Crackdown against human rights defenders ahead of Bahrain's UPR

The overall situation for human rights defenders and political activists in Bahrain remains extremely worrisome. On 1st May 2017, during Bahrain's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) hearings, a number of governments expressed serious concerns over human rights violations in the country. In a joint UPR submission, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and CIVICUS criticised Bahrain’s deliberate and systematic targeting of human rights defenders, journalists and other activists. The joint submission also brought attention to the extreme restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly in Bahrain and the failure of the government to implement recommendations on freedom of expression that it had agreed to in previous UPR sessions.

Association

Prior to Bahrain's 2017 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the United Nations in May, authorities cracked down on the activities of at least 32 human rights defenders, journalists and political activists who were arrested and issued travel bans. Targeting activists before being examined by the UN has become a tactic of the state to silence those who would speak out on the regime's human rights record.

The government has curtailed freedom of association by detaining and imprisoning civic activists and political opposition. The prison conditions in the country are alarming and many suffer from health problems and ill treatment or torture. According to recent reports from families of political prisoners, the authorities have instituted new procedures in Jaw Prison, namely shackling individuals, many of whom are elderly and in poor health, when they leave their cells. The prisoners who refuse to be shackled are then unable to leave their cells for medical care and treatment. Family phone calls and visits have also been restricted. A coalition of ten human rights organisations have condemned these new regulations as human rights abuses.

On 12th April 2017, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, a well-known human rights defender currently being held in Jaw, started a hunger strike to protest the new procedure of shackling. Al-Khawaja suspended his hunger strike, however, after strong UPR recommendations were made on improving the conditions in Jaw. Nonetheless, Al- Khawaja’s health has continued to deteriorate and human rights groups have called for his release on medical grounds, as well as the release of human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, President of BCHR and Founding Director of GCHR, who also remains in detention.

Peaceful Assembly

According to Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, on 21st April 2017 the authorities summoned two leaders of the Wa’ad political society, Ebrahim Sharif and Farida Ghulam, for questioning. The two were accused of participating in an “illegal gathering” in the village of Duraz and were subsequently issued a travel ban. In addition, several human rights defenders, including Fatima AlHalwachi, were also charged with illegal assembly in Duraz and banned from travel.

An April 2017 CIVICUS report noted that protests and demonstrations in Bahrain are marred by excessive force, arbitrary arrest, legal restrictions on assembly, infiltration by the state, restrictions on journalists' reporting and curtailment of social media use, as well as by the harassment of individuals monitoring the protests.