Surrealism in Bahrain

Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa: countering attempts to smear Bahrain's "bright image"

Bahrain has an outstanding human rights record based on modern and advanced constitutional and legal texts and principles, the Gulf kingdom's prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, claimed on Sunday. It is a record which plays a crucial role in "defending the kingdom and countering attempts to smear its bright image", he added.

Khalifa, who is the world's longest-serving prime minister, having held the post for almost 45 years, made his baffling remarks after being presented with the latest annual report from Bahrain's National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) which he said "documents the human rights developments and achievements in the kingdom". Based on that, it seems unlikely the prime minister has actually read the report.

NIHR is a body established by the Bahraini government – which obviously puts it under some constraints regarding what it can say. It would be surprising if NIHR openly denounced the government's human rights performance but its latest report scarcely showers the government with praise. In fact, it makes rather a lot of what might be described as "constructive suggestions" for improvement – especially in connection with trafficking in persons, the right to nomination and election, and protection from enforced disappearance.

The tone of the NIHR report is deferential but, reading between the lines, it is far from uncritical. At one point, for example, it "invites" the Bahraini government "to expediently fulfil its international obligations made before the Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review process" – which is really a polite way of saying the government has neglected them until now.

Outside Bahrain, however, the criticisms have been more forthright. The US State Department, in its latest global human rights report, said of Bahrain:

"The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ limited ability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters (some of whom were violent) on vague charges, occasionally leading to their torture and mistreatment in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, students, and journalists, including harsh sentences.

"Other significant human rights problems included arbitrary deprivation of life; impunity for security officers accused of committing human rights violations; arbitrary arrest; violations of privacy; and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion. 

"The government at times imposed and enforced travel bans on political activists in conjunction with arrest charges. The government maintained the revocation of citizenship for 31 individuals, and arbitrarily enforced a decree regulating communications between political societies and foreign entities. 

"Discrimination continued against the Shia population, as did discrimination based on gender, religion, and nationality. 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."

Meanwhile, the annual report of Human Rights Watch said:

"Human rights activists and members of the political opposition [in Bahrain] continued to face arrest and prosecution, and the government invested itself with further powers to arbitrarily strip critics of their citizenship and the rights that attach to it.

"Bahraini courts sentenced more than 200 defendants to long prison sentences, including at least 70 for life, on terrorism or national security charges.

"The number of prosecutions, the often vague nature of the charges, the high rate of convictions, and the length of the sentences imposed raised serious due process concerns. Bahrain’s civilian criminal courts failed to provide impartial justice and frequently convicted defendants on terrorism charges for acts that amount to legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association.

"In 2013, for example, an appeals court concluded that a lower court had been right to convict Abdul Wahab Hussain, an opposition leader, on terrorism charges and sentence him to life imprisonment because he had founded a group dedicated to establishing a republic in Bahrain ... 

"Fifty individuals were convicted on charges of establishing and joining a group known as the February 14 Coalition with the aim of 'sowing chaos in the country, committing crimes of violence and sedition, attacking public and private property, intimidating citizens and harming national unity'. The court found that only one of the 50 defendants had committed an identifiable act of violence – assaulting a policeman during his arrest at his home, causing 'cut and scratch injuries' to the officer. The defendants received sentences ranging from five to 15 years in prison."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 30 December 2015