State Department Releases Human Rights Reports on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia

25 June 2015 — Washington, DC — Today, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 2014, and the report reflects the stagnation of reform efforts and the declining human rights situations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In his opening remarks at the press briefing marking the report’s release, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski highlighted these governments’

“misapplication of counterterrorism laws to stifle criticism and restrict the space for civil society,” going on to note, “in Saudi Arabia, peaceful internet activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 100[0] lashes by a court originally set up to try terrorists…Bahrain has a legitimate interest in protecting its people against violent groups, yet its government has focused much of its energy on prosecuting peaceful critics, including this year opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman.”

In reading the reports for both countries, it is clear that the policies of these governments continue to restrict the freedoms of their citizenry while utilizing the rise of violent extremism in the region as justification for their repressive policies.

The State Department’s 2014 report on human rights in Bahrain provides a comprehensive overview of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, including reprisals against human rights defenders and members of the opposition; abuse and torture perpetrated by security forces; the lack of an independent judiciary; the ongoing political and economic discrimination of its Shia-majority population; the plight of migrant workers that represent more than 50 percent of the country’s workforce; and the passage of laws that restrict civil liberties and basic human rights. The report reveals that the human rights situation in Bahrain has continued to worsen dramatically despite government claims that it is effectively implementing the BICI recommendations and that it is repealing “the culture of impunity” documented in BICI report. The State Department’s report also highlights new laws that have been promulgated in the country since the release of the BICI report in 2011, such as “insulting the King,” the effect of which further limits and criminalizes free expression, association, and assembly.

The report rightfully focuses on the continuing harassment of political societies, including the government’s attempt to ban al-Wefaq and Wa’ad. It also documents the continuing harassment of political opposition leaders and human rights defenders, including Sheikh Ali Salman, Nabeel Rajab, Zeinab al-Khawaja, and Naji Fateel, among others. In regard to the parliamentary elections in November 2014, the report highlights concerns surrounding the government’s uneven allocation of voting districts in the lead up to the election as well as the sanctioning of opposition parties following their decision to boycott the election. However, the report glosses over the validity of the elections and instead focuses on intimidation by “violent oppositionists” and “boycotters” to get candidates to withdraw from the race; this analysis fails to acknowledge the fact that a recent Harvard study found Bahrain’s parliamentary elections to be among the worst in 2014.

On the judiciary, the report denies the government’s claim that the it remains an independent institution. Instead, the report states that “the king controls the judicial system,” thereby calling into question the increasing number of people who are jailed for expressing opposition to the ruling monarchy. The report also successfully highlights the government’s utilization of an anti-terrorism law, expanded in 2014, to arbitrarily detain its political opponents, even though “the government denies holding any political prisoners.” Additionally, State’s report cites the fact that while the government claims to have held police and security officers implicated in abuse accountable, there is evidence that many of these officers sentences have been commuted to as little as six months or even just a fine.

The report further acknowledges the fact that Bahrain’s pre-trial detention centers and prisons hold more than 3,000 detainees, most of whom are reported to be political prisoners by NGOs and international human rights organizations. In terms of the government’s detention practices, one notable omission within the report is the lack of documented enforced disappearances in Section 1(b). However, the report later cites instances of enforced disappearances in which the Bahraini government withheld information about detainees’ whereabouts for days at a time, and failed “to acknowledge it was holding individuals in detention for a period of days” in Section 1(d). The report also states, “Human rights groups alleged authorities held some detainees incommunicado for weeks.” Significantly, the report does go on to document the worsening conditions and reports of abuse and torture in Bahraini prisons and pretrial detention centers.

The 2014 Human Rights Report on Saudi Arabia is also comprehensive. The report documents a host of due process violations within — and lack of reforms to — the Saudi legal system; substandard prison conditions; extensive censorship of the press and the internet; obstacles to the formation of an independent civil society; prejudicial policies against the nation’s Shia minority; blanket economic and social discrimination against women; and uneven labor protections, especially for foreign workers. Furthermore, the report highlights the government’s escalating campaign against peaceful proponents of reform. It outlines the cases of prominent human rights defenders like Waleed Abu al-Khair, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, and others, explaining how the government has used its Specialized Criminal Court and a new, catch-all anti-terrorism law to criminalize human rights activism and nonviolent political dissent. The report also discusses criminal proceedings against founders and members of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), like Mohammed al-Bajadi and Fawzan al-Harbi, underlining the Saudi government’s ongoing restrictions on civil society.

The report fails, however, to fully examine the extent to which Saudi Arabia’s internal security forces harass and intimidate its Shia-minority population. While the report does mention, in sections 1(a) and 2(b), that security forces violate the right to assembly of protesters in the marginalized Eastern Province and have engaged in damaging police raids in Qatif, it does not fully illustrate broader acts of state violence that afflict the majority-Shia region. For example, in December 2014 over 100 security force personnel raided the Eastern Province town of al-Awamiyah, extrajudicially killing five individuals and damaging homes and store fronts with live fire, all in the pursuit of a single criminal suspect.

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor mostly meets the challenge of reporting on these two repressive governments and provides the general public in both the U.S. and the Gulf with comprehensive reports on the human rights practices of the Bahraini and Saudi governments. It remains to be seen, however, what specific actions the State Department will take to ensure the release of political prisoners and to foster the implementation of true reform in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.