UN urges Bahrain to end restrictions on civic space

Freedom of association

On 26th July 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee released its concluding observations on Bahrain's first ever periodic report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Following a detailed assessment of the state report, and reports from civil society, the Committee expressed grave concern about the closure of civic space in Bahrain.

On freedom of association, the committee expressed concern about the broadly worded anti-terror laws which have frequently been used for reasons other than combatting terrorism, to target activists and human rights defenders. The Committee called upon the authorities to revise relevant laws, regulations and practices with a view to bringing them into full compliance with the provisions of the Covenant. 

These problems have also been documented by civil society actors. A report released by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights on 26th June 2018 found that the Law of Protection of the Community Against Terrorist Acts has been used extensively to target civil society organisations and human rights defenders, and the law has been used to violate the freedom of expression and political rights. According to the report, the Ministry of Interior confirms that before this law was amended to impose stricter penalties, only 162 terrorist crimes were reported between 2011 to 2015. However, after the amendment, the number of terrorist crimes recorded shot up to 5,126 in 2017. According to the report, many of these terrorist crimes are in reality just political trials to punish the exercise of fundamental rights.

The committee also highlights reports of restriction and even dissolution of human rights organisations and oppositions groups. The state was urged to refrain from dissolving these groups and to take all measures to re-establish them.

Peaceful assembly

The UN Committee expressed grave concerns about the situation of freedom of assembly in Bahrain, particularly in relation to reports of increasing use of excessive force, intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention of civilians engaged in peaceful demonstrations in recent years. They also expressed alarm at the number of injuries and deaths of protesters engaged in peaceful protests. Bahraini authorities were called upon to fully investigate allegations of involvement of members of its law enforcement and security forces in these violations and abuses.

Freedom of expression

The high number of arrests and prosecution of dissidents, and the targeting of media outlets, which led to the closure of the country’s only semi-independent newspaper, the Al-Wasat, in 2017 was also highlighted by the committee. 

The committee's concerns were supported by reports of continued violations and abuses committed by Bahrain authorities. A recent statement by the Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) indicates that on 25th June 2018, human rights defender, Najah Ahmed Yousif was sentenced to three years in prison on charges relating to her social media activity criticising the 2017 Grand Prix in Bahrain. Najah had originally been arrested in April 2017 and was interrogated by the National Security Agency (NSA), Bahrain’s chief intelligence body which is known for torturing detainees. While there, Najah was regularly beaten and sexually assaulted.

ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla said:

“Bahrain has effectively closed all civil and political space. Najah Ahmed Yousif’s case is just one of many that showcases the lengths the Government of Bahrain will go to suppress criticism and free expression...The international community must join together to pressure Bahrain to end this appalling and inhumane treatment of activists and call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience.”

In a separate but similar incident, 13th June 2018 marked the second anniversary of the arrest of Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s most high profile human rights defender. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, co-founder of both the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Gulf Center for Human Rights also remains in detention. The Bahraini authorities have repeatedly ignored calls for their release. Both of their cases were mentioned by the UN Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations as issues of concern.