US State Department Releases 2017 Report on Human Rights in Bahrain

On 20 April 2018, the United States (US) Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the report’s substantive section detailing the wide range of US human rights concerns in Bahrain, but urges the State Department to implement new policies that will work to ameliorate – rather than intensify – these serious abuses.

The Country Report on Bahrain begins by listing what the State Department perceives to be the “most significant” human rights issues in the kingdom. These include “reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces; allegations of torture of detainees and prisoners; harsh and potentially life-threatening conditions of detention; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including by the press and via the internet; restriction of academic and cultural events; restrictions on the rights of association and assembly; allegations of restrictions on freedom of movement, including arbitrary citizenship revocation; and limits on Shia political participation.” The report additionally raises unfair electoral procedures; sectarian discrimination, including in the security forces; citizenship revocation and statelessness; failure to implement the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations; restrictions on labor organizing; and gender-based discrimination, among other issues. The State Department also specifically noted the “frequently slow and ineffective” nature of investigations into security personnel accused of human rights violations, which has exacerbated the problem of impunity and resulted in just three officers facing prison time for abuses as of 2017.

ADHRB particularly commends the State Department for documenting major human rights violations that Bahrain’s own National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) failed to address in its recent report on 2017, including the re-empowerment of Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its increased involvement in severe abuses; the closure of the only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat; the execution of three torture survivors ending a de facto moratorium of the death penalty; the dissolution of the last opposition group, Wa’ad; and the constitutional amendment that granted military courts the right to try civilians, contributing to an escalation in death sentences. We also welcome the State Department’s concern for the denial of proper medical care to prisoners with chronic conditions; the arbitrary detention of Al-Wefaq political leader Sheikh Ali Salman; and the government’s use of travel bans to prevent activists from participating in sessions of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. Moreover, the report rightly emphasized a number of key cases of politically motivated prosecution or judicial harassment, including those of Nabeel Rajab, Ebtisam al-Saegh, Ebrahim Sharif, Faisal Hayyat, Sayed Alawi Hussain Alawi, Nazeeha Saeed, and Mohamed Sultan.

Nevertheless, while the State Department’s report addresses many of the most severe abuses in Bahrain, it omits a number of key issue areas and at times uncritically reiterates erroneous government claims, leading it to draw several questionable conclusions. For example, the State Department assessed that “security forces effectively maintained order and generally responded in a measured way to violent attacks,” yet in a different category of the report the State Department itself acknowledges evidence that “government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.” This included the killing of five protesters during a “security operation” to clear a sit-in outside the home of Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim in May 2017. Even Bahrain’s NIHR – which is a deeply flawed body with close connections to the government – acknowledged that there was no violent threat precipitating the raid and warranting the use of lethal force, indicating that the operation was “aiming to remove a number of legal violations which were a hindrance to the movement of citizens and which led to a hampering of their interests while constituting a risk to their safety.” Not only does this admission contradict the official police reports cited by the State Department when characterizing the actions of security forces as “measured,” it suggests that Bahraini security personnel directly contravened their own 2012 Code of Conduct, which states that “deadly force can only be used by an officer where it is the last resort to defend against aggression against the police officer, or where it is necessary in order to save the officer’s life or the lives of others.” Moreover, the State Department regrettably failed to comment on an earlier raid on the Diraz sit-in, when personnel believed to be affiliated with the NSA fired live ammunition on the gathering in January 2017, fatally wounding 18-year-old Mustafa Hamdan; as well as a February 2017 Coast Guard raid that left three dead under suspicious circumstances.

The case of Mustafa Hamdan also highlights the Bahraini government’s continued violation of medical impartiality outside the prison system, which was not explicitly raised in the State Department’s report. Local paramedics attempted to treat Hamdan when he was shot, but he required immediate emergency care to survive.  A resident of Diraz rushed Hamdan to a private hospital, but staff there refused to admit him without a security official from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) present. They also refused to send for an ambulance to take him to a public hospital. Eventually Hamdan’s brother arrived and took him to Al-Salmaniya Medical Complex, but, once there, approximately 35 security personnel interrogated the family and delayed treatment. He died of his injuries. It later emerged that the NSA arrested a paramedic that treated Hamdan at the scene; his fate remains unknown. Likewise, though the State Department’s report notes that “civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces during the year,” it fails to fully assess how military and police officials have dangerously expanded their authority over civilian functions like healthcare, with security officials effectively assuming control of key aspects of the medical system, in addition to the military’s new role in civilian law enforcement. It also accepts without comment the MOI’s false assertion that “there were no persons with disabilities in detention” in Bahrain, despite the fact that some of the kingdom’s most high-profile prisoners of conscience, such as human rights defender Dr. Abuljlalil al-Singace, are disabled and face targeted harassment from guards due to their conditions.

The State Department also inaccurately asserted that there were “no reports of politically motivated disappearances” in 2017. ADHRB has so far recorded seven cases of politically motivated disappearances for the year. For example, security forces arrested Mohamed al-Mutaghawi on 23 May 2017 during the raid on the peaceful protest in Diraz. Al Mutaghawi was disappeared for seven months; while he was able to call home a number of times, he was never able to tell his family his whereabouts and the Bahraini authorities never acknowledged where he was being held. His family was unable to ascertain his whereabouts until his trial on 25 December 2017, where he was sentenced to death by a military court. Not only should his case be considered an enforced disappearance, but it should also be characterized as politically motivated, having arisen out of a violent government attack on peaceful protests outside the home of religious leader Sheikh Isa Qassim. Bahraini security forces commonly subject arrestees to short-term disappearances ranging from periods of days to months with extended or total incommunicado detention, during which time they are typically interrogated and tortured without access legal counsel.

Additionally, the State Department’s report briefly mentions reprisals against family members of activists and detainees, but it omits the prominent case of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei – an exiled human rights activist and the Director of Advocacy for the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). In October 2017, Bahrain convicted three members of Sayed Ahmed’s family in an unfair show trial. Hajer Mansoor Hassan, Sayed Nizar Alwadaei, and Mahmood Marzooq Mansoor, who are respectively Sayed Ahmed’s mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and cousin, were charged with placing a “fake bomb” on a public road. They have continued to face judicial and physical harassment and the government convicted Alwadaei’s wife in absentia on fabricated charges in 2018, threatening the wellbeing of their young child, Yusuf, who is an American citizen. The State Department has raised this case in the past, but it has declined to take strong public action to call for an end to these transparent attempts to silence Alawdaei’s activism.

Lastly, the State Department’s report touches on the obstacles facing international groups attempting to investigate human rights abuses in Bahrain, but it does not fully acknowledge the scope of the problem. In 2017, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that his office had “repeatedly offered to assist with practical improvements in Bahrain, yet those efforts were met with point-blank denials, unfounded accusations and unreasonable last-minute conditions to technical missions.” Likewise, 2017 marked Bahrain’s tenth year of denying all UN Special Procedures requests for country visits. Throughout the year, the government blocked international human rights groups from visiting Bahrain and interfered with journalists attempting to cover political or human rights developments.

Ultimately, while the State Department’s 2017 report on Bahrain documents many of the severe abuses ongoing in in the kingdom, it remains too forgiving of a government that has – as demonstrated in the report itself – continuously refused to engage on these issues in good faith. Moreover, the report details a human rights and political crisis that is simply not reflected in the US administration’s current policy on Bahrain. The new Secretary of State, whomever it may be, must read this report and realize that its findings do not match the lenient tact recently taken by the State Department toward Bahrain, and that they certainly do not call for further unconditional arms sales and security support, as authorized by the administration just last September. ADHRB calls on the US Government to act on the State Department’s reporting and enact new policies to support human rights reform in Bahrain, including by imposing new requirements for continued defense cooperation.