A Review of Two Years of Bahraini and Saudi Trends in UN Complaints

In the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) Joint Communications Report (JCR) that was released on Friday, 31 August, there was only one case mentioning Bahrain, while two cases dealt with Saudi Arabia. This is something of an anomaly, as over the last two years there have been six JCRs covering 21 Bahraini cases and 19 Saudi cases. A review of these cases demonstrates that most of the complaints for both countries concern allegations of ill-treatment and torture.

Looking at the trends of the Bahrain cases, 12 of the 21 detail ill-treatment of prisoners, four concern extrajudicial killings or executions, three are about travel bans, and three express broader concerns. The most recent case is about human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and his current ill-treatment and sentence. While Rajab has been the subject of numerous complaints in the JCR, his case is similar to past JCR cases that address detainees’ mistreatment during detention.

The most common key themes of concern in the cases about ill-treatment are allegations of torture (mentioned 12 times), restrictions to the right to freedom of expression (mentioned seven times), deterioration of health (raised four times), and arbitrary arrest (raised four times). More than half of the Bahraini cases in the last six JCRs address ill-treatment of prisoners, and almost all of those cases contain allegations of torture. Many such mentions of torture include references to incommunicado detention and threats of sexual violence. In addition to this, many of the concerns about the deterioration of prisoners’ health include references to restricted medical access. In these cases, restrictions to the right to freedom of expression are referred to as criminalization of dissent or issuing of travel bans. By banning the travel of individuals involved with human rights activism, advocates are unable to travel to the HRC or other international events. The government’s willingness to use travel bans to silence activists demonstrates their fear of dissent, and explains is why so many JCR cases include travel bans or torture: the Bahraini government is attempting to stop any opposition through means of intimidation or physical violence.

The most recent JCR case for Nabeel Rajab reiterates many of the same concerns as previous JCR cases. This report says the sentencing of Rajab indicates that his arrest is solely to silence him and his freedom of opinion and expression. It also declares that the conditions of his detention are harmful to his physical and mental health. The concern addresses the issues with the Jau Prison in Bahrain and the continued ill-treatment of prisoners there. One example of ill-treatment at Jau is the lack of medical care for political prisoner Hassan Mushaima.  As of writing the Bahraini government response had not been translated.

While Rajab’s case has been raised several times, indicating the government’s targeting of prominent activists, past JCRs have also contained mass complaints demonstrating widespread and systematic rights abuses. For example, the Human Rights Council’s 36th JCR included a case from May 2017 addressing “allegations of severe infringements on the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment, the rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association in Bahrain.” In this broad case, the concerns listed made it into the longest case in the last two years. These concerns addressed the government’s disproportionate and violent response in the years immediately following the mass pro-democratic protests in early 2011. The complaint is comprehensive, naming victims of government abuse and the government’s efforts to silence them. In essence, the report discusses the government’s increased efforts to criminalize dissent in Bahrain and its methods to do so, while outlining the government’s departure from international human right standards. This includes reprising individuals who attempt to cooperate with the UN and other international organizations in regards to human rights. Often in these instances, they implement travel bans or arrest the individual.

Bahrain responded to the comprehensive case in a 19 page reply in which the government states that its actions are in accordance with its national laws. In this way, the explanations condemn the allegations and excuse Bahrain of any wrong doing. For example, it stated that the allegations that individuals cooperated with the UN were reprimanded were untrue and that there were “legitimate” reasons for their arrest.

The Saudi cases highlight different concerns. The Saudi Arabian cases can be divided into five major classifications: ill-treatment/arrest (the theme addressed the most, with seven of the 19 cases falling within this category), the death penalty, women’s rights, the war in Yemen, and broader concerns. A number of key phrases appear throughout these cases, such as violating international human rights and ill-treatment. In the reports that address ill-treatment/arrest, persecution of human rights defenders is mentioned eight times, a category that includes harassment of those who cooperated with the UN and laws that prevent human right defenders from using the internet as a tool. One of the cases states that there are an “alarming high number of allegations received recently concerning arbitrary detention and criminalization of prominent human rights defenders.” These cases also mention limitations on freedom of expression five times and ill-treatment – such as the lack of medical care, use of solitary confinement, and incommunicado detention – six times.

Cases concerning the death penalty frequently include terms like torture/ill-treatment (mentioned seven times) and phrases like, the death penalty is being applied in a case where the nominal crime does not rise to the level of “most serious crime” (mentioned nine times). In regards to the phrase concerning “most serious crime,” one report alone it was used five times, reflecting serious concerns over the mis-application of the death penalty. The concern in this case was for the imminent execution of 17 individuals who were arrested for protest-related charges – charges that are not, according to international standards – worthy of the death penalty.

As a member of the Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia should be held to a higher international standard for human rights. In such a position, the kingdom should hold itself more accountable and cease to violate human rights as it has done so. But, in the 19 JCR cases over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has continually denied human rights to many different groups. These violations happen in Yemen, to women in the kingdom, and to migrant workers. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its treatment of women as second class citizens, but recently it was allowed to join the UN Commission of the Status of Women. It is altogether untoward that a country that disregards international human right standards like Saudi Arabia has done is allowed to remain on the Council and belong to committees that outline standards that the kingdom clearly ignores.

Saudi Arabia responded to the complaint about the pending execution of 17 individuals. It claimed the men belonged to terrorist organizations and the “protests” were actually terror provoked riots, thereby justifying their execution. By sweeping all dissidents under the term “terrorist,” Saudi Arabia gives itself the green light to sentence them to the death penalty.

In some ways, this JCR is an anomaly, with only one Bahrain case, so it can be expected that future JCRs will contain more Bahraini and Saudi cases detailing the arrests and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and restrictions on their rights to expression and assembly. For example, in Saudi Arabia, a judge recently recommended six human rights defenders receive the death penalty, including Israa al-Ghomgham. If she is executed, she will be the first women executed for a political crime in the kingdom. In Bahrain, the United States has urged the Bahraini government to halt the persecution of civil rights activists like Nabeel Rajab, while expressing concern for Bahrain’s actions against human rights defenders. While Bahrain claims it has been advancing human rights, the US’s concern demonstrates that Bahrain has not made progress. Indisputably there will be more JCR cases in forthcoming HRCs that will address issues such as these in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.