Six UN Experts Sent Letter to Bahrain on Violence Against Women Human Rights Defenders

On 17 January 2019, six United Nations (UN) Special Procedures offices sent an Allegation Letter (AL BHR 7/2018) to the Government of Bahrain on three Bahraini women subjected to reprisals. The communication was sent by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; and the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

The communication was intended to bring to Bahrain’s attention the cases of two women human rights defenders, Ebtisam AlSaegh and Zainab Abdullah Salman AlKhamees; and the case of Hajer Mansoor Hasan, the mother-in-law of human rights defender Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei. The letter concerns allegations of rape threats, death threats, travel restrictions, physical abuse, and other acts of reprisals imposed upon these three women at the hands of the Bahraini government. The Special Procedures expressed “heightened” concerns that Ebtisam AlSaegh and Hajer Mansoor Hasan, whom have both been subjects of previous communications (cases BHR 9/2017, 8/2017, 4/2017, and 4/2016), suffered abuses as reprisals for their cooperation with the United Nations.

According to the letter, Ebtisam AlSaegh was detained by Bahraini authorities for four months in 2017 for her human rights work and participation in the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Since her release, travel restrictions and charges against her still remain – impeding on her participation in Human Rights Council sessions and putting her at risk of future detention. In June and July of 2018, AlSaegh was prevented from engaging with the Human Rights Council directly by the travel bans against her. However, she participated by following the debates in the Council and calling attention to human rights concerns in Bahrain on social media, including Twitter. Following this, she received threats of public defamation and rape on social media from a Bahraini security officer in regards to her tweets.

Human rights defender Zainab Abdullah Salman AlKhamees has been subjected to multiple instances of arbitrary detention and travel bans since 2015 due to her participation in a peaceful sit-in to protest the targeting of her family and restrictions on free speech. Following her protest, AlKhamees has been interrogated by Bahraini officers on multiple occasions for her human rights advocacy. After being interrogated on her way to Qatar to visit her family, a travel ban was issued against her over false charges. Like AlSaegh, AlKhamees also received death threats on social media in June 2018 from an anonymous user demanding her to delete her Instagram account and record an apology video for the King of Bahrain.

Hajer Mansoor Hasan was convicted in 2017 for allegedly planting a fake bomb and remains without proper medical treatment in prison. Her conviction was secured through coerced confessions, and was upheld by the Court of Cassation on 25 February 2019, even though the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued an opinion that she was detained in reprisal for her son-in-law’s activism and subjected to an unfair trial. While in prison, authorities have denied her the right to participate in the commemorative Ashura rites. She was also assaulted by Bahraini officials in September 2018 when her case was discussed in the 39th session of the Human Rights Council. All three of these women have endured physical violence, threats, interrogation, and torture while in Bahraini custody.

The Special Procedures offices emphasized that the allegations concerning the Bahraini government are among measures used to suppress civil society and peaceful efforts by activists to defend human rights. As highlighted in the letter, Special Procedures raised concerns over the targeting of rights defenders through Bahrain’s broad counter-terror legislation as a violation of international human rights law.

The offices also drew attention to Bahrain’s inconsistencies with international norms and standards, to which the kingdom has acceded to, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; the principles outlined by Human Rights Council Resolutions 24/5, 12/2, 24/24, and 36/21; the General Assembly Resolution 68/181; the Commentary to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The communication indicated that, in reference to the three aforementioned cases, outspoken women leaders and human rights defenders are often silenced and discredited through harassment and gender-specific violence. AlSaegh, AlKhamees, and Mansoor Hasan have all been stigmatized, abused, and subject to gender-based violations under Bahraini authorities in an effort to silence dissent. In particular, the Special Procedures offices expressed “serious concern at the fact that travel restrictions, politically motivated charges, threats, including death threats and threats of sexual violence, and physical violence appear to be among the measures used to prevent human rights defenders from carrying out their peaceful and legitimate work in defense of human rights in Bahrain.”

Special Procedures called on the Bahraini government to address these allegations and provide information concerning threats of sexual violence and enforced travel restrictions imposed upon these women. The letter urged Bahrain to take measures immediately to stop and prevent the reoccurrence of the alleged violations and hold those responsible for the violations accountable.

The Bahraini government replied to the communication with observations of each case from the office of the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman. According to the reply, all of the allegations made by AlSaegh and Mansoor Hasan were addressed and closed in the Ombudsman’s records. It was also mentioned that the Ombudsman office did not receive any complaints regarding AlKhamees’ allegations. However, ADHRB has knowledge that Mansoor Hasan has faced further restrictions within the prison that can be described as punitive, including the reduction of phone calls and restrictions placed upon family visits, and complaints to the Ombudsman are ongoing. Further, following publication of the communication and other coverage of her case in the media, the Bahraini Embassy in London published a series of tweets concerning her case and including correspondence between her family and the Ombudsman in a bid to rehabilitate one of their officers named in the Allegation Letter, rather than investigating the allegations in good faith.

The Bahraini response also fails to acknowledge any of the allegations concerning the threatening tweets made against AlSaegh, and did not indicate that an investigation has transpired, as was requested by the Special Procedures offices. The response also failed to address the questions posed by the offices concerning the travel ban against AlSaegh.

ADHRB also has knowledge that AlKhamees did reach out to the Ombudsman office regarding her unfair treatment and arrests at the airport, but was turned away and the entity refused to take responsibility. The officers referred her to other Directorates, who in turn referred her back to the Ombudsman, and no office accepted her complaint. AlKhamees has emphasized that not only has she been disrupted and harassed during air travel, but her right to freely travel by land has been hindered. Upon traveling to Mecca through the land entry and exit points in Bahrain last December, she was again detained for an hour. Her complaints to multiple bodies about the threats she received in June 2018, including the Cyber Crimes Police, have also been disregarded.

Bahrain has a record of ill-treatment towards political prisoners and human rights defenders. Their refutation of all allegations should be looked at through a critical lens considering that their human rights institutions, including the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) and Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, are neither independent nor impartial. The NIHR and Ombudsman have both faced deep criticisms from multiple mechanisms and treaty body committees in the United Nations. Bahrain’s first review under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2018 highlighted concerns for the independence of Bahrain’s oversight bodies, specifically the NIHR. The NIHR has faced similar criticism from the Committee against Torture. In its report on the second and third periodic reports on Bahrain, the committee expressed concern that the NIHR, as well as the Ombudsman, lacked independence from the Ministry of Interior, demonstrated failure to be effective, and showed a vast number of loopholes in the complaint system. In June 2018, the European Parliament issued a resolution criticizing Bahrain’s accountability mechanisms for failing to combat impunity and in ADHRB’s engagement with the Ombudsman’s office, their responses have often conveyed a lack of concern and been largely unresponsive. The whitewashing of human rights violations and inability to hold abusers accountable as the foundation of these Bahraini institutions puts the safety of these three women and countless other human rights defenders at risk.

Mary Jomia is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB