. Wednesday’s violence reportedly resulted in four deaths, including that of Mohamed Yacqoub, 18. While human rights activists Index spoke to were insistent on peaceful protest methods, they warned of things taking a more violent turn if brutality against peaceful protesters were to continue after the release of the BICI report.

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.