CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Bahrain

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Last updated on 06.12.2018 at 13:59

Bahrain-Overview

Bahraini authorities severely restrict civil liberties through an orchestrated campaign of unlawful arrests, revocation of citizenship, enforced disappearances, detention and torture of activists and journalists. This assault on civil society, which began following widespread peaceful demonstrations in 2011, continues despite recommendations made by a state-sponsored commission in 2011.

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Elections in Bahrain condemned as sham by civil society

Elections in Bahrain condemned as sham by civil society

Association

The second round of elections held in Bahrain on 2nd December 2018 saw a record number of women elected to the country’s parliament. A total of 6 women were voted in, doubling the number from the 3 who were voted in during the previous election in 2014.

The elections were however criticised as a sham elections because no political opposition parties were able to take part. While authorities claimed the voter turnout was 67 per cent, civil society organisations disputed this figure, stating that the turnout was only 30 per cent. The first round had been held on 24th November 2018.

In the weeks prior to the elections, the international community - including the US Congress, the European Parliament, and the British, Irish and Italian parliaments - raised concerns regarding the political environment in Bahrain ahead of the elections, drawing attention to the closure of civic and political space in Bahrain in recent years. According to Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the elections met none of the criteria for a free and fair elections – all major opposition organisations were dissolved and legislation prevented anyone who had been a member of these organisations from taking part. Further, no independent election monitors were allowed to monitor the elections.

Ahead of the elections the authorities continued their relentless targeting of political opposition and civil society figures. On 4th November 2018, leading Bahraini opposition figure Sheikh Ali Salman and two members of the now-dissolved peaceful opposition movement, al-Wefaq Society, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, were sentenced to life in prison for espionage, overturning acquittals by a lower court.

As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, the three had been accused of plotting with the Qatari government to destabilise Bahrain.

Sheikh Salman was due to be released a month after the sentencing was issued after serving four years of a previous sentence before the decision to overturn his acquittal.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director said:

“This verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent. Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.” 

Women human rights defenders Hajer Mansoor, Najah Yusuf and Medina Ali have been targeted with reprisals after their cases were raised by the UN and the British Parliament. On 16th September 2018 they were assaulted by prison guards in Isa Town Prison. Authorities then imposed restrictions on all inmates in the prison, requiring all visits to be conducted behind glass barriers and locking inmates in their cells for 23 hours a day. The collective punishment has triggered international criticism, with members of the British Parliament raising concerns and international media outlets reporting on the events.

Despite the serious human rights situation in the country, on 12th October, Bahrain was elected unopposed to the UN Human Rights Council. 

Expression

Freedom of expression continues to be seriously threatened in Bahrain. On 5th November 2018, the International Day to End Impunity Against Journalists, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights released a report entitled “Press in Bahrain: The Usurpation of the Word”. The report documents violations against journalists and media workers in Bahrain since 2011, which have included killings, arrests and detention, revocation of citizenship of journalists and media workers, the closure of newspapers and media outlets and blocking of websites. The report calls upon the Government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release all journalists and media workers and repeal laws which restrict freedom of expression.

In a positive development, on 17th September 2018, Bahraini photographer Hussain Hubail was released after serving a five-year prison sentence on charges of belonging to protest movements. He was allegedly tortured in prison after his arrest on 31st July 2013. 

Association

Even though the Bahraini Constitution guarantees the freedom of association in Article 21, a 1989 Societies Law makes it illegal for any group to operate without a permit. The state specifies the scope of each organisation’s activity and CSOs are prohibited from operating outside of that strictly-defined mandate.

Even though the Bahraini Constitution guarantees the freedom of association in Article 21, a 1989 Societies Law makes it illegal for any group to operate without a permit. The state specifies the scope of each organisation’s activity and CSOs are prohibited from operating outside of that strictly-defined mandate. Authorities also keep a close watch on civil society’s communication with external actors. Activists working in the field of democracy and human rights face particularly serious harassment by security forces. Some human rights organisations have been shut down or taken over by the authorities, forcing them to carry on their activities clandestinely, while others were refused registration in the first place. Such interference in the affairs of organisations is justified under the pretext of maintaining security and stability. The government has also placed several restrictions on receiving foreign funds and to do so prior approval from the relevant authorities is mandatory.


Peaceful Assembly

Public assemblies are banned by the authorities in Bahrain, although protests continue to take place in defiance of the authorities. Even though the right to gather peacefully is protected by Article 28 of the Bahraini Constitution, in practice assemblies are rarely authorised, forcing activists to gather without the protection of the law.

Public assemblies are banned by the authorities in Bahrain, although protests continue to take place in defiance of the authorities. Even though the right to gather peacefully is protected by Article 28 of the Bahraini Constitution, in practice assemblies are rarely authorised, forcing activists to gather without the protection of the law. No gathering can take place near public buildings, and in no part of the capital, Manama. Protests that do occur are regularly met with excessive force and the arrest and torture of protest organisers and participants. Extrajudicial killings of protesters have also taken place. Despite the risks, protests continue on almost a daily basis in an attempt to draw attention to human rights abuses and to commemorate the peaceful uprising in 2011.


Expression

The Bahraini Constitution provides very limited protection for the freedom of expression. According to the law, it is necessary for all publications to obtain government approval. Most media in Bahrain avoids criticism of the Monarchy, particularly following a legal amendment that increases punishment for insulting the King to between 2 and 7 years.

The Bahraini Constitution provides very limited protection for the freedom of expression. According to the law, it is necessary for all publications to obtain government approval. Most media in Bahrain avoids criticism of the Monarchy, particularly following a legal amendment that increases punishment for insulting the King to between 2 and 7 years. Those that attempt to take an independent line risk being targeted or shut down. In August 2015, The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression wrote to the Bahraini authorities expressing his concern at the temporary suspension of Al Wasat, the only newspaper that takes an editorial line that is somewhat independent of the government. Individually, journalists are subject to serious harassment and similar treatment to that meted out to human rights activists. Although over 90% of people access the Internet, social media sites including Facebook and Twitter cannot be used freely, rather, online content is used to level charges against people and arrest them.