UN Secretary-General’s Report Addresses Pattern of Reprisals in Bahrain

12 September 2018 – Today, the United Nations (UN) published the ninth annual report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the UN, its representatives, and mechanisms in the field of human rights. The report presents the work of Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, who addresses intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN. Following on last year’s report presentation, in which ASG Gilmour cited Bahrain as an “egregious” perpetrator of reprisals, the new report again raises a pattern of Bahraini government retaliation against individuals working with the UN, including through travel bans, harassment, torture, threats of violence, and targeting of their families for abuse. The report particularly highlights the cases of human right defenders Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, Ebtesam al-Saegh, Nabeel Rajab, and Nedal al-Salman. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the report of the Secretary-General and applauds ASG Gilmour’s continued work to address reprisals in Bahrain.

Bahrain is one of 38 specific country cases cited in the new report’s summary of cases, with the ASG noting “various United Nations actors have expressed grave concern about an ongoing trend of harassment and intimidation against Bahraini civil society representatives seeking to cooperate with the United Nations.” The report stresses the “sweeping imposition” of travel bans affecting at least 20 Bahraini activists and human rights defenders, including Mohamed al Tajer, Enas Oun, Ahmed al-Saffar, Fatima al-Mutawa, Rula al-Saffar, Jalila al-Salman, Nidal al-Salman, Radhi al-Musawi, Fatima al-Halwachi, Ebrahim Sharif, Ahmed Radhi, Mohamed Jawad, Dr. Taha al-Durazi, Faisal Hayat, Munthur al-Khour, Masooma al-Sayed, Rihanna al-Musawi, Sayed Talal al-Musawi and Ali al-Ghadeer, among others. The report additionally raises alarm over “the arrest, detention, sexual assault and torture and other forms of ill-treatment of targeted individuals” as well as “reported threats of violence and psychological intimidation because of their past engagement with the Council, including threats of physical violence, public defamation and rape, to discourage them from speaking out again.”

The report emphasizes the case of Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD). Multiple members of AlWadaei’s family have been targeted in reprisal for his work with the UN, including his mother-in-law Hajar Mansoor Hasan, his brother-in-law Mahmoud Marzooq Mansoor, and cousin Sayed Nazar AlWadaei. All three were convicted of fabricated terrorist charges after arbitrary arrests and unfair trials. In addition, AlWadaei’s wife Duaa AlWadaei was sentenced in absentia to two months prison for “insulting a police officer” in March 2018 after she and their young son were detained and abused by airport security officials in retaliation for her husband’s activism. When these reprisals were addressed during the Human Right’s Council’s 38th session and the Human Right’s Committee’s review of Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in July 2018, Bahraini authorities at the Isa Town Women’s Prison subjected AlWadaei’s mother-in-law Hajer Mansoor Hasan to further abuse and restrictions.

The report also calls attention to Ebtesam al-Saegh of SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, a prominent human rights defender included in the previous annual report who continues to face reprisals. After attending a session of the Human Rights Council in March 2017, al-Saegh was detained by agents of Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA) at the airport and interrogated at length about her work with the UN. During a subsequent interrogation in May 2017, she was subjected to seven hours of physical, psychological, and sexual torture by NSA agents. In July 2017, al-Saegh was arbitrarily arrested and charged under the anti-terrorism law and subsequently released, although the charges have not been dropped. These charges have been used to prevent her from travelling to subsequent sessions of the Human Rights Council. During the 38th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2018, al-Saegh continued to highlight the human rights situation in Bahrain online via her Twitter account. She faced further harassment as a result, with an account called @godkingcountry referencing her sexual assault and torture and threatening further rape if she did not end her online human rights activities. Another account, @turkialmajed7, also sent threatening messages to al-Saegh on Instagram, claiming responsibility for the death of her neighbor and saying she would be next. The messages also threatened to publish videos taken of her in May 2017 when authorities filmed her during her interrogation, sexual assault, and torture.

Another repeat case is that of leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. This year’s report cites longstanding travel bans against Rajab as well as his recent imprisonment for “spreading false news” and “spreading false rumors in wartime.” Just last month, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published an opinion that imprisonment for such crimes is arbitrary and illegal. The report noted concerns that “these and subsequent actions against Mr. Rajab were connected to his engagement with the Human Rights Council.” This year’s report also raised concerns about Rajab’s healthcare and treatment in Jau Prison.

Additionally, the report cites the case of Nedal al-Salman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), who has been subjected to travel bans in response to her human rights work. In August 2016, al-Salman was prevented from travelling to Geneva to participate in the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council, and in September 2017 she was charged with “illegal gatherings” and placed under a formal travel ban. The Government of Bahrain responded that the travel ban was due to her participation in an unauthorized demonstration.

The patterns exhibited in these individual cases are echoed in a speech by the UN Secretary-General included in the conclusion of the report:

“There is a disturbing trend in the use of national security arguments and counter-terrorism strategies by States as justification for blocking access by communities and civil society organizations to the United Nations. In the last year, a number of NGOs and human rights defenders, activists and experts have been labelled as ‘terrorists’ by their Governments. Reported cases include individuals or organizations being officially charged with terrorism, blamed for cooperation with foreign entities, or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the State.”

“The UN’s new report demonstrates that Bahrain remains one of the world’s most egregious perpetrators of reprisals against civil society actors trying to engage the international community,” says Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “The abusive trend continues unabated, with the Assistant Secretary-General forced to address numerous repeat cases like that of Nabeel Rajab and Ebtesam al-Saegh. These human rights defenders work tirelessly to bring violations to the attention of the UN, and for this they and their families face travel bans, threats, and abuse. Bahrain is not going to stop these reprisals until the international community takes action to end the severe abuses documented in this report.”

ADHRB welcomes the ASG’s thorough documentation of these specific cases of reprisal as well as the broader pattern of retaliation and abuse in Bahrain. The repeat cases as well as the new reprisals included in this year’s report are evidence of the “ongoing trend of major harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders” that was identified in the 2017 report. We urge the Government of Bahrain to halt all acts of reprisals against human rights defenders, and to lift all travel bans against those individuals who wish to engage with the UN. Finally, we echo the report’s sentiments that “we should all be deeply shocked and angered by the extent to which civil society actors suffer reprisals, intimidation and attack because of their work, including when they engage with the United Nations system.”

For more information on reprisals in Bahrain, see ADHRB’s 2017 report Crushing Civil Society: Bahraini Government Reprisals for International Engagement.

*Correction: the original title of this post suggested that report was issued directly from the Assistant Secretary-General, rather than the Secretary-General.