30 April 2019 – Yesterday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2019 Annual Report, categorizing Bahrain again as a Tier 2 country “for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard for designation as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).” This marks the third year in a row that USCIRF has categorized Bahrain as a Tier 2 country. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes USCIRF’s ongoing commitment to highlighting religious discrimination in Bahrain and supports USCIRF’s recommendations to the United States (US) government. However, ADHRB remains concerned for USCIRF’s praise of some of Bahraini initiatives that have been utilized in whitewashing ongoing systematic discrimination against the Bahraini Shia.

The USCIRF report included a multitude of recommendations for the US, including recommendations for the US to urge Bahrain to implement the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations; urge the Bahraini government to clarify terms and the enforcement of amendments to the 2005 Political Society Law; pressure the government to enforce laws prohibiting religious discrimination in employment; pressure the government to pass a pending bill seeking accountability for past abuses against Bahrain’s Shia community; and urge for the release of prisoners of conscience and religious freedoms activists.

During the reporting period, USCIRF noted that Bahrain had failed to enact a draft law “that would curb incitement to violence, hatred, and sectarianism,” but that it had been referred to Bahrain’s Ministerial Committee for Social Services, Communication and Media. Legislation including the Penal Code continued to use nebulous language pertaining to “falsified” or “untrue” reports, leaving interpretation open to violating the right to free expression. Though Penal Code Articles 309 and 310 criminalize insulting a recognized religious community and its practices, no known convictions occurred under the Penal Code during USCIRF’ reporting. In addition to legislation, USCIRF further reported the government’s targeting of human rights defenders, including Nabeel Rajab, whose five-year prison sentence was upheld by Bahrain’s Court of Cassation in December 2018. USCIRF noted that the Bahraini government did not permit members of the delegation to visit Nabeel Rajab in Jau Prison. The report noted that Ebrahim Sharif was summoned in December 2018 for tweets critical of the Sudanese President.

While USCIRF noted some progress over the reporting period for broader religious freedom conditions, “[a]t the same time, a USCIRF visit to Bahrain in March 2019 found that the government continued its discrimination and repression of the Shi’a Muslim community on the basis of their religious identity in certain areas.” For example, ahead of Bahrain’s November 2018 elections for the lower house of parliament, Shia candidates faced barriers to participation and ongoing discrimination. The dissolution of Al-Wefaq in 2016 prohibited Shia Al-Wefaq candidates from participating as candidates – an issue further compounded by an amendment to article 5 of the Law 14 of 2012 banning individuals who received at least a six-month prison sentence from pursuing office. This amendment subsequently barred many Shia activists and oppositions figures from running for an elected position. The report highlighted discrimination against members of Al-Wefaq, including the society’s Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman who was sentenced to life in prison only three weeks before the elections. Furthermore, when some Shia activists, including, former Al-Wefaq parliamentary member Ali Rashed al-Asheeri called for a boycott of the elections, they were arrested.

The report emphasized ongoing harassment of Shia clerics and the disruption of Ashura commemorations by security forces. It found that “[a]s in previous years, in September 2018 Bahraini security officials clamped down on peaceful Shi’a Muslim religious rituals during Ashura observances.” Security forces “destroyed banners and signs advertising Ashura rituals claiming that the displaying of banners across streets posed a safety hazard.” Additionally, the government summoned and interrogated more than 15 Shia clerics and orators in relation to sermons during Ashura. ADHRB has further documented that security forces arrested and charged funeral-goers for “illegal gathering,” including prominent pro-democracy activist AbdulMajeed Abdulla Mohsen. In addition to clerics targeted during Ashura, USCIRF noted that Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, faced further backlash from the Bahraini government. After releasing statements critical of Bahrain while in Iran, officials claimed his presence in Iran supported the accusations that Sheikh Isa Qassim backed Iran’s alleged activities in Bahrain.

USCIRF further reported ongoing discrimination against Bahraini Shia in the active military and security forces, stating “members of Bahrain’s Shi’a Muslim community reportedly still cannot serve in the active military, only in administrative positions, and there are no Shi’a Muslims in the upper levels of the Bahraini government security apparatus, including the military and police” with the exception of one Bahraini Shia serving as a brigadier general. Bahraini Shia employed in the public sector who were dismissed after participating in the 2011 protests were noticeably reemployed at lower-level positions, in cases outside of their specialization, or to positions without substantive responsibilities. As recently as March 2019, during a USCIRF visit to Bahrain, activists raised that “the government refused to track the exclusion of Shi’a Muslims from employment in the military and government” for supposed privacy reasons.

Despite noting ongoing systematic discrimination of the Bahraini Shia population, USCIRF highlights several institutions and their roles in whitewashing systematic discrimination, claiming that they promote inclusion abroad. In particular, USCRIF cites the creation of the King Hamad Chair for interfaith dialogue and coexistence at Italy’s La Sapienza University and the work of the King Hamad Global Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence as positive developments for religious freedom in the kingdom. USCIRF further called attention to Bahrain’s announcement of the appointment of an Ambassador-at-Large for Peaceful Coexistence and Religious Freedom at the Department of State’s inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018. While USCIRF noted that Bahrain had failed to fill the position by the end of the reporting period, it still framed these initiatives as “positive developments.” However this treatment of these bodies only serves to whitewash widespread and systematic religious discrimination in Bahrain. Additionally, the Commission further cited follow-up from institutions including the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), and Ministry of Interior (MOI) Ombudsman’s Office as positive developments, despite international criticism of the independence and effectiveness of these institutions.

In regards to US policy, the USCIRF report describes US prioritization of geopolitical concerns, noting that “the Trump administration has prioritized a close defense relationship with Bahrain in order to counter Iran’s influence in the region and attempts to destabilize Bahrain.” The State Department ultimately approved continued arms sales to the kingdom, including $300 million in rocket launchers in November 2018. Despite this, the State Department’s 2016 report on the BICI found that Bahrain had not fully implemented all of the recommendations, though no recent reporting by the State Department has been conducted. During an early 2019 visit to Bahrain, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly discussed “religious coexistence and freedom of religion” with the king, crown prince, and foreign minister, while State Department officials “have emphasized freedom of religious expressions for Shi’a clerics and prisoners in conversations with Bahraini officials” and continue to advocate for reform.

“USCIRF’s annual report again highlights some of the more concerning aspects of Bahrain’s systematic discrimination of the Bahraini majority Shia population, ranging from restrictions on participation in political life to violations of the right to belief,” says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “While the report notes some critical developments in 2019, there is still cause for concern on its stance on Bahraini attempts to whitewash broader religious discrimination against the Bahraini Shia. Noting many of these initiatives as “positive developments” ultimately continues to lend false credibility to Bahrain’s campaign to promote an image of religious tolerance abroad while simultaneously discriminating against a majority of its population at home.”

While the 2019 USCIRF Annual Report on Bahrain accounted for some key trends in systematic discrimination against the Bahraini Shia population, USCIRF’s proposal of the declaration of an Ambassador-at-Large for Peaceful Coexistence and Religious Freedom, the work of the King Hamad Global Center, and the chair at La Sapienza  as “positive developments” ultimately further lends itself to whitewashing discrimination against the Bahraini Shia. With this in mind, the US government must take USCIRF’s recommendations into account, and the Bahraini government must take action to provide for the promotion and protection of religious freedom for all Bahrainis, including the Shia community.