Bahrain's assault on human rights continues
Freedom of expression in Bahrain was dealt a further blow with the sentencing of Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab on 21st February 2018 to five years’ imprisonment. Rajab was sentenced for posts on social media that denounced the use of torture in Jaw Prison and exposed the killing of civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent observer reported that the court proceedings were very short and Rajab’s lawyer, Jalila Al-Sayed, was not allowed to speak during the court proceedings. The trial has been widely criticised for contravening international standards of due process. The verdict was condemned by international actors, including the European Union, that reiterated calls for his release. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Rajab is already serving a two-year sentence for his human rights activities and is reportedly dealing with several medical issues.
"When Nabeel Rajab is sentenced to five years for alleging torture,... with all these examples bedevilling us, why are we doing so little to stop them, even though we should know how dangerous all of this is?" HC Zeid of @UNHumanRights #Bahrainhttps://t.co/mIivmv4aUG pic.twitter.com/wh0O0MEciH— Nabeel Rajab (@NABEELRAJAB) February 26, 2018
On 14th February 2018, the seventh anniversary of Bahrain’s popular uprising, NGOs called upon the international community to help free human rights defenders in Bahrain and push for an end to the persecution of journalists. Following the uprising in 2011, nearly all of Bahrain's most prominent human rights defenders have been imprisoned or forced into exile. The group called upon the country's authorities to uphold commitments to fundamental freedoms. The statement read:
"We, the undersigned NGOs, appeal to the United Nations mechanisms, the European Union, in addition to all governments with influence - in particular the United States and the United Kingdom - to apply serious pressure on Bahrain to demand the immediate release of all detained human rights defenders as well as all prisoners of conscience; and to protect public freedom, in particular freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and freedom of association; and to stop the security forces from practicing any form of torture or ill-treatment on detainees, a practice which is well documented in recent years and regarded as systematic in Bahrain".
With leading figures like Nabeel Rajab behind bars on trumped-up charges, the thirteen human rights NGOs also urged the authorities to overturn the recent string of convictions.
The fightback from civil society comes at a crucial moment; 2017 was reportedly the worst year in terms of human rights abuses, according to a statement by Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on 23rd February 2018. ADHRB documented numerous human rights abuses committed against human rights defenders and journalists throughout 2017, as well as the use of extrajudicial killings of civilians. The statement also noted increasing efforts by the government to close civic and political space.
On 19th February 2018, the government confirmed the closure of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest political opposition society. Al Wefaq was first shut down by the authorities in July 2016 and a recent ruling by the Court of Cassation made the closure definite. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the closure of the society came about due to allegations of organising demonstrations and sit-ins. In addition to the dissolution of the society, its leaders, Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mehdi Ali Al Aswad, now stand accused of plotting with Qatari authorities to destabilise Bahrain. Their trial will reportedly take place sometime in March 2018.
The final ruling on the dissolution of Al Wefaq exemplifies how the government has continued to close political space in Bahrain. In particular, many human rights groups have cited the authorities' exploitative use of anti-terror laws to sideline the political opposition and silence critics of the government.