14 February 2019 – Today marks the eighth anniversary of the mass pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, when tens of thousands of Bahraini citizens peacefully demonstrated around the country, calling for democratic reform and respect for human rights. However, as we commemorate this day, we condemn the Bahraini government’s violent suppression of the movement and its ongoing, and deepening, efforts to restrict fundamental freedoms. Now, eight years later, the situation has devolved to a point worse than it was in 2011 at the height of the authorities’ repression. We call upon the Government of Bahrain to immediately end its human rights violations and to institute democratic reforms. We call on the government to release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, to commute the death sentences against those convicted of political offenses, and to take hold officials accountable who have committed crimes of torture and other abuses. We further call on authorities enact comprehensive human rights and political reforms with a view towards accountability, transparency, and guaranteeing internationally recognized universal human rights standards.
Eight years ago, more than 200,000 people took to the streets in Bahrain to protest structural inequalities, corruption, oppression, and a lack of government representation. The authorities responded swiftly and severely. Security forces employed excessive and indiscriminate force to disperse the demonstrations, and the government imposed martial law and emergency restrictions on basic rights to suppress the movement. Assisted by a joint Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military force – containing personnel primarily from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also including smaller contributions from Qatar and a naval force from Kuwait – Bahraini authorities violently put down the peaceful uprising, leading to thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and dozens of deaths.
In the wake of the government’s violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement, and under intense international pressure, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa commissioned the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate the unrest. The BICI found that Bahraini authorities had committed severe abuses, ranging from mass arbitrary detention to torture and extrajudicial killing, and that a “culture of impunity” protected perpetrators in the government. The BICI issued 26 recommendations that if successfully implemented, in letter and in spirit, would ease tensions and address concerns in the security sector and legal system between the authorities and the demonstrators.
The king accepted the proposals and pledged that they would be rapidly implemented. However, eight years later, the vast majority of the 26 BICI recommendations remain unimplemented and the government has not only reversed the few recommendations it had instituted, but falsely declared it has implemented all of them. While Bahrain had fully implemented two of the recommendations, it reversed them. In January 2017, it re-empowered the National Security Agency – the country’s secret police – to carry out arrests, and in April 2017 granted military courts the right to try civilians even in the absence of martial law. Also in January 2017, the government ended a de facto moratorium on the death penalty by executing three torture survivors after a trial rife with due process violations.
These measures compounded the government’s systematic efforts to target dissent, suppress civil and political societies, and imprison activists and human rights defenders. Over the past three years, the government has increased its repression of the kingdom’s remaining civil society organizations, political opposition groups, and human rights defenders. In June 2016, Bahrain’s Administrative Court forcibly dissolved al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest political opposition society, a ruling that was upheld in February 2018. In May 2017, a court approved the forcible dissolution of the National Democratic Action Society, also known as Wa’ad. Only a month later, the government indefinitely suspended the kingdom’s last remaining independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, continuing its repression of free expression and press freedom.
While there were hopes that the government might ease repression in the run-up to elections for the lower house of parliament on 24 November 2018, it dashed these hopes with a series of actions and policies that effectively precluded the elections from being free or fair and that continued the broader assault on civil society. Only weeks ahead of the elections, Bahrain’s highest appeals court sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, the Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq to life in prison on spurious charges of espionage dating from 2011. Just a little over a month later, on 31 December 2018, the same court upheld prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab’s five-year prison sentence for tweets and re-tweets criticizing the war in Yemen and torture in Jau Prison. Sheikh Salman and Rajab now join the almost 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, a staggering statistic that makes Bahrain among the highest per-capita jailers in the region.
In addition, the government has “weaponized” citizenship revocation, using denaturalization as a tactic against dissidents and activists. Since 2012, Bahrain has denaturalized almost 800 people, including Sheikh Isa Qassim, a spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia community. There has also been a dramatic increase in the death row population.
Despite the litany of abuses, Bahrain has not faced serious international pressure to halt the deterioration in its human rights environment. Rather, the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) have largely stayed silent in the face of the country’s abuses. US President Trump has prioritized security concerns over human rights, a stance that the Bahraini government has interpreted as a greenlight to commit violations. The UK, too has been largely silent, and Theresa May’s government has stood by Bahrain, offering little serious condemnation of the government’s abuses.
Now, eight years after nearly half of Bahrain’s citizen population called for democracy and human rights in demonstrations that met with government violence and martial law, the human rights landscape has only continued to deteriorate. While the government lifted martial law on 1 June 2011, it has moved to institutionalize and legalize the aspects of the state of emergency. As a result, civil space is effectively closed, free expression is criminalized, and torture is rampant. This deterioration in the situation has been aided and abetted by the United States and United Kingdom, whose silence has only seemingly emboldened the Bahraini government. Thus, on the eighth anniversary of the 2011 protest movement, we call upon the international community to increase its pressure upon the Bahraini government and to press the authorities to immediately implement reforms to safeguard and promote human rights. Furthermore, we call upon the United States and United Kingdom to use their leverage with the Bahraini government to ensure the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and to lift restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association.