Rights groups call for release of detained activists amidst COVID-19 outbreak



On 17th March 2020, in what appeared to be a reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bahraini Interior Ministry announced the release of 1,486 detainees for ‘‘humanitarian reasons, in the backdrop of current circumstances.’’ Of those released, 901 were granted royal pardons, while 585 were given non-custodial sentences. However, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) reported that only 394 political prisoners were released, and lamented the fact that many prominent human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience did not benefit from these measures, with the vast majority of those released including foreign nationals or individuals facing criminal charges.

In a joint appeal on 6th April 2020, 21 NGOs called for “human rights defenders, opposition activists, journalists and all others imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association” to be freed. Notably, human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Naji Fateel and Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace remain in prison. Rajab and Al-Khawaja are respectively the President and former President of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), as well as being the founding directors of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). On 30th March 2020, GCHR published a statementcalling on “the authorities across the MENA region to show some humanity and help stop the spread of this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic by freeing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience because they do not pose a risk to the public, but rather are at great risk themselves.” This includes the four above-mentioned Bahraini human rights defenders.

Rajab has been detained since 2016 for his tweets alleging torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison and for criticising the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led military campaign in Yemen. On 31st December 2018, the Court of Cassation upheld Rajab’s five-year sentence and subsequently rejected motions filed by his lawyers in 2019 requesting that he serve a non-custodial sentence. Rajab is now held in Jaw Prison where his detention conditions fail to comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. A report by Human Rights Watch relied on a recently released detainee’s account of the current conditions in Jaw Prison, which alleged that prison authorities did not disclose their plans to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection or ensure detainees had access to vital information about the virus, including how to protect themselves against infection. He added that prison authorities did not take any additional precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, including sanitising the prison or providing detainees with cleaning supplies and protective gear.

Al-Khawaja and Al-Singace, who are also detained in Jaw Prison, are serving life sentences for their roles in the popular, pro-democracy movement in 2011. Both men were badly tortured in prison and on 22nd June 2011 a Bahrain military court sentenced the human rights defenders, along with seven other activists, to life imprisonment for their roles in the movement. 

In its 2019 Annual Report, released on 3rd April 2020, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights documented the deterioration of civic space in Bahrain, where there has been a notable increase in the suppression of online and social media activity.

On 23rd May 2019, the King of Bahrain ratified the amendment of Law No. 58 of 2006 on the protection of society from terrorist acts, which severely restricts freedom of expression on the internet and will undoubtedly exert a severe chilling effect on online activism. Article 11 poses a threat to online activists, both inside and outside Bahrain, who may be prosecuted for online content.

On 21st May 2019, the Anti-Cyber Crime Unit accused journalist Adel Marzooq, who is head of the Bahrain Press Association (BPA), of encouraging factionalism between members of society. Marzooq denied these allegations and wrote on Twitter that he is merely expressing his opinion, clarifying that the publication of political analysis concerning the Gulf and Bahrain consists of journalistic material. That same day, the lawyer and online activist Abdulla Hashim was released after being summoned by the Public Prosecutor to appear on 15th May 2019 for allegedly “publishing false and unfounded news” on Twitter. Hashim reported that his “phone has been seized as an instrument of crime.”

On 19th May 2019, the Director General of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security at the Ministry of Interior accused two human rights defenders in exile, Sayed Yousif Al-Muhafdah and Hussein Al-Satri, of running fake Twitter accounts aimed at inciting instability and threatening public order. The Ministry claimed in a public statement that “an investigation into the social media accounts that tended to encourage sedition and harm civil peace, social fabric and stability had shown that most of them were managed by sources in Iran, Qatar, Iraq and European countries. Many of them were also handled by the fugitives convicted in absentia.” He added, “Those accounts had been involved in executing a systematic plan to tarnish the image of Bahrain and its people and promote sedition and disharmony in society.”

Other activists and human rights defenders in exile have been persecuted by having their nationality revoked, and their family members have been targeted. Three members of the family of exiled activist Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) were deemed arbitrarily detained by the United Nations in “reprisal” for his activism. They include his brother-in-law, Sayed Nizar Alwadaei, who is serving an 11-year sentence, his nephew Mahmood Marzooq Mansoor, and his mother-in-law, Hajer Mansoor, who was released from prison in Bahrain on 5th March 2020 after completing a three-year sentence on fabricated charges. While in prison, Hajer Mansoor undertook a hunger strike to protest terrible conditions in the Isa Town women’s prison. In March 2019, six UN experts expressed serious concern about the treatment of Hajer Mansoor and two other women human rights defenders, Ebtisam Al-Saegh and Zainab Al-Khamis, who remain under travel bans for their activism.

On 6th May 2019, the Bahrain Court of Cassation upheld the verdict against journalist Mahmoud Abdu-Ridha Al-Jazeeri, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and had his nationality revoked. The court also upheld the verdict against the online activist Ali Al-Muraj, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison and also had his nationality revoked.