**Update 15 June 2017 – Bahraini media reports confirm that the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Cybercrime Directorate arrested Isa Faraj Al Bou Rashid for “posting contents that amounted to inciting hatred against the Bahrain government and for other violations punishable under the law” after he discussed his legal challenge against the blockade of Qatar on social media and in an interview with a Qatari newspaper.
14 June 2017 – The Government of Bahrain announced yesterday that it arrested attorney Isa Faraj Al Bou Rashid after he filed a lawsuit challenging the ongoing blockade of Qatar. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns the arbitrary detention of Al Bou Rashid and calls on the government to ensure his immediate release.
After Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on 5 June over allegations that the latter was supporting terrorism, Al Bou Rashid filed a lawsuit against the Cabinet, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to challenge the legality of the Bahraini government’s role in the de facto blockade of the neighboring emirate. Al Bou Rashid reportedly contended that the Bahraini authorities had imposed undue restrictions on Bahraini residents of Qatar and vice versa, as well as on the ability of Bahrainis and Qataris to freely travel between the two countries. The lawsuit argued that the decision to block access to Qatar was arbitrary and unconstitutional, and that any such action should be subject to United Nations (UN) review prior to implementation. According to Qatar’s Al Jazeera news, Bahraini authorities claim to have arrested Al Bou Rashid over social media posts that “damage the social fibre and national unity.”
Al Bou Rashid’s detention comes after the Bahraini government criminalized the expression of “sympathy or favoritism” toward Qatar, including criticism of the blockade, on 8 June. If convicted of this offense, the attorney could face up to five years in prison and a fine.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have taken similar measures to restrict free expression discussion of the diplomatic crisis and suppress opposition to the blockade. In the UAE, expressing support for Qatar “whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form” is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison and over a $100,000 fine. Saudi state media has suggested that such expression constitutes cybercrime, with associated sentences of fines and five- or ten-year prison terms. The kingdom has also closed the Al-Jazeera’s Saudi offices and reportedly imposed an effective ban on the network by threatening to fine outlets that broadcast it. Yesterday, the same day Al Bou Rashid was arrested, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also moved to ban subscription renewals for sports media funded by Qatar.
Though the Government of Bahrain has consistently targeted lawyers in reprisal for human rights work or for expressing their political opinions, the kingdom’s criminal justice system continues to receive substantial support from international partners like the United States (US). Since before the 2011 pro-democracy movement, the US State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has funded a program through the American Bar Association (ABA) Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) aimed at sharing “best practices in judicial education” with Bahraini judges and lawyers. Though the State Department and the ABA have provided little public information on the details of the program, the ABA’s website indicates that it works closely with “ministries of justice and national judicial institutes” in the GCC states to train legal professionals. In Bahrain, specifically, the ABA has worked with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJ), the Public Prosecution Office (PPO), and independent lawyers to provide training on topics of fair trial standards, the rights of the accused, and criminal defense strategies.
Despite these ostensibly positive initiatives, however, Bahrain’s rule of law has only further eroded in recent years, and the judicial system has become even more politicized. In just the last six months, Bahraini authorities have judicially harassed prominent human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer over private WhatsApp messages and begun prosecuting the attorney for Hasan al-Hayki, a prisoner who died in government custody, after he discussed evidence suggesting al-Hayki had been tortured. Moreover, the ABA has repeatedly failed to fulfill its mandate to address abusive legislation or other attacks on international legal standards, remaining silent as the government arbitrarily imprisons human rights defenders, executes torture victims, and generally violates due process rights.
“The arrest of Isa Faraj Al Bou Rashid is only the latest case of the Bahraini government blatantly infringing on both free expression and the independence of judges and lawyers,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “The authorities have continuously targeted human rights lawyers like Mohammed al-Tajer for their work, and yet the US government and the ABA claim to be fostering ‘rule of law.’ There is no rule of law in Bahrain. Right now there is simply repression of basic rights to free expression and legal independence, increasingly enabled by the government’s allies in Washington.”
The Government of Bahrain must immediately release Isa Faraj Al Bou Rashid, drop all charges against him, and lift all constraints on free expression. ADHRB additionally calls on the US State Department and the ABA to clearly and publicly condemn such attacks on lawyers, legal standards, and basic rights in Bahrain, and to reassess how their programs impact the human rights situation.