Bahrain Releases Three Prominent Female Political Prisoners, Thousands Remain in Detention

On 8 August 2019, the Bahraini government released two prominent female political prisoners, Ameera AlQashami and Faten Naser. Two days later, the government released a third prominent political prisoner, Najah Yusuf. Najah, who was serving a three-year prison sentence, was pardoned and released along with 104 other individuals on the occasion of Eid Al Adha. Ameera and Faten were released under a non-custodial, alternative sentencing initiative. While they must serve the rest of their sentence, they can do so through alternative sanctions, including options like community service, house arrest, and restitution. While Najah, Ameera, and Faten were released, thousands of political prisoners remain incarcerated in Bahrain. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes their release, but we remain deeply concerned over ongoing restrictions on free expression, free assembly and association, and widespread and systematic arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture, as well as a pervasive climate of impunity. We call upon the Government of Bahrain to pardon and release all political prisoners, to end restrictions on civil society and free expression, and to prosecute cases of impunity.

Najah Yusuf is an activist and a former civil servant, who was arrested in April 2017 because of social media comments and posts around the 2017 Formula 1 Grand Prix auto race in Bahrain that the government deemed “promoted terrorist activities,” “incited hatred of the government,” and “promoted demonstrations against the government.” The posts alleged that the ruling AlKhalifa family used the F1 race to whitewash human rights abuses. Over her five-day interrogation, officers questioned her about her political activities and relationship with opposition groups and activists abroad and accused her of working for terrorists. Officials denied her access to legal counsel, and beat and sexually assaulted her. They threatened to rape her, kill her, and to rape and kill her family members. In order to end the torture, Najah provided false confessions about people with whom she had no relationship or knowledge. She also signed a false and prepared confession. In June 2018, Bahrain’s Fourth Criminal Court sentenced Najah to three years in prison in part on the basis of her false confession, and in October 2018, the appeals court upheld her sentence.

Faten Naser was arrested in February 2017 after accompanying officers to the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) who operated under the pretext that her brother was wanted. However, upon arrival at the CID, officers released her brother and arrested and detained her under suspicion that she harbored a fugitive and joined a terrorist group. Officers interrogated Faten over four days, from 9 to 12 February 2017, during which time she was forcibly disappeared and denied access to a lawyer. Throughout her interrogation, officers threatened her parents’ lives, insulted her, and degraded her religious beliefs. On 31 January 2018, Faten was sentenced in a mass trial to five years in prison for harboring a fugitive (her nephew), although her sentence was later reduced to three years on appeal in January 2019.

Ameera AlQashami was arrested in early February 2017 during a raid on her parents’ house and taken to the CID. In detention, CID officers handcuffed her in a painful position in a dark room for two days, during which time she could not move, could not perform her prayers, and was threatened with beheading. When she launched a hunger strike, officers attempted to force-feed her. Several days after her arrest, Ameera was transferred to the Office of the Public Prosecution (OPP), where she was interrogated without her lawyer present. She denied all charges, but was kept at the OPP, where guards made her listen to her brother’s voice while he was being tortured. Guards then pressured Ameera to sign a statement without reading it. When she insisted on being permitted to read it, officers let her read the final page, which according to her stated “I deny all charges and I don’t know anything about them.” Ameera eventually signed after receiving additional threats if she did not sign. She was later charged with harboring fugitives and joining a terrorist cell, although this charge was dropped. For three months after her arrest, Ameera was unable to contact her lawyer. On 31 January 2018, Ameera was sentenced in a mass trial to five years in prison on charges of harboring a fugitive, although her sentence was reduced to three years in prison on appeal in January 2019.

Ameera and Faten were sentenced to prison on 31 January 2018 in a mass trial along with 58 other individuals, including Ahmed AlMalali and Ali AlArab, who were recently executed on 27 July. AlMalali and AlArab were arrested on 9 February 2017 in separate police operations conducted following a prison break out of Jau Prison on 1 January 2017. Among the charges Ameera faced was harboring AlArab. In the mass trial, the Fourth Criminal Court revoked the citizenship of 47 of those convicted – they were later re-nationalized – and sentenced AlMalali and AlArab to death and Ameera and Faten to five years in prison, although their sentences were later reduced to three years in prison.

Bahraini Law No. 18 of 2017 provides for alternative punishments for prisoners including community service, house arrest, and restitution if a prisoner meets certain conditions: (1) the prisoner has served at least half of their sentence, (2) the prisoner is “of good conduct,” (3) the prisoner is not a security risk, and (4) the prisoner has paid restitution or fees to the court, if they are able. As of 30 April 2019, the Bahraini Embassy in London reported that 52 women have applied for and been granted these alternative sanctions. Importantly, in the event that an individual receives an alternative sanction, their conviction still stands and their record is not expunged.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB: “Najah, Faten, and Ameera’s release is welcome news, although they should never have served prison time in the beginning. Their arrests, interrogations, and trials were marred by due process violations, allegations of torture and abuse, and unfair trials, problems that are features of a judicial system that does not come close to meeting international standards. The international community must take this opportunity to push Bahrain to release all political prisoners and to amend its judicial system to ensure trials are fair and no detainee faces abuse or torture.”

While ADHRB welcomes Najah, Ameera, and Faten’s release, we remain deeply concerned over ongoing restrictions on fundamental freedoms, as well as the continued targeting of activists and dissidents. Despite the release of Najah, Ameera, and Faten, nearly 4,000 political prisoners remain incarcerated in Bahrain, many on spurious charges stemming. We call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately release all political prisoners, lift restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association, and to take serious steps to ensure accountability for torture and other crimes committed by security forces.