Bahrain complains about human rights report

Bahrain's foreign ministry has expressed "dissatisfaction" with the US State Department's annual country-by-country report on human rights.

It says the section on Bahrain "lacks objectivity and impartiality, and overlooks Bahrain’s progress in maintaining and promoting human rights issues".

It also accuses the State Department of failing to "take into account official governmental information", thus "rendering the report as not being credible and pointless".

The American report is very detailed – it runs to 18,000 words – but here is the executive summary:

Bahrain is a monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the head of state, appoints the cabinet consisting of 29 ministers; approximately half are members of the Sunni Al-Khalifa ruling family. The parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives. Approximately 17 percent of eligible voters participated in parliamentary by-elections for 18 seats vacated in September 2011. Independent human rights organizations did not consider the elections free and fair. On May 19, the king ratified constitutional amendments broadening the powers of the elected chamber of parliament. Security forces reported to civilian authorities during the year.

The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, medical personnel, teachers, and students, with some resulting in harsh sentences. Some protesters engaged in lethal acts of violence against security forces, including the use of improvised explosive devices, Molotov cocktails, and other improvised weapons.

Other significant human rights problems included arbitrary deprivation of life; arrest of individuals on charges relating to freedom of expression; reported violations of privacy; and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices. The government sometimes imposed and enforced travel bans on political activists. Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect persisted, especially against the Shia population. There were reports of domestic violence against women and children. Trafficking in persons and restrictions on the rights of foreign workers continued to be significant problems.

Beginning in February 2011, the country experienced a sustained period of unrest including mass protests calling for political reform. In 2011, 52 persons died in incidents linked to the unrest, and hundreds more were injured or arrested. The government prosecuted some police personnel implicated in abuses committed during the year and in 2011. Courts convicted six individuals of crimes related to police abuse, resulting in prison sentences ranging from three months to seven years. It was unclear whether any of those convicted were in prison at year’s end. Many of the trials continued. In the pending cases, charges ranged from misdemeanor assault and battery to murder. The government took some steps to address the “culture of impunity,” which the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report identified.

Although the US has close ties with the Bahraini regime – the Fifth Fleet uses the kingdom as its base – the State Department seems more willing than its British counterpart to criticise the political situation there. Iain Lindsay, the current British ambassador in Bahrain, is viewed as particularly well-disposed towards the regime (as I pointed out in a blog post last month).

The British Foreign Office is due to publish its annual report on "Human Rights and Democracy" shortly, though it's unclear whether Bahrain will get a mention. Unlike the State Department's human rights reports, the Foreign Office reports focus only on "countries of concern" (and, not surprisingly, Bahrain isn't one of them).

Last year's report did, however, include a short "case study" of Bahrain. Though by no means uncritical, it provides an interesting contrast between the British government's "understanding" view of the Khalifa regime and the more robust view from the State Department:

Case study: Bahrain 

Long-standing concerns about discrimination, corruption and marginalising of Bahrain’s majority Shia population (lack of job opportunities, access to courts, senior government positions) came to a head in Bahrain in February and March. Protestors took to the streets calling for political and economic reform. The movement quickly spread following the deaths of protestors, and then grew more militant and sectarian as the Bahraini security forces and some protestors responded violently. This led to further unrest and the deaths of 35 people. An estimated 1,950 were arrested after a State of National Safety was declared (see p.264 of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report).

In July, King Hamad established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to look into allegations of human rights abuses that took place during the unrest. The commission had a credible and independent membership, and published its report on 23 November. Its observations concluded that many detainees were tortured to extract confessions, in violation of Bahraini and international law. Mistreatment and physical and psychological abuse while in state custody were noted, including blindfolding, beating, punching, sleep-deprivation, standing for prolonged periods, threats of rape to the detainee or their family members, verbal abuse and religious insults. 

King Hamad accepted the commission’s findings and promised to act on its recommendations. Just before the report’s publication, the Bahraini Cabinet announced a set of amendments to Bahraini law, making all forms of torture criminal offences, imposing stricter sentencing on those committing torture, and lifting the limitation period for claims of torture. Investigations had also been carried out by the Bahraini authorities into allegations of human rights abuses, leading to the intended prosecution of 20 police officers. 

Bahrain has announced the establishment of: 

• an independent National Commission to oversee implementation of the BICI report; 

• a National Human Rights Commission tasked with promoting and enhancing human rights; 

• a National Fund for the Reparation of Victims to compensate families of deceased victims; and 

• a review of the State of National Safety decree by the Constitutional Court. 

Bahrain’s human rights performance has shown improvements since the first half of the year, and we recognise that steps have been taken to implement reforms based on the commission’s recommendations. But violent clashes continue, as do some reports of beatings and deaths in disputed circumstances. We therefore urge the authorities to deliver on the king’s commitment of full implementation to ensure that these abuses will not be repeated. We continue to press all parties to exercise restraint during demonstrations and to show real leadership in order to prevent further violence.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 24 April 2013